Research Topics for Academics

Are you a scholar or journalist who is interested in doing serious research or investigation on criminal justice issues? We would love for journalists, professors, and students at all educational stages to take on the topics below. Those who wish to do so are encouraged to file public records requests (or explore existing resources) with the Washington Department of Corrections Data, Research, and Public Records Units to obtain data and primary source research documents. (Expect delivery of such records to take many months. Most research topics will take more than one academic quarter or semester to complete.) Keep in mind that any research carried out directly on incarcerated populations is governed by strict laws. The Washington State Department of Corrections has a resource page to help researchers navigate these laws. Please contact us and let us know if there is a topic or research question we should add to this list.

Pre-Sentencing & Trials

Research Questions: (1) What is the average pre-trial confinement period in different Washington State counties? What are the longest confinements to date by county? (2) Which Washington State counties have the highest rates of reported prosecutorial misconduct?

Post Conviction & Community Legal Groups

Research Questions: (1) Which counties in Washington State have the highest wrongful conviction rates? (2) How has the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act affected incarcerated people in Washington State? (3) What attitudes are expressed toward pro se incarcerated appellants in Washington State court opinions? (4) How do community legal organizations like Columbia Legal Services, Disability Rights Washington, and the ACLU of Washington decide which prison-related cases to take on? What resources do they provide those incarcerated people who contact them? How much risk are they willing to take when representing incarcerated people? What are their case law and policy strategies when deciding what prison-related cases and campaigns to take on?

Clemency & Indeterminate Sentence Review Board

Research Questions: How realistic and insightful are the questions asked of applicants by DOC’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB) and the Washington Clemency & Pardons Board? (Interviewing formerly and currently incarcerated people who have attended or watched these hearings would provide excellent insight.)

Washington DOC Policy & History

Research Questions: (1) How do Washington DOC policies further or undermine the legislative intent of corrections and other penological and reentry objectives in Washington State? (2) What might an oversight for DOC rule making and policy creation in Washington State look like? (3) Does Washington DOC leadership study the history of correctional practices in Washington State (for example, by thoroughly studying books like Dr. William Conte’s 1991 Is Prison Reform Possible?: The Washington State Experience in the Sixties), and if so, how does this deep study of correctional history in Washington guide and inform current DOC policy development?

Prison Staff & Labor Unions

Research Questions: (1) What is the history of the Teamsters Local 117 and which prison staff are its members? What is its relationship like with other stakeholders in the criminal justice system? How do its members perceive DOC administrative staff and leadership? What issues are important to the dignity and well-being of its members, and how does advocacy for these issues impact broader penological and reentry objectives? What is the nature of its public messaging? How is this union perceived by the Freedom Foundation? What terms have changed in its collective bargaining agreements over the years? How does it compare to correctional officer and law enforcement unions in other agencies and jurisdictions? (2) How have women staff been treated in Washington DOC since female correctional officers were first allowed in the 1970s, and what has changed over time? (3) How are LGBTQ+ staff treated by coworkers and the incarcerated in Washington DOC? (4) How effective are wellness programs for DOC staff at addressing physical and mental health needs? (5) What percent of DOC line staff are military veterans or military reserve? What PTSD resources are available to staff who are combat military veterans, and to what degree are these resources utilized? (6) How do DOC staff perceive the incarcerated and their families and what innovative programs might serve to reduce conflict and hostility among these stakeholders? (7) How nutritious is the food provided in DOC staff cafeterias and how does it affect mental alertness and well-being? (8) What are the educational backgrounds of Washington DOC leadership and prison superintendents (to include associate superintendents)? How do these backgrounds compare to what was seen in Washington State during the mid-20th century, and how do they impact the quality, effectiveness, and scope of DOC policies and WACs? (9) What higher education tuition reimbursement opportunities are made available to DOC staff and what percent of staff utilize these benefits? How does this support for higher education access affect DOC staff long-term career trajectories?

