Students spend the summer researching solitary confinement

Students Kendra Coleman and Sewit Beraki with their project at the OSCAR Summer Celebration of Student Scholarship on August, 3. Photos provided.

For the past two summers, Danielle S. Rudes, associate professor in George Mason University’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society, has taken a wide range of students to Pennsylvania State Prisons to examine life inside solitary confinement units. 

The group conducted interviews and made observations with staff and inmates, asking questions in key topic areas such as risk, mental and physical health, punishment and reform.

"This summer and last summer are really about life inside solitary confinement units for both inmates and staff,” said Shannon Magnuson, a doctoral student in criminology, law and society who is using this data for her dissertation. “Our project this summer asks a lot of questions, mostly about rights and privileges that people believe they have as inmates or staff believe that inmates have."

“Changing the Hole Mind” is the only project to be funded twice in a row by a Summer Impact Grant offered by Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR). After a successful first year of working under the project name “Together Alone,” six undergraduate students, with master’s and doctoral student mentors, returned this summer with more specific questions about solitary placement, reform, rights and privileges.​

Heather Pickett showcasing her research.

Rudes leads the project with Angela Hattery, director and professor in Mason’s Women and Gender Studies Program. Sociology professor Earl Smith is a consultant on the project.

While undergraduate students collect data for the broader study, they also have the opportunity to collect data for their own research. Some of their projects have included questions on self-esteem, correctional officer mind-set and mental health services.

Rising senior Karlie Berry, a criminology, law and society major who worked on the project last summer, examined inmates’ perceptions of punishment while living in solitary confinement. 

"You got to see a whole different perspective,” said Berry. “From the offenders to the [correctional officers], and what is going through their minds as they're living and working there." 

Bryce Kushmeric-McCune talking about her research.

Berry described the experience as life-changing. In addition to opening her eyes to life inside these units, her research led her to other academic opportunities. Her team earned an honorable mention from the Council on Undergraduate Research’s competitive Posters on the Hill competition. She also won the 2018 OSCAR Undergraduate Excellence Award at Mason, and her paper was accepted for a presentation at the 2018 American Society of Criminology Conference in Atlanta in November. ​​

"Undergrads are really important to me,” said Rudes. “I did not get these kinds of experiences as an undergrad, and I can't tell you how valuable it would have been to me and how valuable I think it is to them."

In teams of two, the students learn data collection, prison protocols, human subject ethics, field note-taking, and data coding and analysis, as well as how to get their work published. Magnuson, who is overseeing the undergraduate research, and graduate students also gain the experience of mentoring undergraduates through the project. 

"I think graduate students suffer because they don't get any experience mentoring anyone else during their time in graduate school," said Rudes.  

After the summer program concludes, Rudes said many students volunteer at or work for the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence at Mason to continue their research and work on Rudes’ other research projects. 

Additional summer project team members included, 

Doctoral students L. Caitlin Kanewske and Lina Marmolejo. Master's students Taylor Hartwell, Cassie Wright and Heather Toronjo. Undergraduate students Casey Tabas, Liz Rosen, Kaley Regner, Sabrine Baiou, Liana Shivers, Elizabeth Schray, Cady Balde, Sewit Beraki, Kendra Coleman, Heather Pickett, Bryce Kushmeric-McCune and Taylor Whittington.