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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn professor conducts research on mental health in prisons

<p>A view of the jail yard at the Lee County Detention Center on Oct. 31, 2022.</p>

A view of the jail yard at the Lee County Detention Center on Oct. 31, 2022.

Day after day, thousands of Alabamians spend every waking moment behind the walls of the state's 14 correctional facilities in what the Department of Justice has alleged are overcrowded, dangerous and even violate the Eighth Amendment.

To study the effects of incarceration, Timothy Edgemon, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Auburn, is conducting research on mental health in Alabama's prisons. After completing his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Georgia in 2020, Edgemon accepted a job here at Auburn in the fall of 2021.

Edgemon attributes his interest in the criminal justice system to growing up in what he described as a poor part of eastern Tennessee.

“I sort of had a firsthand look at what would happen to people when they got involved in the criminal justice system, and so I was always really interested in why does that happen," Edgemon said. "Why are people going into the system?" 

Having been in his position for just over a year, he quickly began utilizing Auburn’s resources to support his research. Most of Edgemon’s work focuses on the criminal legal system and how people interact with it, particularly the experiences of those incarcerated.

“I look at how conditions of confinement affect people… the prison may be overcrowded, it may be a high-security level, you may not have access to therapy, you may have a drug addiction and not have access to substance abuse treatment,” Edgemon said.

With these types of factors in mind, Edgemon looks into the statistics in hopes of improving conditions for those affected, specifically the lives of minority and marginalized groups.

“One of the reasons why I came to Auburn is because it gives me access to the population that I'm really interested in…being here gives me access to the black belt," Edgemon said.

Edgemon is focusing his research on areas with high concentrations of underrepresented populations, such as Dallas and Macon Counties. One aspect of his research is the effect of federal legislation on drugs in relation to arrestees.

“When we look at people who get arrested for drugs, particularly marijuana, it's generally going to be Black, African-American minority populations," Edgemon said.

As a result of his work, Edgemon has assisted in developing therapeutic groups for incarcerated people in order to assist them with reintegrating into society after spending time in prison. He hopes to create similar programs and resources at Auburn and in the surrounding areas.

Regarding his intentions on further research topics, Edgemon expressed interest in exploring the effect Alabama prisons have on people.

“Alabama does have some of the most overcrowded prisons in the country, by rates, and some of the most violent prisons in the country as well… so understanding how it's impacted the people that have gone to the prisons is really quite interesting to me," Edgemon said.

According to the latest statistical report published on the Alabama Dept. of Corrections website, there were 19,978 people in the state's prison system as of September 2022, an increase of more than 2,200 prisoners since the same time last year.

That same report showed that 11 prisoners have been murdered behind bars since October 2021.

Based on data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, 938 out of 100,000 people in Alabama were incarcerated in 2021, the sixth-highest rate in the entire world.

That rate was nearly double the rate of incarceration in nations such as El Salvador and Turkmenistan. The only states that had a higher rate of incarceration were Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia and Arkansas.

After his first year at Auburn, Edgemon reflected on what he has accomplished thus far and what his hopes are for the future.

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“One of the biggest impacts on my current research at Auburn is just that there's a lot of collaboration that happens between academic departments here,” Edgemon said. "I do see myself staying at Auburn, there's a lot I've established in my year being here, quite a few connections… with a lot of different colleagues that I sort of have ongoing stuff with already so I don't see myself giving that up anytime soon.”

Diane Pham | News Writer

Diane Pham, freshman in industrial engineering, is a news writer at The Plainsman.

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