Those with a psychology degree can work with prisoners or detainees in a number of ways: rehabilitation specialists, case managers, forensic psychologists, and clinical psychologists all work within the prison industrial system to ensure that prisoners and guards are safe, things are working as they should be, and prisoners are getting the most help during the rehabilitation process (if you can call it that, which you pretty much can’t) as possible. But what should the psychology student know about the psychology of prisoners before deciding to work with them on a long term basis? The prison environment is that of an entirely different world; many of the freedoms and even menial tribulations we take for granted on a daily basis are completely regulated or nonexistent behind prison walls. Not only does prison life effect the psychology of the prisoners, but the prison guards and employees undergo their own stresses and psychological adaptations as well.

Power Struggles

Prison is the place of constant power struggles, whether it be between two inmates, or a convict and an employee of the institution. In the hardened world behind bars, inmates are constantly protecting themselves. Whether it be through the domination of others, partnering with a stronger individual for protection, or appearing either fearsome or respectable or both, the inmate must constantly watch his or her back. Sometimes, inmates even need to protect themselves from the guards which are hired to protect them. One of the most talked-about experiments on the way human nature interacts with (the lack or possession of) power is the Standford Prison Experiment, in which a large group of students were split into two: prisoners and guards. The guards were responsible for keeping track of the prisoners, ensuring that they were all behaving in their cells. They were able to impose regulations such as forcing prisoners to sleep on the floor without mattresses or refusing to allow them to use the bathroom — but these devices, as well as spraying disobedient prisoners with fire extinguishers — came from their own power-drunk imaginations. The experiment displayed such abuse of power that it was shut down after six days and has since been compared to the abuse at Abu Ghraib — and these were only students without psychology degrees or extensive knowledge of psychology. In a terrible place such as prison, demoralization becomes more and more of a natural occurrence, especially when the prisoners are so dehumanized (assigned numbers in place of their names, all dressed the same). It’s important to remember that the prisoner is a person who lived much like any other person before his or her incarceration. Under extreme circumstances, the prisoner undergoes changes imminent to his or her survival, such as masking feelings of pain or appearing more intimidating than the person would normally act.

Interacting with Prisoners as a Psychologist

Clinical psychologists at correction facilities must be prepared to deal with prisoners in a number of extreme mind-states (angry, suicidal, etc), as well as in a few (sometimes very unpleasant) situations. Criminal psychology can be bleak; suicide attempts, violence toward staff and other inmates, racism, refusal to eat or function independently, and manipulation are all concerns of the prison psychologist. A prisoner’s psychological state is first evaluated when the prisoner enters the correction facility; the professional applies their psychology degree to determine what level of care that person requires, as well as whether or not they pose a threat to him or herself. There’s also emergency duty, which can be as harrowing as it sounds for prison psychologists. The psychologist responds to suicide attempts, violent outbursts, panic attacks, and other extreme emotional crises by providing impromptu psychology sessions and determining what the prisoner needs to become stable once again. Scheduled therapy is also available, whether it be in groups or individually. Many convicts suffer from severe disabilities such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but with the help of psychology and the knowledge behind a psychology degree there is at least some attempt at rehabilitation or stabilization. The hardest part of psychology may be assessments; when the court orders an assessment from a psychologist, that professional becomes responsible for deciding what type of sentence the prisoner can handle.

Illness vs. Evil

The clinical psychologist has to be wary of manipulation, which is something taught during the quest for a psychology degree. Many prisoners don’t believe that psychology can help them at all, and some may even try to manipulate the psychologist in order to receive special treatments or to gain trust. It’s no secret that America’s prisons house more mentally ill than even the psychiatric hospitals do, but many prisoners believe that jail is not even close to being a rehabilitative environment. Many prisoners undergo somewhat of a culture shock upon their release into society, and claim that little has been done to prepare them for the transition. Other prisoners see no help available, not even in the psychology sessions they are offered, and turn to darker means of survival (such as violence or drug abuse). The psychologist must be constantly aware of the dangers going on behind his or her back. While many inmates do take advantage of the psychology sessions, others may act hateful or resentful toward the psychologist, and it can be extremely hard to gain a prisoner’s trust in a world where trusting is seen as a mistake or a vulnerability. Many prison psychologists work with uncured inmates, even if those inmates are mentally unstable or incarcerated for extremely violent crimes. Safety must always be a concern when speaking with a person who is incarcerated for life — or in other words, has nothing to lose.

Stability and Conflict

Many prisons have guidelines which state that the clinical prison psychologist must act as a member of the correctional staff in certain situations, such as a state of emergency (which can be as large as a riot and as small as being short-staffed). This doesn’t sound like more than an annoyance, but even a psychologist’s participation in a simple head count can reverse months of psychology sessions and progressive rehabilitation. This interesting look into forensic psychology brings up an obvious but important point. Creating a rapport with a prisoner can be extremely difficult, especially in a world where that person feel as if trusting any other person is both dangerous and impossible. Once a rapport is created, it can already be difficult to maintain because of the duality of the psychologist’s job as both the therapist and evaluator; the prisoner trusts the therapist, but perhaps not the evaluator who may condemn that prisoner to longer sentencing or heightened supervision. Herein also lies the issue of confidentiality, which is typically no issue outside the walls of a prison facility. A psychologist usually tells no one of his or her therapy sessions, whereas the prison psychologist must share their psychology sessions with the prison facility. On top of that, being asked to act as a correction officer may destroy the rapport completely by undermining the prisoner’s trust in the psychologist to be a therapist and not another police officer, who is typically viewed as the enemy.

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