Criminal justice professor fights for prisoners' families

  • Throughout her childhood, Dr. Breanna Boppre's parents were incarcerated. 
  • Boppre's most recent research focuses on family members of incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The odds of Breanna Boppre ending up in the correctional system were astronomically higher than the odds of her becoming Dr. Breanna Boppre, assistant professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University.

“Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, both my parents were incarcerated,” Boppre said. “I grew up visiting my dad in prisons all across the state of Nevada. 

Depending on the source, research indicates that a child of incarcerated parents runs a risk between two and six times higher of being incarcerated than those without incarcerated parents.

“My great-grandparents stepped in and raised me,” Boppre said. “Thankfully, they learned that education is really what could separate my path from that of my parents, who had always struggled with substance use. They literally put me into every extracurricular activity you could think of. I did pottery, calligraphy, and all kinds of random art-related classes. They knew to break the cycle they had to get me involved in pro-social activities. I was fortunate to have these opportunities. Many who end up in the criminal justice system do not have access to such protective factors.”

Breaking the cycle with education

The combination of education and her experience visiting her father in prison drove her to pursue education and research around criminal justice.

“I have this insider perspective of what incarceration is like. I ended up getting my Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice and really focused on corrections to understand how we can best change behavior to prevent people from coming back into the system,” Boppre said. “A correctional system is supposed to correct what led a person into the system. If we're just locking people up and warehousing them, we're really not doing anything to break the cycle.”

Boppre brings her abundance of life experience, education and research into her classroom.  

“I'm upfront with my students about my past, and I find each semester that more students have also experienced having a family member incarcerated,” she said.

With about 2.3 million people in the United States incarcerated, and about 45% of people in the United States have had a family member incarcerated. In this light, Boppre hopes to be a role model.

“I want to be a source of support for students and show them the correctional system from all sides,” she said. “I really want to give them a holistic perspective of what the correctional system does. I do that through my teaching, which is extremely rewarding.”

COVID-19 in correctional facilities

Boppre’s most recent research focuses on family members of incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Principal Investigator, Boppre is conducting a study with her colleague Dr. Meghan Novisky, a fellow criminologist at Cleveland State University. They are surveying 300 family members of people in the correctional system and conducting follow-up interviews with approximately 50 participants. She’s interested in families’ perceptions of the correctional agencies’ responses to the pandemic, their level of satisfaction with the response, how worried or concerned they are about their loved ones during this time, and the mental health impacts as a result of having a loved one incarcerated during the pandemic.

“From my first-hand experience of having loved ones incarcerated, I know there's a lack of transparency between what actually occurs in the prisons and what's released to the media or even released by the correctional agencies themselves,” Boppre said. “So that's really why I wanted to do this study — to find out from the perspective of families what's actually going on during the pandemic and how it is impacting them.”

While Drs. Boppre and Novisky are still conducting interviews and the study won’t be published in academic outlets until early 2021, Boppre’s early findings are alarming, she says, “particularly the lack of testing based upon our survey. We asked family members if their loved one’s been tested, and 76% of the 300 family members said that their loved one had not been tested for COVID.”

She also noted that 91% of survey participants said they were worried about the safety of their loved one during the pandemic.

“Some of the concerns,” she said, “are frankly, ‘I'm afraid my loved one won't make it out alive.’ ‘I'm afraid that they will contract COVID.’ ‘I'm afraid that the medical response from the correctional agency won't be sufficient.’”

Boppre says she’s received reports that some correctional agencies have not been following CDC guidelines. For example, in Nevada, she says, those incarcerated are not allowed to wear protective face coverings, which directly contradicts what the CDC recommends.

“There’s this conflict in corrections between maintaining security and protecting human lives. The correctional agency has to maintain security and safety. That's their number one goal. But, really, at what cost?” Boppre asked. “Incarcerated people are being given watered-down cleaning supplies. Some institutions are not allowing hand sanitizer or other precautions that we know can help prevent the spread of the virus. These are human lives at stake.”

And because measures like social distancing are not as easy in a jail or prison, Boppre said, research released by the Equal Justice Initiative has shown the infection rate is 2.5 times higher in correctional agencies in comparison to the general population.

“These agencies are ripe for the spread of the disease because they’re in tight quarters,” she said. 

Boppre said there are reports that some loved ones are not notified about a prisoner’s COVID-19 status until they’re near death.

“The lack of transparency is really what heightens anxiety,” she said. “Incarceration is already a stressful experience for families, and then during a pandemic, there's this increased worry about the medical care and whether their loved one will contract the virus.”

Families at the forefront

Boppre says she’s also heard some positives come out of correctional facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Some interviewees that I’ve talked to — their loved ones have tablets in their cells and can call home at any time. They can communicate with their loved one and have video visits on that tablet. They can even do their programming, like education and rehabilitation on the tablet,” she said. “Interviewees with higher satisfaction levels indicate it is due the quick preventative measures taken by the correctional agencies at the start of the pandemic, the ability to communicate regularly to loved ones, and updates related to COVID-19 from the correctional agencies.”

Boppre says that no matter what the issue or policy in the correctional system, it’s important to keep families at the forefront of conversation.

“For every person that's locked up, they have loved ones on the outside who are also going through the stress and trauma with them,” she says. “If we really want to break the cycle of incarceration, we have to think about the family system as a whole. That's really what my research now is focused on, understanding the impacts of incarceration on the family system. I'm all about engaging those directly impacted through my research. More often, these individuals are neglected and ignored, yet they have valuable first-hand experience that should be utilized in developing policy recommendations.

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