Campus and Community

Simmons Foundation Grant Supporting UHD Research on Family Visitations at Correctional Units

Dr. Lori Lovins (left), Dr. Rebecca Pfeffer
Photo: Thomas B. Shea

Family visits are often treasured moments for those who are incarcerated. Unfortunately, those personal interactions with loved ones don’t occur as frequently as they should due to logistical challenges and other factors.

Thanks to a grant from the Simmons Foundation, two University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) faculty members are seeking to enhance family visitations at a correctional facility with the aid of technology.

Dr. Rebecca Pfeffer and Dr. Lori Lovins (both assistant professors of criminal justice) received $80,000 from the Foundation to launch a two-year pilot project that would introduce the use of tablets/computers and video communication, such as FaceTime or Skype, to increase face-to-face communications between families and residents at a correctional facility.

Pfeffer and Lovins are currently developing a trial program for Women Helping Ourselves-Atascosita (WHO-A), a residential substance abuse treatment facility operated by Gateway Foundation through the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

The program will begin with survey research of WHO-A residents, Pfeffer said.

“We want to get a sense of who they are, their age, how old are their children, and with whom their children live,” she said. “It’s also important to determine whether their families will have access to the types of technologies needed to communicate through phones, tablets or computers.”

After surveying residents, Pfeffer and Lovins will introduce a curriculum that will prepare WHO-A staff members to implement communication technologies into visitation procedures. The pilot program is expected to begin by late summer.

“We are developing this program; training staff to implement it; and creating opportunities for more family contact for the women residing in WHO-A,” Lovins said.

Using data from this project, Pfeffer and Lovins will also conduct research comparing traditional family contact (casual visits) with structured visits using technology. Structured visits would allow families and residents to participate in curriculum-driven sessions aimed at improving communication and conflict resolution skills.

“We’re going to look at whether basic family support might improve things for these women. Or, does it have to be more structured support with programmed interventions?” Lovins said. “And, how does this compare to those women whose families do not have access to technology?”

Pfeffer and Lovins will follow up with participants for one year after the program’s completion.

The pilot project and accompanying research complement other initiatives supported by the Simmons Foundation. Based in Houston, Texas, the Foundation has committed more than $46 million in grants supporting initiatives promoting education, health, civic and community engagement, and human services.

“We’re happy to have received this grant from the Simmons Foundation for this pilot project, which might be the first of its kind,” Pfeffer said. “We’re optimistic that our research will inform those working in corrections and ultimately help women and their families.”