Upon being released from prison in the United States, the prospects for ex-offenders are grim. In some states, they might get $20 and a pair of clothes to wear out the door. If they’re lucky, they will receive a bus ticket back to the county where they were arrested. Almost immediately, they must secure or arrange for transportation, food and shelter in a world that might look very different from the one they were living in before their incarceration.
Rebuilding a life that is empowering and free of crime is anything but easy for ex-offenders. If your family lives in public housing, you can’t return home with them. If you have to check the box on employment applications saying that you’ve been charged with a felony, many people may hesitate to hire you. You might struggle to regain custody of your children, or you might be returning to a traumatic environment that is violent and unstable.
According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 80 percent of former offenders will be rearrested within five years of their release. Of these, an average of 30 percent will return to prison because of a parole violation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that ex-offenders are also two to four times more likely than the general population to have a mental illness, which puts them at increased risk for substance use issues. The odds certainly aren’t in their favor.
When faced with the task of helping and empowering individuals who are exiting the criminal justice system, counselors confront a looming initial question: “Where do I begin?”
The answer to that question is as diverse as the counseling profession itself because many practitioners commit to tackling different facets of a client’s transition from incarceration to life on the outside. For instance, counselors facilitate career development. They connect ex-offenders with social supports and mentors who show that there is hope for a different life. Counselors provide invaluable trauma treatment to heal old and present wounds, and they train professionals within the penal system to empathize and start real conversations about change with those who are imprisoned or are preparing to transition out.
What these methods have in common is one of the unique qualities of the counseling profession: a person-centered approach that focuses on making space for a new narrative. Together, and from many angles, counselors are helping ex-offenders create new stories for themselves that don’t have to end with a clanging prison door.
Fostering career development
In 2012, a student in Mark Scholl’s career development class inspired him to consider a new kind of work. The student, a probation officer by day, created a career support group for ex-offenders and invited Scholl to co-facilitate. Scholl, a member of the American Counseling Association, used his expertise in career counseling to design skill-building activities for the group, and he found that he loved the work.
When Scholl moved two years later to join the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University as an associate professor, he wanted to continue this work in the community of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After consulting with friends, he found that the public library was the safest and most encouraging space to work with ex-offenders. “The library doesn’t have the politics of other settings, which distinguish between social workers and counselors and psychologists. It doesn’t have those turf issues because it’s just about serving people in the community,” he says.
The New Leaf Career Development Group has been running steadily ever since. Over a period of five weeks, Scholl guides a group of four to six ex-offenders through a series of workshops. Topics include job skills assessments, résumé writing, interviewing skills and job search strategies, all of which Scholl approaches with a postmodern slant. Activities also reflect many techniques found in solution-focused and narrative therapies.
“There’s a tendency on the part of the clients who’ve been released from prison to dwell on the past and to focus on their problem,” Scholl says. “Turning that around and focusing on positive alternative narratives is both therapeutic and empowering to the members.”
To engage these narratives, Scholl asks participants in the first session to create a metaphor for how they relate to their futures. He believes this technique provides therapeutic leverage because he and the other participants can encourage the individual group members to construct more adaptive metaphors throughout future sessions.
One group participant, whom Scholl calls “Sandy,” used the metaphor of being a runner in a baseball game. Sandy felt like she had been stranded at third base and frustrated that she couldn’t make it home. Scholl and the other group members helped Sandy open up her metaphor, suggesting that perhaps there was only a rain delay in the game or that she was “rehabbing” after an injury.
“We helped her emphasize her self-advocacy,” Scholl says. “She began to see her ability to choose her own direction and access resources.”
In their final graduation session, participants share their narratives about what they gained from the workshop and how they view the next chapter in their lives. Family members and friends are invited to respond with how hearing their loved ones’ stories has affected them.
Because many members of the group face additional challenges, such as homelessness or substance use, Scholl admits that success for group members is sometimes difficult to define. He and his colleagues at Wake Forest are currently conducting a qualitative study to evaluate the impact of the workshop on participants’ lives.
Individual successes do stand out, however. One member, whom Scholl refers to as “Carl,” completed the workshop series this past summer. Carl was an ex-offender who came to the workshop after looking for employment for an entire year without success. “He had difficulty remaining positive during mock interviews,” Scholl recalls. “We worked with him on emphasizing his strengths and how he could potentially contribute to a prospective work setting. During the last workshop, he announced that he had been hired as a forklift operator in a warehouse position. This, as you can imagine, was a very memorable success for the client and for our team.”
Reflecting on his experience with the career development group, Scholl says the possibility of empowerment motivates him to continue the work. “There’s a feeling of futility when you have to check a box on an application [saying you are an ex-offender]. It feels like a strike against you before the employer even meets you. So,” he says, “I really feel a strong inclination to do what I can to empower these folks.”
