PA Prisons Experiment With Inmate Wellness Programs

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Yoga, aromatherapy, and linens in an earthy shade of green are not expected prison fare. For the last year, Pennsylvania inmates and staff have been testing policies and programs that focus on reducing violence and time inmates spend in solitary confinement, as well as increasing overall wellness. They are doing it at minimal cost, reports Studies are ongoing at 26 state correctional institutions with the help of BetaGov, a team of consultants that encourage innovation through a bottom-up approach. The research ideas came from 15,000 state prison employees, including correction officers, chaplains, nurses and food service staff, said Bret Bucklen of the state Department of Corrections.

The randomized control trials, which tend to be small, can begin in a week or two and be finished in months. Prisoners volunteer to participate. A traditional research model would take years, involve finding an academic partner to design it and then get approvals and funding. “BetaGov flips all that on its head,” Bucklen said. Using lavender and cherry scents were associated with less misconduct in a behavioral management unit at one prison. Piping soothing sounds into housing pods at another lockup to improve sleeping conditions was found to have potential for improving behavior. Prisoners at a third facility who were given images to color while in solitary confinement enjoyed the activity, posted the work in their cells and often sent it home to their families. The most successful study was a “Swift, Certain, Fair” discipline program now in 11 facilities. “It’s almost like a Parenting 101 model,” Bucklen said. Instead of letting problems build up and then sending an inmate into solitary confinement, the staff handled infractions immediately and took away small privileges, like television time. The result empowered officers to maintain order and provided a more stable environment for inmates.

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