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Research: Peer Bonds

News Story

Dyson Professor Kimberly Collica-Cox investigates the role peer attachment plays in female correctional facilities, and how specialized programs can help form new, industrious outlooks on life.

Strong bonds are the lifeblood of chemistry—both figuratively and literally. And as Criminal Justice Professor Kimberly Collica-Cox, PhD, has found, they can go a long way in helping female inmates reshape their focus, and form positive habits that can promote lasting, rejuvenating effects.

Having spent a bit of time working with female inmates at Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities, Collica-Cox noticed that inmates working as HIV peer educators were forming high levels of attachment while incarcerated, and were able to maintain and positively utilize those strong connections upon release. Through her experiences and observations, Collica-Cox began to wonder whether or not there was empirical validity to what she was seeing.

“I was working up at Bedford, which had these peer programs. I worked a lot with the women in terms of training, and I’d watch them develop professionally and then go home and be able to attain positions—it looked like these positions were extremely successful, but nothing had been written about them.”

Thus, she proceeded to study and test levels of attachment among 49 female prisoners who worked as HIV peer educators at two different facilities—and ultimately found that her theory rang true.

Through extensive research and immersion, Collica-Cox’s study found that the women who worked within HIV peer educator programs exhibited high levels of attachment to both their respective programs, as well as the peers within the program. Additionally, many inmates received employment in HIV-related positions upon release, and wished to remain in contact with their respective programs.

As the evidence suggests, Collica-Cox believes that these essential peer-education programs enabled female inmates to find—and embrace—a second family.

“I don’t think that I expected to find that the women would place [the programs] as high as an importance to them. Ninety four percent of the women described the program’s participants as being part of their family. They described it as being more of a supportive family unit.”

Collica-Cox believes this sense of family is particularly important for mothers, who, due to the norms of the criminal justice system, can have a more difficult time forming traditional family attachments.

“I think one of the issues that women often face is the fact that they’re often the primary caregivers for their children. When men are incarcerated, women will bring the children. But when the woman is incarcerated, another female member of the family takes responsibility for the children and may not have the means to bring the children. The longer they’re incarcerated, the harder it is to maintain that connection.”

All in all—and regardless whether it be in the field of public health—Collica-Cox suggests that the model espoused through the peer attachment programs is one that facilities should take note of across the country.

“I think that any program that allows female inmates to take a leadership role and develop employment skills while they’re incarcerated, you’re going to have women who are interested in doing better things with their lives. They’re going to be making an investment in their future. And that’s really what they were doing. They were able to take those skills and bring them back to the community.”