Before she began working with ex-offenders, ACA member Bethany Lanier’s inspiration came from television. “I loved Law and Order: SVU. I wanted to do that kind of work and figure out why people do what they do,” she says.
As a master’s student in clinical mental health counseling at Radford University in Virginia, Lanier worked with women who were up for release from prison, teaching them life skills and strategies for navigating their home environments. When she moved to Alabama to begin a doctoral program in counselor education at Auburn University, Lanier’s passion for that work didn’t end.
The numbers are daunting in the Alabama justice system. Facilities are operating at 190 percent of capacity, leaving little to no money (or energy) left to focus on combating recidivism. But rather than choosing to feel overwhelmed, Lanier, as a graduate assistant, began helping to develop a mentoring program for the local women’s prison and writing grants for funding. While doing research, which Lanier has since presented at an ACA Conference, she found evidence of the effectiveness of mentoring programs with the ex-offender population. She cites one program in particular, the Mentoring4Success initiative in Kansas, that effectively cut the state’s recidivism rate in half.
Inspired by other successes, Lanier continued working with her colleagues at Auburn to train mentors in Alabama. The mentors serve a number of functions for women exiting the correctional system, including teaching them how to navigate applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) or the Women Infants Children (WIC) program. Because many of the mentors are themselves ex-offenders, they also provide inspiring examples of success and needed social support.
“You have to have somebody that’s going to be supportive, somebody who’s going to answer all your questions and help you get where you need to go,” Lanier says. “It’s good for people to see somebody and say, ‘I don’t have to be like this, because she made it.’”
As a future counselor educator and a member of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors (IAAOC), which is a division of ACA, Lanier has also given careful consideration to how to talk with students who are hesitant about working with ex-offenders. “Students say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that because it’s not safe’ or ‘It challenges my beliefs’ because we’re in the Deep South. But once people get out into the field, they realize you’re going to see these issues anywhere you go.”
For instance, Lanier explains, anyone working in a community mental health center or even in schools is likely to encounter the challenges and rewards of working with ex-offenders. For that reason, she believes counselor educators need to prepare students to think about the unique needs of this underserved population.
As for current counselors who would like to explore the power of mentorship in working with ex-offenders, Lanier encourages these helping professionals to consider the unique skills they can bring to the work, including active listening and empathetic understanding. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk,” she emphasizes.
In the literature, rates of posttraumatic stress disorder among incarcerated populations range anywhere from 4 percent to 21 percent, with women being disproportionately affected. Regardless, advocating for trauma work as a component in reentry preparation can be a tough sell. While focusing on basic needs such as housing and employment, ex-offenders may not have the money or the time to find effective therapy for trauma. Therefore, counselors have begun working with prisoners while they are still incarcerated to address their trauma and connect them to resources on the outside.
ACA member Tara Jungersen had already spent a significant portion of her career working with trauma and intimate partner violence before coming to Nova Southeastern University in 2009. But after arriving there, her colleague, Lenore Walker, introduced her to the Survivor Therapy Empowerment Program (STEP). A manualized treatment program, STEP uses principles of feminist therapy, survivor therapy and trauma theory to address common issues found in the incarcerated population. Its goal is to empower victims to become survivors.
“If somebody is stuck in a trauma cycle, if they are completely disconnected from experiencing emotion and safety in relationships, then they may lack the protective factors that can help them move forward in life,” Jungersen explains.
As the acronym suggests, the treatment program walks participants through 12 independent “steps” that help in dealing with trauma and its effects. Leaders teach relaxation skills, interpersonal skills and cognitive restructuring, and they also help participants examine their attachment patterns in relationships and grieve past relationships. The program is also focused on connecting women to resources on the outside to reduce recidivism.
“A person may be on a five-day hold, and they’ll be gone the next week. So we want to make sure that each step we teach can stand alone and that [participants] are able to find a qualified trauma therapist when they are released,” says Jungersen, who has led STEP groups herself and trained others to lead the groups. “We know that it’s challenging to find reduced-cost and pro bono services.”
Jungersen also notes that leaving prison can feel different for each person depending on the individual’s experience. For some women, jail provides structure and a departure from the chaos of their daily lives, which often can include drug addiction or physical and sexual abuse. But for others, the experience of incarceration itself is highly traumatic. For instance, a victim of sex trafficking may find herself in the same prison as her trafficker, or offenders may face abuse or neglect by correctional officers. Running a treatment program that promotes safety and stability can prove difficult if individuals are always on high alert and constantly feel exposed to danger, Jungersen says.
Despite the challenges, the STEP program has been employed successfully with both men and women in the United States and internationally. Jungersen acknowledges that when working with ex-offenders, measuring success requires different parameters than those used in traditional counseling settings. Qualitative data collected by Jungersen and her colleagues have indicated that STEP participants, who learn about their trauma symptoms and how these tie in with their substance abuse or other behaviors, are more open to seeking mental health treatment after their release as compared with their attitudes prior to participating in the program.
