Abstract: (Withdrawn) The Possibilities and Limits of Collective Action in Carceral Settings (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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(Withdrawn) The Possibilities and Limits of Collective Action in Carceral Settings

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Encanto A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Shannon Sliva, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose. This presentation presents process findings from the initial phases of an action research project at the largest state prison in Colorado which asks “How can we improve the wellbeing of those who live and work in prisons?” This project is carried out as part of the Urban Institute’s Prison Research and Innovation Network (funded by Arnold Ventures) under the expectation of using a community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) framework to center the voices of “those who live and work in prisons.”

Methods. CBPAR is a philosophical and methodological approach that seeks to (1) answer questions derived by the community as important, (2) include community members in research design at every stage, and (3) kindle meaningful action through research. As a result, advisory boards were created for the participation of each group. These boards were pivotal in the collection of data for the project, including a set of surveys (incarcerated people, n=490; corrections staff, n=303), more than 120 hours of research interviews, and departmental administrative data including demographics and institutional indicators. Data was analyzed in a congruent mixed methods approach, including the calculation of frequencies and correlations as well as thematic qualitative analysis. The research team also attended to issues of process and method, and these conversations are the focus of this presentation.

Results. The project is unique in that it attempts to define the prison holistically as the community of study: “community members” include incarcerated people, corrections officers and other staff, and prison administrators. This approach is valuable because recognizes the interconnectedness of the prison ecosystem. Our team witnessed how incarcerated people and corrections staff are reliant on one another for their safety and wellbeing. In addition, participants spoke frequently about the necessity of working together to improve safety and to help incarcerated people make changes for a better life.

However, there are limitations – and possibly even dangers – to this collective stance. While it is impossible to ignore the interconnectedness of incarcerated people and corrections staff, it is equally impossible to ignore the power differentials inherent to their roles. Prisoners and gatekeepers have neither the same rights nor the same responsibilities in shaping the prison environment. Defining incarcerated people and corrections workers as co-strugglers in a shared community is optimistic, and may be harmful if the participatory process is unable to produce solutions that benefit everyone.

Conclusions. This presentation approaches the concept of CBPAR in prison with curiosity, engaging with collaborative and critical frames to understand the possibilities and limitations of collective work in a carceral environment. Toward that end, it explores barriers to the authentic participation of incarcerated people and corrections staff in a CBPAR process. Practical barriers are more often experienced by incarcerated participants (including restrictions on access, privacy, and compensation), while corrections workers demonstrate psychological barriers such as excessive boundary setting and learned apathy in the context of an inert institution. We examine the likelihood that a holistic CBPAR approach to changing the prison environment can result in meaningful, equitable outcomes.