Correctional Psychology: Serving the Underserved

Dr. Mirriam Ford
March 2023

The role of a correctional psychologist is frequently misunderstood. Correctional psychologists focus on applying counseling and clinical techniques to both adult and juvenile offenders or inmates in correctional facilities. Additionally, they might also be involved in prison administration, supervision of inmate behavior, and programs focused on successful reentry or rehabilitation ( A conscientious correctional psychologist focuses on providing evidence-based treatment to mentally ill inmates, which requires a unique set of skills, traits, and/or abilities to enhance treatment effectiveness. These include, but are not limited to, balance, boundaries, flexibility, resilience, and an unbiased attitude.

While working with this population has the propensity to provide a rewarding experience, it also comes along with inherent distinctive challenges. Working in a correctional environment requires me to hold inmates accountable and challenge maladaptive behaviors, while making them feel supported in change efforts or the provision of services to address mental health needs. It may be necessary to write an incident report today and provide therapeutic support through grief counseling tomorrow with the same individual. In other words, maintaining a sense of balance is key (Magaletta & Cermak 2013). Not only is balance important when working with inmates, it is also necessary to maintain a healthy balance between home and work. For example, healthy balance can be found in developing a hobby that you enjoy such as crocheting, traveling, hiking, practicing tenets of a religious belief system, or even having a movie night with family and friends. Otherwise, the same work that can be rewarding will take a toll on you.

Being an effective provider in this environment also requires understanding coupled with resilience. There are times when treatment is indicated, however, an inmate might present with low motivation, limited insight, poor decision-making, uncertainty around goals, and a worldview that might easily result in derogatory, disrespectful, and/or degrading statements which appear to be aimed at you as the provider. It is in those moments that one must demonstrate awareness and understanding that the inmate is a human being who is a product of past experiences, ones that likely include abuse and trauma (i.e., mental/emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse), a challenging upbringing, and/or weighty environmental influences. Resilience is the ability to successfully adapt to life experiences and challenges that might be faced ( In this setting, resilience is demonstrated by continuing to show up in the face of dysfunctional behavioral patterns, choosing to maintain professionalism, and appropriately viewing maladaptive responses as symptomatic of the treatment need rather than synonymous with the identity of the individual or inmate needing treatment. One must be willing to see beyond the crime, and view the inmate as a human being deserving of care and treatment.

The General Principles of the American Psychological Association Ethics code emphasizes the importance of demonstrating integrity in practice, being just and fair (free from bias), and respectful of all people ( Correctional psychologists are charged with identifying and letting go of inherent biases while maintaining healthy professional boundaries as they work with anyone who needs services. Correctional psychologists are required to work with anyone who needs services. This includes, but is not limited to murderers, sex offenders, gang members, racist individuals, drug dealers, and robbers. While awareness of an inmate’s charges does not preclude their access to services, awareness of their humanity does not indicate relaxed boundaries. The book “Games Criminals Play: How You Can Profit By Knowing Them” by Bud Allen and Diana Bosta is typically recommended to individuals who are new to working with this population and focuses on ways of safeguarding oneself. Relaxed boundaries with inmates always has the potential to result in negative outcomes (i.e., being compromised in some way). For example, personal information should never be shared. While the goal is always to prepare inmates for successful reentry and decrease chances of recidivism, some will utilize information that they have about you inappropriately. The outcomes of this could be detrimental.

Last, but certainly not least, knowing when to be flexible as a correctional psychologist is vital. While prisons maintain a level of structure necessary for orderly operation on a day-to-day basis, there is also a level of unpredictability. Though there is great appreciation for the structure, when faced with situations that require immediate action, schedules and calendars are no longer relevant. For example, it may be necessary to assist in a role outside of your immediate job responsibilities due to an emergency situation and/or institutional need. As a correctional psychologist, I must realize that it comes with the territory of the environment that I chose to work in. On the other hand, there are times when communicating with other departments that maintaining a firm stance and refusing to be flexible on a topic concerning the mental health needs of inmates and how they are addressed is vital.

I put concerted effort into displaying these traits daily. Despite the minimal research available on the work of correctional psychologists, awareness and observation have contributed to what I have shared. While it can sometimes seem like a thankless job, I have resolved since the start of my career to maintain the perspective that “Someone has to do it, so why not me?” Allowing the above traits to inform my practice provides the framework for me to engage in appropriate self-care, while simultaneously and effectively serving the underserved.

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