Perceptions of the Incarcerated and Their Families

Research Questions: (1) How does true crime entertainment media, sensational news coverage, and tough-on-crime political campaign messaging affect families of the accused and incarcerated in Washington State? (2) How well-informed are Washington State lawmakers on the struggles of families surviving incarceration? (3) Has Governor Inslee’s Executive Order 16-05 and the Reentry Council brought about any shift in public attitudes toward these populations? (4) How do DOC staff perceive the incarcerated and their families and what innovative programs might serve to reduce conflict and hostility among these stakeholders?

Family and Visiting Programs

Research Questions: (1) What innovations are needed to give families surviving incarceration in Washington State more normalcy and stress relief in prison visiting spaces? What opportunities are there to experience family and marital bonding activities, such as physical affection, food preparation, viewing of movies, etc.? (2) What are the stories of marriages that occur after incarceration? Who are the prison spouses in Washington State, what are their  socio-economic backgrounds, how are they perceived, and how does their involvement impact recidivism outcomes? (3) How do power dynamics play out between families of the incarcerated and prison staff? (4) How effective is the Washington DOC Family Services Unit at addressing the stated needs of families of the incarcerated? (5) How effective are the Washington DOC Local and Statewide Family Councils? What role might independent community oversight and involvement play in improving their efficacy? (5) How could innovative art and cooking programs become a regular part of prison visiting rooms in Washington State? (6) What training is given to Washington DOC prison visiting room custody staff to properly prepare them for the nurturing/support role families need to survive incarceration? How is that training evolving over time and what evidence-based philosophies inform it? How are the penological objectives of prison visiting rooms communicated to visiting staff by DOC leadership and local facility superintendents? (7) How do immigrant families experience Washington State prison visiting programs? (8) How do long commutes to prisons impact family relationships and financial stability during incarceration in Washington State? (9) How does media coverage and online information about an incarcerated loved affect employment options for family members of the incarcerated? Is employment discrimination happening in such situations? How are families of the incarcerated treated in their workplaces?

Prison Education & Scholarship

Research Questions: (1) What are recidivism outcomes for those participating in different Washington State prison and jail education programs (GED, vocational, community college, non-profit university, correspondence, etc.)? Which partnerships, grants, and laws make these programs possible? (2) How is participation and curricula content perceived by incarcerated students, DOC staff, and course instructors? Do these stakeholders have similar or different perceptions of curricula content and needs? (3) How do incarcerated students perceive social justice and de-colonization themes (as taught by non-incarcerated instructors) in curricula? (4) What are the most extraordinary academic achievements of those incarcerated in Washington State prisons to date? (5) What is the impact of mixed enrollment courses in which free world university students and incarcerated students come together in classrooms inside the prisons? (6) Which incarcerated people in Washington have succeeded at publishing articles and books? What challenges have they faced?

Risk Assessment

Research Questions: What is the history of Washington Department of Corrections WA ONE risk assessment tool? Which legislative actions inspired its creation? Does the quality of data collected meet the rigorous standards recommended in cutting edge data science? Who collects these data, and how are these data presented/interpreted? How are these data used in WA ONE algorithms? How do different stakeholders (DOC case managers, the incarcerated, families of the incarcerated, the joint DOC and Washington State University development team, etc.) perceive the WA ONE assessment tool? What concerns might there be for racial bias in WA ONE risk assessment? How accurate is the WA ONE tool in predicting recidivism outcomes? How do attorneys feel about the WA ONE assessment questions incarcerated people are asked with no attorney present? What role do Behavioral Observation Entries play in the WA ONE tool?

Health Sciences

Research Questions: (1) How do occurrences of urinalysis false positives affect those under DOC jurisdiction and their families during incarceration, extended family visits, and community corrections monitoring? (2) How do savings in Washington Correctional Industries food budgets translate to DOC healthcare costs for incarcerated people serving long sentences? (Note that DOC prison medical care is covered by legislative appropriations, while CI food procurement operates on a separate, self-funding model. Linking these two accounting systems may be challenging.) (3) What chronic pain and conditions arise in the bodies of families who visit incarcerated loved ones many hours per week for years on end, requiring them to sit in unnatural, restrictive, repetitive positions in uncomfortable prison visiting room chairs? (4) How would additions of omega-3 whole foods sources in the prison diet impact violence and correctional officer safety in our prisons? (5) How effective are wellness programs for DOC staff at addressing physical and mental health needs? (6) What are the career histories and wages of Washington DOC medical staff? (7) How do DOC medical staff perceive their incarcerated patients? What does the Hippocratic Oath look like in Washington State prisons? (8) What are the health consequences of prolonged use of poor mattresses for those incarcerated in Washington State? (9) What infectious disease and harm reduction programs exist in DOC, and how effective are they? (10) How do underground tattooing, piercing, and drug injection practices affect the health of the incarcerated?

