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BetaGov Helping Pennsylvania Corrections Department Turn Ideas into Policy


Harrisburg, PA – In November 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) launched a department-wide initiative to examine its policies and practices surrounding the use of solitary confinement and ways to reduce in-prison violence.

The goal of this initiative is to reduce the use of solitary confinement and reduce in-prison assaults and other forms of violence that lead inmates to solitary confinement in the first place.
“This initiative is important because it is about safety, and we want to make sure that reducing our use of solitary confinement does not come at the expense of increasing violence or assaults, which make our facilities less safe for both our staff and inmates,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said.
This initiative is a staff-led effort, involving employees from all ranks and job positions across all of the department’s 26 state correctional institutions (SCI). 
Joining the DOC in assisting this effort is a team of researchers from BetaGov, an organization funded by philanthropic foundation to provide technical assistance to agencies and to support practitioner-led research, at no cost.
BetaGov works with many state departments of corrections around the country to promote the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for testing ideas and policies.  An RCT is considered the “gold standard” of research because it is the best way to test whether something is working.  One example of an RCT might be to test whether a dedicated “transition pod” within a restricted-housing unit (i.e., a solitary-confinement unit) helps inmates transition from segregation into the general population.  There are many other opportunities for this type of experimentation, which doesn’t require costly and drawn-out research to conduct. 
“This is a very important effort for the DOC,” Secretary Wetzel said.  “We are invested in the dual goals of making our prisons safer and violence-free and doing so while using solitary confinement as a last resort.”
“We would love to see a hundred or more ideas proposed by PA DOC staff,” said BetaGov founder/director Dr. Angela Hawken, “with the expectation that not all ideas will ultimately pan out or prove to be feasible but the process of testing these ideas will make the department better as a whole.”
Also assisting in this effort, through funding received from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), are researchers from the New York University (NYU) Marron Institute of Urban Management.  The NYU team will specifically be assisting with one idea at SCI Somerset that has already been implemented.  The SCI Somerset pilot program is intended to reduce the length of stay in solitary confinement through the use of swift, certain and fair consequences in response to inmate misbehavior.  After a recent visit to the PA DOC, Dr. Mark Kleiman, who is the team lead from NYU, said that “Pennsylvania has among the most innovative and forward-thinking corrections departments in the country.”   View Marron Institute’s press release.
Media contact: Susan McNaughton, 717-728-4025
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About BetaGov
BetaGov’s mission is to help policymakers, government agencies, and practitioners in the field develop, conduct, analyze, and share research, helping improve the policies and practices that affect all Americans. BetaGov works with practitioners to turn their ideas about potential solutions into trials that empirically test promising practices and policies, recognizing that most public policies and programs have never been tested.  Rigorous evaluations traditionally involved academic researchers, external funders, and lots of red tape ─ BetaGov promotes rapid-turnaround, low-cost, home-grown research because agencies need answers now.

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