Forensic Psychologists in Corrections

Forensic psychologists in correctional settings—aptly called correctional psychologists—provide psychological assessments, interventions, and treatments. They serve as the main source of mental health services in the prison systems, providing services such as:

  • Inmate screening and classification
  • Crisis intervention
  • Assessment of correctional personnel
  • Assessment of correctional treatment and competency

It is the responsibility of correctional psychologists to ensure that inmates undergo interventions to prevent self-inflicted violence or suicide. Crisis intervention involves conducting clinical and forensic interviews and evaluations of the inmates.

Forensic psychologists provide counseling to inmates and ex-offenders, and they develop and manage programs designed to reduce recidivism rates. Forensic psychologists may also provide therapy outside of the correctional institution, in a variety of community settings.

Forensic Psychologists in Correction: Job Description and Duties

Forensic psychologists working in correctional facilities face significant challenges on a daily basis. Just a few of the challenges include working with inmates who:

  • Have suicidal intentions or plans
  • Have homicidal intentions or plans to hurt others
  • Are not making use of activities of daily living (food, clothing, shelter) as a result of a mental disorder

The daily responsibilities of correctional psychologists include:

  • Completing rounds: Visiting patients and making determinations regarding their level of care
  • Making referrals to the Department of Mental Health: Determining whether an inmate’s condition is severe or chronic enough to warrant a referral to the Department of Mental Health
  • Completing mental health screenings: Evaluating patients using an assessment designed to evaluate major mental health disorders and developmental delays
  • Responding to mental health crises: Responding to emergencies that entail issues such as suicidal or homicidal ideation, victimization, rape, major depression, panic attacks, death of a loved one, etc.
  • Performing psychological intakes: Determining whether or not inmates who are referred to mental health require treatment; creating treatment plans, if necessary
  • Providing court-ordered assessments: Offering a professional opinion based on a court-ordered assessment; often involves an opinion on a defendant’s sentence (e.g., recommendation for prison, probation, or conditions of parole)
  • Providing individual and group therapy: Providing services to inmates using mental health services; therapy covers issues such as:
    • Personality disorders (antisocial, narcissistic, borderline personality)
    • Drug addiction, polysubstance dependence
    • Adjustment disorder
    • Bipolar disorders
    • Major depression
    • Schizophrenia
    • Generalized anxiety disorder

Ethical Consideration and Practice Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists in Corrections

The primary mission of correctional psychologists is to support the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates. However, changing laws and regulations have shifted the focus from caring for the inmate to ensuring the security of the institution and community at large. In many cases, this creates a dual role conflict that can strain the relationship between the psychologist and the inmate.

One of the biggest challenges that correctional psychologists face is the fact that full confidentiality between the inmate and practitioner is not an option in the prison setting. Since correctional psychologists are obligated to disclose information to prison staff with regard to violent acts that have been committed or that may be committed, correctional psychologists often struggle with trying to gain the trust of the inmates in their care.

Another ethical dilemma correctional psychologists encounter comes when observing inmates with chronic mental illnesses being denied the treatment they so desperately need. In many cases, psychologists must focus their attention on disruptive inmates that the correctional facility wants to bring under control, which often results in inmates with chronic mental illnesses being neglected.

IACFP Ethical and Practice Guidelines

The International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology (IACFP) formulated standards for the delivery of mental health services in correctional agencies and facilities.

Since the release of the 1978 U.S. Department of Justice’s Overview of Psychology Services–A Training Orientation and Reference Handbook, which clarified the rights of inmates to receive professional mental health services, there has been a significant increase in the number of psychologists working in correctional facilities nationwide.

The purpose of the IACFP standards is to augment the APA’s ethical and practice guidelines so they can be applied to the field of corrections, with the ultimate goal of improving the advocacy, integrity, accessibility, measured effectiveness, and quality of mental healthcare for all offenders who either require mental health interventions or otherwise benefit from such interventions.

The IACFP standards include the following principles for forensic psychologists in correctional facilities:

  • Principle A: Recognize individual rights to respect, dignity, humane treatment, and self-determination
  • Principle B: Avoid or minimize emotional or physical harm
  • Principle C: Maximize good by providing and advocating for competent mental health services and research
  • Principle D: Recognize and practice social responsibility

Training and Certification for Forensic Psychologists in Corrections

Many forensic psychologists interested in working in corrections focus their graduate work on this field. In fact, many master’s and doctoral clinical psychology programs allow students to choose a concentration in corrections. Through these programs students are able to gain a comprehensive understanding of mental health issues within correctional settings and acquire a broader perspective concerning public policy and working with offenders.

Specialized study in these programs includes courses like these:

  • Violence and risk assessment
  • Trauma and crisis intervention
  • Substance abuse

Doctoral programs (PsyD or PhD) in psychology with a concentration in corrections allow students to work toward state licensure as a clinical psychologist while they receive specialized education and training in the nuances of working within the corrections system.

Many times, students complete their doctoral internships and post-doctoral fellowships in correctional facilities, allowing them to gain valuable experience in this unique and challenging sub-field of forensic psychology.

Professional Certification

Forensic psychology specialty certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology Specialty Certification (ABPP) allows forensic psychologists in corrections to display another level of competency in their field.

To achieve ABPP certification in forensic psychology, candidates must possess a state license to practice clinical psychology and successfully complete the following forensic psychology competencies:

  • At least 100 hours of formal education, direct supervision, or continuing education in forensic psychology after the date the doctoral degree was earned; AND
  • At least 1,000 hours of experience in forensic psychology obtained by completing at least 5 years of post-doctoral experience (an LLB or JD degree may be substituted for two of the five years of experience); OR
  • At least 2,000 hours of post-doctoral training in forensic psychology, meeting APA curriculum guidelines

Candidates for ABPP forensic psychology specialty certification must take and pass a written and oral examination and pass a credential review process.

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