Prison Food & Nutrition

Research Questions: (1) What areas of food production waste could be improved to allow existing budgets to cover higher quality and more nutritious food for the incarcerated? (2) How do incarcerated pregnant and nursing women fare on the prison diets made available to them? (3) What is the nutritional quality of the Washington DOC kosher diet made available for Jewish incarcerated people? (4) What would need to change about DOC mainline menus, food packages, and commissary offerings to ensure that incarcerated people of all cultural and religious backgrounds have access to the healthiest and most culturally desirable food? (5) Why are those incarcerated in Washington State prisons made to donate almost all the food they grow in prison gardens to community groups outside of the prison and how could the nutritional standards of prison diets be improved by allowing these food products to be used for the prison population? (6) How nutritious is the food provided in DOC staff cafeterias and how does it affect mental alertness and well-being? (7) What sort of nutritional messaging does CI Food Services provide incarcerated people, and what is the aim of this messaging? Does a dietician sign off on this messaging? How does this messaging affect commissary purchases and willingness to accept mainline food menu items among incarcerated populations?

Mental Health

Research Questions: (1) What are the mental health needs and suicide rates for people charged or convicted of different types of crimes during pre-trial, sentencing, incarceration, and reentry phases? (2) What therapeutic services are lacking in Washington DOC mental health services? (3) What role does informal art therapy (self-medication by art?) play in our prisons, and what might formal art therapy programs for the incarcerated and their families bring about?

Solitary Confinement, or Administrative Segregation

Research Questions: (1) How many days can prisons legally keep a person in solitary confinement in Washington State? Does the clock reset if the DOC transfers the prisoner to a different prison facility, but keeps the incarcerated person in Intensive Management? Are our state prisons following the law on this practice? How do our state laws compare to international human rights standards for incarcerated people? (2) What are the DOC protocols for involuntary protective custody (and other types of administrative segregation) conditions and imposition, and how could they be improved to be less disruptive to an incarcerated person’s pro-social programming and family life?

Correctional Industries

Research Questions: (1) What is the quality of mattresses provided to incarcerated people by Washington Correctional Industries (CI) and is it consistent in prison facilities across the state? Where do these mattresses come from? How do these mattresses compare to those in other prisons across the US?  What happens to the mattresses after DOC removes them? What are the consequences of prolonged use of poor mattresses? (2) How has the CI organizational chart and quantity of staff grown over the past few decades? How has this impacted correctional work in Washington State? (3) Is there a statistically significant difference in recidivism and reentry outcomes for those incarcerated people participating in CI programming compared to those who do not? (4) When did CI become the only approved vendor incarcerated people have for purchasing wedding rings and religious items, and what impact has this change had on incarcerated people and their families? (5) What sort of nutritional messaging does CI Food Services provide incarcerated people, and what is the aim of this messaging? Does a dietician sign off on this messaging? How does this messaging affect commissary purchases and willingness to accept mainline food menu items among incarcerated populations?

Sex Offenses

Research Questions: (1) How are incarcerated people convicted of sex offenses treated by prison staff, prison volunteers, and their fellow incarcerated? Do these individuals feel safe spending time in the prison yard and gym? If not, how does this affect their health? (2) How are families of those convicted of sex offenses treated? How are women who choose to marry or remain married to a person convicted of a sex offense treated?

Sustainability

Research Questions: What is the history of Washington’s Sustainability in Prisons Project and how has it grown to include additional community partners over the years? Are founding incarcerated participants supported in long-term involvement? How do sustainability programs impact quality of life for the incarcerated and DOC staff during the prison work week? Does sustainability education for the incarcerated translate to ecology job placement upon release?

