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SURF Recipient Deciphers Prison Data

undergraduate research / data science
Undergraduate researcher Ben Klingensmith uses data to advocate for humane incarceration

It all started with a spreadsheet of raw data from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Since this spring, Carnegie Mellon University senior Ben Klingensmith has been digging into this data, creating code to clean and decipher it with the goal of using the information to understand conditions in the state’s 62 county jails and inform state public policy. Klingensmith, an undergraduate researcher majoring in Behavioral Economics, Policy, and Organizations and Statistics and Machine Learning, is working with Jay Aronson, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Human Rights Science and Robin Mejia, the center’s statistics manager, to create a report classifying and exploring the types of deaths occurring in the jail system. Carnegie Mellon is partnering with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, the oldest human rights organization in the country, on the project.

“This problem of mass incarceration in Pennsylvania has been decades in the making,” said Aronson. “With our new relationship with the Prison Society, we can now provide analysis and resources to create data-informed policy recommendations. In the short term, we hope to help make prisons and jails safer, more human places. In the long term, we hope to dramatically reduce the number of people in them.”

Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards said the population in Pennsylvania jails and prisons has increased six-fold since the 1980s. The state currently spends about $4 billion a year to incarcerate 78,000 people. While the state’s Department of Corrections data is publicly available, there are few resources allocated to analyzing and finding meaning from it.

Klingensmith’s research is funded through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant, which provided him with $3,500 to begin the painstaking process of making sense of the data. While Klingensmith knew little about prison life prior to the research, his work over the summer led him to start a senior thesis on the topic.

“I was always interested in projects that make a positive impact on the world,” said Klingensmith. "This is a chance to use the data analysis skills I’ve learned on a timely and important issue.”

Klingensmith’s data analysis will be part of a report from Carnegie Mellon's Center for Human Rights Science and the Prison Society, which is set to publish in the coming months.

“Ben is self-motivated and has really good data instincts,” said Klingensmith’s mentor Robin Mejia. “His first pass on the dataset was impressive, especially as he explored how to best address the Prison Society’s questions, even working to answer questions they didn’t know they could ask.”

Mejia said Klingensmith’s preparation and initiative were instrumental in getting the project off to a good start. In turn, Klingensmith said Mejia’s mentorship helped him grow in his interactions with the Prison Society to work more independently toward their specific goals.

Ultimately, Klingensmith’s data analysis will be used to advance the Prison Society’s mission of advocating for humane conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons and jails.

“Thanks to Ben’s research, for the first time ever, we will publish a report that can empirically compare jail conditions in Pennsylvania,” Shubik-Richards said. “With very limited resources, we don’t have the ability at the Prison Society to do this analysis on our own. This partnership with Carnegie Mellon allows us to do what really needs to be done and at a level of academic rigor and excellence that is hard to beat.”