5 Questions with a Prison Researcher

An interview with Janet Garcia-Hallett
Portrait of Janet Garcia-Hallett

The Urban Institute recently awarded grants to improve the conditions of prisons in five states including Missouri. University of Missouri System researchers are playing a central role, including Janet Garcia-Hallett, assistant professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The 4.5-year research project will be piloted at Moberly Correctional Center, a 1,800-bed minimum/medium-security facility located 35 miles north of Columbia, Missouri. It houses two intensive therapeutic communities for individuals committed to personal growth and sobriety. It provides opportunities for incarcerated individuals to give back through programs such as Puppies for Parole and Restorative Justice. It also offers 48 courses and groups that build skills in areas such as anger management, parenting, employability preparation, cognitive interventions, addiction management and understanding the impact of crime on victims.

We spoke to Garcia-Hallett about the research project.

What got you interested in researching correctional facilities?

It was personal. Growing up in Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw how mass incarceration affected the community. I saw the adversity my community faced with rampant substance abuse, and when encountering the criminal justice system. I’d see people go missing when they were incarcerated. And I’d see people return home from incarceration, and try to regain stability. I grew up with friends who became wrapped up in the criminal justice system or who were killed or committed suicide as a result of the systemic oppression. Because of this, I became interested in finding ways to address the systematic oppression embedded in carceral systems.

What will your role be in improving the Missouri correctional center? What do you hope happens as a result of your research?

We will work using community-based participatory research — getting involvement from not only those who live there, but also those who work there. The first step will be interviewing and conducting focus groups to inform climate surveys about the prison environment.

I hope that our research will encourage data-driven change and help all people impacted by the system — establishing a more humane and rehabilitative environment for those who live there and also improving the working conditions for those who work there.

Tell us about the book you’re writing.

“Invisible Mothers” (scheduled to publish in 2022 by University of California Press). It’s about mothers who were incarcerated; I interviewed 37 mothers in New York City about their experiences navigating motherhood after incarceration.

I saw much of incarceration research was based on men, and I was interested in researching formerly incarcerated women. Over two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers, and this book is about them and putting them at the forefront to show how their gender, racial-ethnic background, and maternal roles make their experiences unique. As I’m navigating motherhood myself now, this resonates even more with me.

Who influences you the most?

My mother, Sandra Garcia, who is Afro-Latina. She endured the hardships of Honduras and came to the U.S. to find a better life and to establish better circumstances for her children to excel. She has always motivated me to aim high, to do things for the greater good and to give back to my local community and home country.

How do you influence others?

I’m a first-generation college student, and I list that on my email signature at UMKC – ‘First Gen Proud.’ Many of my students are first gen, too. By seeing that I finished college and went on through graduate school to obtain a Ph.D., this often serves as a source of empowerment. I also find that, as a woman of color, many of my underrepresented students come to me for information, advice or solace, and I am more than happy to serve in this capacity.  

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Published: Feb 26, 2020

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