Researchers at the Institute for Justice Research and Development (IJRD) at the Florida State University College of Social Work are expanding their work with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and the John E. Polk Correctional Facility to treat trauma among individuals getting released from jail in Seminole County.
“Lifetime traumatic experiences are nearly universal among incarcerated men and women, and unaddressed trauma symptoms often contribute to the reason that an individual is incarcerated in a local jail and complicate their ability to succeed in the community after they leave jail and return home,” said Stephen Tripodi, an associate professor of social work and a faculty director of IJRD.
Tripodi is joined on the IJRD research team by Tanya Renn, an assistant professor of social work and a faculty director of IJRD, and Carrie Pettus, an associate professor of social work and the founding executive director of IJRD.
Most of what is known about experiences of trauma and interventions designed to treat trauma among incarcerated individuals focuses exclusively on those incarcerated in state or federal prisons. Little is known about the experiences of individuals held in jails due to the short-term nature of most jail stays and logistical factors that make conducting research in jails difficult. What research exists indicates that rates of trauma are amplified among the jail population.
Jails across the country struggle to find ways to best respond to the symptoms and consequences of lifetime traumatic experiences, such as mental health and substance-use disorders, impulsivity, aggression and limited coping skills. Affected individuals often have few social supports and struggle with emotional regulation. These factors increase the risk for homelessness, complicate an individual’s ability to secure and maintain employment and often contribute to the cycle of incarceration, release and reincarceration.
Leadership at the Seminole County jail teamed up with IJRD researchers in 2019 to conduct a feasibility and pilot study of an evidence-driven trauma intervention entitled “Skills Training on Affective and Interpersonal Regulation,” or STAIR. STAIR is a flexible, short-term intervention designed to address the unique needs of individuals who have experienced trauma.
Preliminary findings from the pilot study indicate that nearly 70% of study participants experienced a traumatic event in the year prior to their incarceration, with participants experiencing, on average, nearly eight lifetime traumatic events.
Study participants often reported experiencing more than one traumatic event. Among participants, 24% experienced a violent assault, 15% lost a loved one to homicide, 18% witnessed a serious injury or death, 26% experienced a serious health incident and 35% received news of the death or injury of a loved one. Further, results from the evaluation indicated decreases in mental health and substance-use disorders, decreased aggression and impulsivity and improved coping for individuals who completed the STAIR program.
When interviewed, study participants described the benefit of acknowledging their experiences of trauma and discussed how they developed a new understanding of the benefits of continuing to engage in counseling or therapy beyond the STAIR program. Participants were also excited to discuss their newly acquired skillsets gained from participation in STAIR, including improved interpersonal communication, an ability to use calming techniques learned through STAIR and a decreased sense of overwhelming emotions as they navigated community reentry.
“Our partnership with IJRD has been an absolute success, and we are excited to extend the work to offer trauma-responsive programming like STAIR to more individuals incarcerated in the John E. Polk Correctional Facility,” said Laura Bedard, chief of corrections at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “We are eager to identify strategies to help the individuals in our custody to thrive after they leave jail and return home to their families.”
The new study will provide the STAIR program to 100 individuals. Half of the study participants will be randomly assigned to receive all 12 STAIR sessions during their incarceration in the John E. Polk Correctional Facility; the other half will receive six sessions during incarceration and six sessions in the community after release. STAIR will be delivered using a group-based format during jail incarceration; post-release STAIR sessions in the community will be conducted in individual sessions. Recruitment begins in August 2022.
For more information on the study and the Institute for Justice Research and Development, visit ijrd.csw.fsu.edu.