USF researchers to study Pasco County jail inmates. Could their work improve safety and reduce repeat offenses?

Pasco County Sheriff's Office   ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times
Pasco County Sheriff's Office ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times
Published July 24, 2018

LAND O' LAKES — A year and a half ago, two professors from the University of South Florida — Bryanna Fox, an assistant professor of criminology, and Edelyn Verona, a professor of clinical psychology — were spitballing research ideas when they landed on one that seemed to check all their boxes.

They could work with a familiar partner, peer into a world they felt was ignored by others in their fields. And the work could benefit the community it focused on.

So for the past year, Fox said, she and Verona have been setting up a study they hope to begin next month — one in which they'll evaluate every inmate who goes to jail in Pasco County.

"We had all these ingredients come together where you can get something amazing accomplished," she said.

They hope to determine what kinds of risks inmates pose to themselves and others, what portion of inmates qualify as psychopaths, and how jails can best treat inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Collaborating with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Fox and Verona will survey inmates entering the Pasco County Detention Center. Later, they'll return for in-depth interviews with some of them.

The intake screening includes about 35 questions, Fox said. It will ask immediate welfare questions — Does the inmate feel suicidal? Does he or she want to kill someone? Is the inmate high? It also will include questions about the inmate's background and previous trauma, questions from established tests such as the Personality Assessment Inventory, and a review of criminal records and arrest reports.

Even if an inmate doesn't consent to having the information used for research purposes, Fox said, the jail will use it to assess risks the inmate may pose. It could help the jail decide an inmate's security level, giving the study an immediate practical use.

Follow-up screenings will go deeper on those same subjects.

Studies often have avoided jails as subjects because, unlike prisons, their transitional nature can make long-term research difficult, Fox said.

Fox has little interest in doing research that doesn't result in real-world benefits, she said, and with the jail as a subject, she saw a chance to effect change locally.

"To be able to better assess risks among inmates as they're coming in, that'd be a great thing," she said. "To be able to look at what's really affecting our inmates — Is it substance abuse? Is it mental health? Is it something based on childhood?"

The answers, Fox said, could point toward a wealth of improvements to a jail that Sheriff Chris Nocco said qualifies as the county's largest mental health provider. The inmate population earlier this year stood at more than 1,800.

Study results might improve safety for inmates and jail employees. They could bridge the gap between the mental health care and addiction treatment options inmates have in jail and the ones they have after release. Ultimately, Fox hopes, they could reduce recidivism.

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"It's not just that we're looking at the numbers and thinking, 'We want to write books off of this,'" she said. "We want to help the people coming into jails ... If we can stop all that for at least one person, that's what I want to do."

Pasco County offers an interesting cross-section of inmates, Fox said. Because of the county's socioeconomic diversity and growing population, the jail gives her a more varied subject pool than a jail in an exclusively rural or exclusively urban county.

Nocco said he sees such studies as a way of shoring up the office's practices. Results might support existing policies or show him where he can make policing more effective.

"We always have to answer the question, 'Why?'" he said.

For Maj. Stacey Jenkins, who oversees the jail, the implications are more concrete: "If you have an opportunity to look at behaviors ... to make it safer for everybody living in there, that's going to be huge for us."

Some paperwork still has to be signed, Nocco said, and the student volunteers will have to go through training, but all parties said they see the study starting in August.

Fox said she and Verona want to survey about 400 inmates and do in-depth interviews with at least 200. It likely will be six months to a year before they start drawing conclusions and publishing results.

If all goes well, she said, not only will the study lead to real-world outcomes in Pasco County, but it could help jails around the country facing overcrowding and repeat offenders.

"Instead of spending money on bigger jails, if we can prevent people from coming back in," she said, "then a lot of the issues that we're facing, we don't need to anymore."

Reach Jack Evans at Follow him @JackHEvans.