Social Work Grad’s Degree to Strengthen Work with Death Row Inmates, Families

For many people, death row inmates represent the worst of society who deserve the punishment they are getting.

Dana Harrison knows that their stories are often more complex than the crimes they commit.

Dana Harrison

Dana Harrison, pictured last year when she won an Employee of the Year award from the Federal Public Defender Office in the Eastern District of Arkansas.

For the past twelve years, Harrison has worked with death row inmates, their families and attorneys as their cases wind through the federal appeals process. She is a mitigation investigator for the Federal Public Defender Office in the Eastern District of Arkansas. Harrison will receive a Doctor of Social Work from UT on Thursday.

Harrison said her research and studies at UT have made her “think more critically about how to help inmates and family members with issues that affect them during incarceration and the execution.”

She completed her capstone project about the effects of grief on family members of executed death row inmates.

As a mitigation investigator, Harrison conducts biopsychosocial histories on death row inmates and their families to find information the courts should consider when deciding whether a death sentence should be changed to a sentence of life without parole.

“My background in mental health, as well as my social work skills, training, and experience, has prepared me to work on these very complex cases and recognize mitigating factors in my clients’ lives—that do not excuse their crime, but provide an explanation as to how they got on the path of committing their crime,” she said. “It is very rewarding work, and I especially love working with the inmates’ family members.”

Harrison pursued her Doctor of Social Work “because of the long-standing strong history of research that UT is known for around the country.” She chose to research families of death row inmates because there is very little information available in that area.

The online program was convenient as it allowed her to work full time and travel around the country regularly.

“I am probably the only person who’s done homework in more than half of the fifty states in a three-year period,” she quipped.

A native of Marion, Arkansas, Harrison overcame significant physical challenges to complete her education. At six months old, she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor on her spinal cord, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. After surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment, she survived the cancer, but the nerves and muscles in her legs were weakened. She walks with leg braces and forearm crutches. Throughout her childhood, her parents fostered Harrison’s love of school and drove home the importance of education and independence regardless of her physical limitations.

“I was not treated any different than my five siblings, and I was expected to excel as they did,” she said.

Harrison graduated from West Memphis High School. She earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before pursuing her doctorate at UT.

“I am the first person to graduate in my family with an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and now a doctorate,” she said.

In 2004, after five years of working in inpatient psychiatric treatment at a Little Rock facility, Harrison moved to the Federal Public Defender Office in the Eastern District of Arkansas. In 2012, the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty gave her the Abolitionist of the Year award for her work with death row inmates and their families. She is the first non-attorney and the only social worker to receive the award.

Harrison said her studies at UT have given her greater insight about cultural considerations that must be taken into account, as well as evidence-based treatment, interventions, and programs that can help inmates’ families. She has learned leadership skills that will be useful as she partners with prisons and courts to advocate for better programs and policies.

Her UT experience also has given her ideas for ways to help colleagues. For instance, she introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation at her agency.

“Working with life and death appeals is very stressful for the entire staff, so as a measure of self-care, MBSR mediation classes were made available with a certified trainer,” she said. “Staff can practice MBSR meditation now while there are no executions pending, so if execution dates are set later the practice of MBSR will be familiar and helpful during stressful times.”

Harrison said Rebecca Bolen, her UT capstone project chair, was a great influence on her work.

“I enjoyed my time with Dr. Bolen so much that we are continuing the research on families of inmates who have been executed, are on death row, or were condemned to life in prison,” she said.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)