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A psychologist looks back on his work with young offenders.

How do you treat and counsel prisoners who are resistant to change? For almost two years I struggled with this frustrating question.

I was the senior clinical psychologist in a treatment program for youthful male offenders. These were offenders up to the age of 25 committed to the California Youth Authority. They were technically called "wards," as in "wards of the court," but I will refer to them as prisoners. You can call them and the institution whatever you want, but to me it was a prison and they were prisoners.

My job involved doing psychotherapy and assessment with these young men, training some staff to do therapy or be more aware of treatment issues, and writing reports for the parole board. I would like to share some of my experiences and point out some correctional issues I believe deserve more consideration.

A Word of Warning

On one of my first days on the job, I was talking with the assistant superintendent and a psychologist. The assistant superintendent said to me, "Well, I hope you stay with us for a while." This seemed a little strange to me because I had no intention of being there just a short time. I had left a university job with tenure to take on this exciting and challenging position.

The psychologist then said, "People don't stay here very long, do they?" The assistant superintendent replied, "No, they don't."

At the time, their comments didn't make sense to me. It seemed like a great program, one that tried to help offenders turn their lives around. In addition to all kinds of therapy groups such as substance abuse and life planning, there were education classes and a host of programs that seemed to make this an ideal prison. I wondered, why would people not stay very long? I would soon find out.

I quickly began experiencing something that would go on throughout my time there-manipulation from the prisoners. One of the prisoners on my therapy caseload explained to me that an officer had denied him something he needed. I no longer recall what it was. But he told me, "Bill does not understand things. He thinks he can't give it to me, but he can. It is within the rules, and I need it. You can see that. Can you get it for me?"

I replied, "I don't know. Are you sure it's within the rules for you to get it?" He replied, "Oh, yes, definitely. Bill is just so dumb. You know what a dumb jerk he is. You've talked to him, right? You know what I mean."

I realized the prisoner was trying to take advantage of me because I was the new guy. It turned out there was a good reason for the officer's denial. Had I fallen for this trick, I would have offended Bill and other security staff, who would have seen me as a naive therapist who did not know the score. Anyone who works with prisoners needs to be ready for all kinds of manipulative treatment and know how to deal with it.

Another kind of manipulation involved threats. Once, I was working in individual therapy with a paranoid schizophrenic patient I will call Charlie. When I said something he did not like, Charlie would glare at me with intense hand I was able to overcome this by telling him, "If you look at me like that with such hatred, I can't work with you. I am trying to help you, but I can't do it if you are going to stare at me with hatred in your eyes."

This worked. Charlie stopped glaring at me, and therapy proceeded well. However, on one occasion I was going to demote him to a lower privilege level because of his misconduct. Charlie did not like the news about the demotion, and he seemed on the verge of physically attacking me when I told him of my decision. Fortunately, I made sure to tell him in the presence of a youth counselor who had both security and counseling duties.

When Charlie seemed about to explode into physical assault, the youth counselor stood up and put her hand on the mace that the youth counselors all carried. "What are you doing?" he asked. She replied, "I'm just getting ready to control you if I have to." This calmed him down--the threat of being maced was enough to keep him from attacking us.

Resisting Change

Another difficult aspect of my job was getting prisoners to change from antisocial types to honest citizens. Even though they were young, most had long histories of crime. I found that very few wanted to change, and that those who did want to change had no idea how. They found it very hard to be law-abiding people. In part, their low education and possibly low intelligence made it difficult for them to get decent jobs. We had a school in the facility, but many of the prisoners found education very difficult. It made them feel like failures. Also, many had a hard time sitting still for prolonged periods of time.

I found that while I often sympathized with their problems, that did not excuse their crimes or make me feel any better about the fact that many of them would return to crime once they left the facility. Charlie, for example, failed on parole because he tested positive for marijuana, refused to abide by the orders to look each day for a job, took food from the refrigerator of the group home where he was staying and stole a handgun owned by the head of the group home. in a sense, my work with him was in vain. Perhaps I had made him less likely to kill someone or perhaps I had no lasting effect on him.

My experiences with the institution's staff were mixed. Many were great to work with. I was impressed with their sense of how to deal with the prisoners and help them. Many came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds as the prisoners and understood what it was like to grow up poor in dangerous, high crime neighborhoods. I can't say enough about the skills of these staff members who did great work with little background in treatment.

On the other hand, some staff definitely hurt the rehabilitation aspects of the program. Even though it was a treatment program, these staff were unsympathetic to the notion of treatment. Also, many of our prisoners were mentally ill, and some staff were ignorant of mental illness and how it makes people behave. They saw the mentally ill prisoners' strange or defiant behavior as a sign that they were bad people. Their attitude was that these people deserved punishment or at least to be yelled at.

Initially, I thought the prison position was a great job for me. I could not imagine why anyone would want to leave. But as time went on, the stress of working in a prison took its toll. I would leave work feeling very tired and the next morning feel bad about coming to work. Prison work is difficult and can lead to burnout in all levels of employees. After 21 months, I returned to university work.

Nevertheless, I look back on my experience as a positive one. Even if many prisoners returned to crime once they left, it seemed likely that the treatment program helped a substantial number. I suspect that some remained crime-free as a result of the treatment.

For example, one mentally ill child molester was taught that he needed to keep away from children. When it was proposed that he be released to a certain group home, he objected on the grounds that it was too close to a school. Without treatment, he would never have thought this way. Other prisoners increased their education, which gave them a better chance in society.

From my experience, I would like to encourage all administrators to institute training programs that teach employees to work more effectively with the kind of population they deal with. Officers in treatment programs need specific training aimed at making them aware of and sympathetic to treatment. The same goes for staff working with mentally ill prisoners.

And finally, those who work in corrections should always remember the positive effect they can have on offenders. Every time you help an individual become an honest citizen, you are helping improve society as well as that person.

Russel Eisenman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Author:Eisenman, Russell
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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