Incarcerated Veterans

Research Questions: How are veterans’ pods addressing previously unmet needs at some Washington State prisons? How can incarcerated veterans and their families become better connected with the VA services they qualify for and need?

Gang Violence

Research Questions: What does the Washington DOC currently do (or not do) to engage incarcerated gang members and their family or community support networks in pro-social educational and programming activities? What barriers exist for collaboration between families of incarcerated gang members and prison volunteer programs in addressing these needs?

Social Justice & Equity

Research Questions: (1) What is the history of the Black Prisoners Caucus and what are its major projects at the various Washington DOC prison facilities? (2) Who are Washington State’s longest incarcerated people and why did the ISRB refuse to grant parole when the opportunity recently arose? (3) Why did the ISRB decline to release a man incarcerated at age 14 who has been published in law journals? (4) How are women of color faring in Washington State when multiple members of their immediate and extended families are incarcerated? (5) How do immigrant families experience Washington State prison visiting programs? (6) How are the needs of transgender incarcerated people treated when it comes to facility assignment, property/commissary purchases (clothing, gender-specific religious items, toiletries), nutrition, medical care, and programming?

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

Research Questions: (1) How accurately are the needs, perspectives, and desires of the incarcerated communicated to lawmakers and the public by the following: families of the incarcerated, volunteers operating inside our state prisons, DOC staff, and higher education instructors? (2) How does DOC portray its family services, reentry programs, job skills programs, and education programs to lawmakers and the public, and how much input does it take from the impacted stakeholders when shaping this messaging? What do the impacted stakeholders think of this messaging?

Transportation

Research Questions: (1) What is it like to be in a moving vehicle after being incarcerated for many decades? What kind of culture shock is associated with using public transit after spending many years in prison? (2) How much money do families of the incarcerated and prison staff spend on gas for prison commutes every year? How many miles do they drive to prisons each year?

Prison Architecture, Acoustics, and Physical Environment

Research Questions: (1) How does the physical layout and design of Washington State prison facilities reflect the criminal justice politics of the era in which the prisons (and any annexes) were built? (2) What is the nature of sonic agency in the Washington State carceral environment? How do acoustics affect the emotional well-being of those in our prisons, and how might this affect their own manner of speaking? (Topic inspired by the master’s research of voice coach, theatre director, wrongful convictions scholar, and boxing instructor Andrei Schiller-Chan.)

Intimate Lives of the Incarcerated

Research Questions: (1) What freedom of personal intimacy is allowed for the incarcerated in Washington State? How does censorship affect healthy romantic and erotic expression for the incarcerated and their romantic partners? (2) How does perception of the ability of incarcerated people to consent to romantic interactions affect the possibilities of partnership for the incarcerated? When are PREA laws applied correctly and when are they used as a means to deny incarcerated people romantic relationships? (3) What are the stories of marriages that occur after incarceration? How do incarcerated people typically meet and develop relationships with prospective marital partners after incarceration?

Tattoos

Research Questions: (1) When an adolescent enters the correctional system with no tattoos, what do or don’t the tattoos that adolescent might acquire have in common with battle wounds or armor? How do those with long sentences feel about their tattoos as they age? (2) How do underground tattooing practices affect the health of the incarcerated? (3) How do prison tattoos affect employment and educational prospects post-release?

Reentry & Collateral Consequences

Research Questions: (1) How do DOC protocols, uniforms, equipment, weapons, and/or attitudes affect families and the impressions of neighbors in their communities when DOC community corrections staff arrive to assess living spaces and those under their jurisdiction for community corrections compliance? (2) What chains of events lead to those in community corrections being made to return to DOC prison facilities for re-incarceration, and what might some better alternatives be? (3) Have Executive Order 16-05 and the Reentry Council succeeded in connecting the fragmented reentry services and organizations scattered across Washington State? (4) How do prison tattoos affect employment and educational prospects post-release? (5) How does DOC weigh the benefits and detriments of imposing new and harsh restrictions on someone who has been under the jurisdiction community corrections and incident-free for many years? (6) How is the WA ONE risk assessment system impacting those in community corrections?