Regardless of whether counselors are doing trauma work specifically, Jungersen encourages them to consider the ways that trauma can affect ex-offenders and to avoid making generalizations about this population. “You’re going to have a wide distribution of cognitive functioning, a wide distribution of social skills and differences in individual trauma triggers,” she says. “Most ex-offender treatment is done in a group format. You’ve got to scan that entire group, recognize the nonverbals that indicate someone is getting triggered and adjust the conversation accordingly.”
Melanie Iarussi was first introduced to motivational interviewing in her master’s program. She liked the method so much that she decided to become “trained as a trainer” so she could teach others how to elicit meaningful, change-oriented conversations. Now an assistant professor of counselor education at Auburn University, she has found an opportunity to provide training for probation and parole officers in the state of Alabama. By teaching the officers motivational interviewing techniques, Iarussi and others are introducing a different mindset to the people who work in corrections.
Motivational interviewing is an increasingly common technique encouraged by the National Institute of Corrections and other organizations. The technique’s focus on creating collaborative conversations and guiding people toward prosocial change is a drastic departure from many of the punitive, fear-based techniques the criminal justice system has traditionally employed. Because counselors have fairly limited interactions with ex-offenders, Iarussi and others see an opportunity to educate those who have the most access to this population — parole and probation officers.
“We know the prison system as it is does not work, and we know that taking a punitive approach is not effective in facilitating behavior change,” says Iarussi, a member of ACA and IAAOC. “By introducing MI [motivational interviewing], we’re trying to capitalize on what does work, and we’re bringing some counseling concepts to the conversation that can facilitate lasting change among people in the legal system.”
To teach and improve motivational interviewing skills, Iarussi asked her trainees among the probation and parole officers to record their conversations with their clients. In turn, she listened to the conversations and provided feedback. She says the officers who were able to make the shift to use the new skills noticed that they were having completely different conversations with their parolees.
“They were able to help their clients recognize that they do have choices over what they want to do. It’s not that they are trying to force them into something or back them into a corner, but they can present them with options,” she says. “You can have the conversation, but the choice is ultimately theirs.”
Iarussi acknowledges that empathy, a cornerstone of both counseling and motivational interviewing, is a challenging concept to teach. “Probation and parole officers have multiple roles. They’re not counselors,” she says. “Their primary job is to enforce the law. So … they have to make decisions about when it is appropriate to be empathetic and have these conversations, and when it is appropriate to enforce the law. And when it is maybe a combination of those two.”
One probation officer stands out in Iarussi’s mind because they both noticed a remarkable change in his work. In one training, Iarussi presented a video of a probation officer who wasn’t paying attention to the client. The officer was constantly interrupting and not giving the client the time he needed. Her trainee came to her later and said, “I was that person. I was that officer who treated people that way.”
Iarussi describes how the officer soon after began submitting tapes that featured longer, more in-depth conversations, whereas previously he had been meeting with his clients for only one or two minutes at a time. In the new tapes, he and his clients were discussing concerns and issues about parenting and work. The officer noticed the difference he was making. “He definitely felt the shift,” Iarussi says. “By changing his approach, he was making a significant impact in his clients’ lives.”
A unique perspective
Because each person who is incarcerated receives a range of services and interventions and faces a unique set of challenges, it is difficult to know what exactly keeps ex-offenders from returning to jail or prison. As research expands, however, professionals are gaining a clearer sense of what can decrease recidivism. Among the elements that have been identified as effective: assessing for risk, engaging individual motivators, using cognitive-behavioral strategies and providing ongoing support in the community. These are all strategies familiar to those in the counseling profession.
Whether it is using career counseling skills, trauma treatment or motivational techniques, counselors are taking their existing skills and intervening in the lives of people who are exiting the correctional system. They are also serving as advocates for systemic and legislative changes that give ex-offenders a better chance for success.
Above all, Iarussi and others believe counselors are in prime position to help their communities and the criminal justice system begin viewing ex-offenders as individuals rather than a series of daunting statistics. Counselors are trained to take off the lens of judgment and to empathize with experiences that might be far from their own. Both of these skills make the field uniquely suited to work with this population.
“What I experienced is that ex-offenders expect us to treat them like everyone else does,” Lanier says. “Sure, there is an extra layer of rapport building, because maybe they haven’t had anybody listen to them [before]. All they wanted was for me to hear them and understand they weren’t terrible people, but [rather] people who had made some bad decisions. As their counselors, we have to put our preconceived notions behind us and move forward.”
Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. She also works as a mental health journalist and is the author of The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, published earlier this year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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