Opinion

Our Voice: It takes courage to see what studies really say

People put a lot of faith in studies, surveys and statistics.

The problem is all of that information can be manipulated.

Maybe an organization commissions a study but doesn't like the overall findings once it's all said and done. Most likely they can find a couple of nuggets in the study to fit their needs and that's what they opt to use for public consumption, ignoring the rest of the less favorable data as if it didn't exist.

It takes a brave soul to stand up and say that's a problem. But that's just what two state employees did when they saw the state Department of Corrections claim success in decreasing inmate violence with a pilot program in select cell blocks at two Eastern Washington prisons.

The state workers say officials skewed the statistics in an effort to show the project was successful and to get funding to expand the program.

Inmates were brought to Airway Heights Corrections Center and Coyote Ridge to participate in the program. The inmates in the 130-person pods were praised and rewarded, or given quick, consistent punishment. Inmates received coupons for rewards and took classes to help them learn to make better decisions.

While the state workers, both researchers, say the program shows promise, the statistics used to tout its success are not valid.

WSU produced a report that showed overall infractions, violent and nonviolent, were down in the test pod when compared to a control group of similar inmates. But it found, "For violent infractions and grievances, results indicated that there was not a significant change over time for in-program and control participants."

That means that violent acts didn't decrease but non-violent ones did.

But corrections officials chose to interpret it their own way, and said "a dramatic decrease in violence" had occurred during the program's first few months. Research shows that is just not the case, the state workers say.

And that information was based on only one group of inmates and no "solid finding" can be determined until both groups were studied, according to WSU.

A legal complaint was served on the state on behalf of the researchers who cried foul. Unfortunately, this kind of data manipulation happens often, especially when funding is at stake. Controls need to be put in place, especially when our state is the one issuing findings like this, to make sure the data is interpreted and distributed as intended.

The state could have done many things differently, like wait until more comprehensive data was available or use the actual research done by WSU with the control group rather than make its own non-scientific conclusions. Or the state could use it constructively to make changes to its program in hopes of better results.

We hope this is a good lesson for all those inclined to skew data. Transparency and honesty are better paths than manipulation and deceit.

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