Frances Abderhalden, the first student to graduate from UCF’s doctoral program in criminal justice, wanted to know why suicides in jails were eight times more likely than in the general population and five times more likely than in prisons.
So she went straight to inmates and asked them. She hopes to use her findings to reduce the suicide stats of the 11 million individuals who are incarcerated each year.
Abderhalden, and criminal justice graduate students Caitlin Brady and Alesha Cameron, conducted a voluntary survey of more than 800 individuals in the Seminole County Jail, with 353 surveys completed. They were able to include women, an often underrepresented population in jail research.
From these surveys, Abderhalden found perceptions of fear of other inmates and staff were related to suicidality. She says that while perception of fear is studied in prisons relating to subjects like misconduct, it has not been researched in relation to suicidality in jails or prisons.
Jails are intended to hold individuals awaiting trial or who are convicted of minor crimes, while prisons hold people for longer terms, serving sentences for more serious criminal activity.
“Someone with a traffic violation can be in the same area as someone accused of a sexual offense,” she says. “We also forget that the majority – between 60 to 80 percent – of people incarcerated in jails have not been convicted of a crime.”
Higher perceptions of fear lead to greater feelings of suicidality, and along with hopelessness, put these individuals at a higher risk.
In these circumstances, higher perceptions of fear lead to greater feelings of suicidality, and along with hopelessness, put these individuals at a higher risk, says Abderhalden.
Abderhalden also looked into ways to identify suicide risk in order to intervene in earlier stages. If we look at the stages leading up to suicide, Abderhalden says, we can target prevention methods for these earlier stages as a way to reduce deaths.
Abderhalden says UCF was the right choice for her to attain her degree. Not only did she receive a 2016 UCF Presidential Fellowship, but she was also interested in the personal attention UCF offers. She says she appreciated the faculty and staff’s inclusion of doctoral students in shaping the program. The department chair met with doctoral students twice a year to discuss ideas on how best to support student goals.
Abderhalden is in the process of moving to California State University, Los Angeles, where she will be an assistant professor on a tenure track in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics. She plans to continue her focus on jails and suicide, and she is already looking to build a relationship with the Los Angeles County Jail system, the largest in the nation, with about 22,000 people who are incarcerated.
Meeting and interacting with incarcerated individuals is what Abderhalden remembers most about her study. She says that especially today as we navigate social distancing, we can all recognize the value of human connection. This was particularly clear to her when one man handed back the survey and asked her to read the comments section.
“It’s anonymous. So while I don’t know his name, I remember his face and what he wrote: ‘Thank you for caring, for doing this study, for looking at us as people, for trying to impact change,’” she says. “The hard work put into developing this survey makes it all worth it when someone asks you to see them, and they also see you.”
Grateful for her valuable research experience in the program, Abderhalden and her family are in the process of establishing the GKF Endowed Scholarship in honor of her three educator grandparents, whose first initials combined are GKF. The scholarship will support UCF students in criminal justice who want to conduct primary data research.
Her father (a computer science professor), paternal grandfather (classroom teacher and superintendent of schools), maternal grandfather (dean and administrator in higher education) and maternal grandmother (K-12 music teacher) were all committed to a nurturing, humanized approach to education, she says, and they all inspired Abderhalden in her career in academia. Their influence shows in her own approach to teaching and when conducting studies.
“By doing my own research, people participating in the study were not a bunch of case numbers, but human beings with their own stories,” she says.