(Common area at Middlesex Jail & House of Correction, Billerica, Massachusetts, photo credit).

A typical day at work for me usually consists of sitting at my computer typing code, sending emails, and typing more code from my fourth-floor desk at MIT. When the chance came up to visit the Middlesex County Jail & House of Correction in Billerica, Massachusetts to help launch a project on mental health and criminal justice, I was curious to go to the field and see the faces behind the data points. The aim of the project is to figure out better ways to help individuals who are leaving  jail by providing access to housing, employment, health insurance, and other services. Arriving at the jail, our team of MIT researchers had to leave our cell phones and backpacks outside of the facility. We brought with us only our visitor name tags, a stack of consent forms, and an open mind. Sure enough, this was not a typical day at the office. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office a $244,000 grant to improve the post-release care of inmates suffering from co-occurring disorders. Co-occurrence  is when people are diagnosed with both a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder. Individuals suffering from substance use and mental illness are especially vulnerable and are more likely to engage in risky behavior and reoffend (that is, commit another offense). 

The tendency to reoffend and return to jail is called recidivism, and is one of the primary challenges the U.S. county and state level criminal justice systems face. In fact, 66% of individuals released from a Massachusetts House of Correction (county jail) between 2011-2014 were re-arraigned for a new offense within three years of release; 48% were already re-convicted for a new offense in the same period of time (Council of State Governments Justice Center Policy Report 2017). An individual’s return to jail is not only costly for local jail budgets, but is detrimental to the individual’s personal life and surrounding community. 

To combat these discouraging trends, Professor Daniel Hidalgo, MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Associate and MIT Professor Ariel White are partnering with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office and Advocates Inc, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization which provides mental health and addiction recovery services. In this pilot intervention, the Sheriff’s Office acts as the liaison between the inmates that the Office interacts with regularly, and social workers at Advocates Inc. who will work with inmates to provide post-release services for the re-entry program. MIT will analyze the data, collected on the demographics and reentry services of program participants, and conduct the evaluation. Part of my role includes creating a Data Dashboard to display project progress and trends for review at monthly steering committee meetings. The Data Dashboard shows key demographic statistics for individuals in the reentry program and allows us to track whether they are getting the post-release help they need. 

Below is an example of the front page of the Data Dashboard which includes demographic data from the Sheriff’s Office for the individuals who have been randomly assigned to participate in the program. The map in blue shows the towns where individuals are released and the two bar charts in green and purple display the age and race, respectively, of the individuals in our program. 

Screenshot from the Data Dashboard (Eliza Riley).

The dashboard screenshots below use data from Advocates Inc. to depict individuals’ status on  seven progress indicators: housing, health insurance, mental health therapy, in-house mental health therapy, and employment. The bar charts show the distribution across categories in each indicator, and the corresponding plots display a moving average of progress over time (number of days in program). For example, the housing chart in green displays how many participants are “homeless,” “housed,” or “insufficiently housed” after a certain amount of time spent in the program. 

Screenshot from the Data Dashboard (Eliza Riley).

Getting the pilot off the ground required complex planning, including strict ethics review and data-sharing agreements. In order to minimize risks, we developed a system where data from the Sheriff’s Office and Advocates are completely anonymized, with unique IDs in place of name, date of birth, and other identifiable information. To ensure the intervention was ethical, we made sure that all interested individuals would have access to services whether they were ultimately selected for our program or not. 

During initial information sessions at the jail, we met people with different backgrounds, personalities, and goals. Throughout the experience, however, I was reminded that these individuals were all Middlesex County citizens preparing to re-enter a complicated world where those on parole or probation are eligible to vote, yet statistics currently predict that two-thirds will return behind bars within three years of release. Now that the pilot has launched and the first information sessions have been conducted, we are one step closer to understanding how to improve reentry services for individuals diagnosed with substance use and mental illness. 

Eliza Riley.

Eliza Riley currently works in the MIT Political Science Department as a research support associate for faculty in the Political Methodology Lab. This includes helping MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Associate Danny Hidalgo with two current projects: The Middlesex re-entry pilot and the US local government transparency experiment.