Tag Archives: Offenders

Offenders

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 2: The incarcerated

By Gregory K. Moffatt May 6, 2019

In the 1980s, the head of the department of corrections in my home state removed the exercise equipment from the state prisons. “They aren’t here on holiday,” he proclaimed in his no-nonsense tone.

I remember feeling a sense satisfaction at those words. “Yeah!” I thought to myself. “They deserve to be miserable. It’s prison, not a health club.”

In the years since, I’ve been inside prisons many times in the course of my work, and I now realize how thoughtless I was. Beyond my work, I have visited prison most often to see a friend. His incarceration was an experience that taught me the most about this invisible population.

Any politician running on a platform of prison reform would risk the accusation of being soft on crime. Although chain gangs and hard labor camps are, thankfully, part of history, for the most part, people don’t really care about what happens to prisoners. Like Native Americans (see the first article in my three-part series on “invisible people”), prisoners are often simply ignored.

In my experience as an investigator, a friend and a counselor of prisoners, most prisoners want to mind their own business, serve their time and get on with their lives following release. Many of these individuals are good men and women who readily admit their mistakes and are trying to put their lives back together.

I once wrote a similar thought in a newspaper column and received angry responses from readers. “My mother was killed. … Prisoners should be punished.” You get the idea.

I am not denying that there are some very bad people in prison. In fact, whenever I leave a prison, I’m glad that those iron doors lock behind me. Certain people need to be there, and they need to be there for a very long time. But just as there are many people in the general population who should be in prison — they just haven’t been caught yet — there are many individuals in prison who are very good people. Many of the men I’ve counseled could have been let out the front doors at any point and the community wouldn’t have been in any greater jeopardy whatsoever. People make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes land people in the judicial system.

It is hard to describe the public humiliation of being arrested, tried, and sent to prison. And that humiliation is shared by family members. If someone asks where your father/son/brother is and you say “prison,” there will almost certainly be an awkward silence.

Once in the system, no matter how humane, prisoners are treated more like animals than like people. They are told what to wear, where to stand, when to eat and when to sleep. They are locked in crowded cages, and events they look forward to all week — visitation, a welding class, an appointment with the prison counselor — are often snatched away from them without notice because of the behavior of others. It can be total lockdown because of one guy doing something stupid.

Prisoners can be transferred without warning. Loved ones might travel four or five hours to see them only to discover that they have been moved, and it may take days or weeks to find out where they are. In such cases, the fragile lives that inmates have built in their prison world are erased, and they have to start over.

They are numbers in a system, not names. And they are identified by their crimes by probation officers, future potential employers and others. I would hate to be identified by my mistakes rather than by my character.

One inmate told me just after sentencing, “I know that no matter how many good things I’ve done in life, I’ll only be remembered for this one thing.” I couldn’t tell him he was wrong.

People entering the system can’t trust their fellow inmates — not because they are necessarily unworthy of trust, but because these new inmates just don’t know who they can trust. It is literally every man for himself. Sadly, neither can they trust the police, their lawyers or judges. I’m not suggesting at all that these people are unethical. I’m only stating the fact that at the end of the day, none of them see the accused as their friend. They see the person in relation to the charge and the process. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never been exposed to the system.

The consequences of the near-sighted policy of the former director of prisons in my home state were easily foreseen. Instead of occupying their time with exercise, inmates had little to do. Consequently, they filled their time with disruptive behaviors. The equipment was eventually returned — as it should have been.

If you want to experience real cultural diversity as a counselor, volunteer to work with prisoners in the system. It will open your eyes to what you (like me in my earlier days) have probably been unable to see.

 

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For a more detailed perspective of the prison system, see the book I co-authored with W.A. Murphy, Handcuffed: A Friendship of Endurance.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Containment in restraints

By Erika Berger March 4, 2019

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

 

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A group of young black men sit and interact before our weekly art therapy group. Some laugh and share stories of their children and loved ones. Others put their heads down and are silent. They discuss and debate song lyrics and current events.

One young man, freshly 18 years of age, bursts into laughter so deep, his eyes begin to tear up. He cannot wipe his eyes though because his wrists are handcuffed together. Those handcuffs are shackled to a small metal desk, which is chained to the floor. His feet are also chained together and shackled to the floor. This is the state of juvenile justice in the United States.

When I first began working in custody as a graduate student of art therapy, I ignorantly thought that juvenile detention centers were different than the adult prisons and jails that I frequented. I was wrong. Juvenile detention centers incarcerate adolescents ages 13-17 and house “adult inmates” until they are 21. Juvenile detention centers are no different than adult prisons in their daily operation, physical structure or philosophy of detention.

From my perspective, a more accurate name for such centers would be “child prisons.” More than 60,000 youths are incarcerated in these prisons on any given day. The majority of these young people are black. This does not include the numbers of children incarcerated at adult prisons. Many children are tried and sentenced as adults. Episode 8 of the new season of NPR’s Serial podcast takes an in-depth look at one such child prison in Cleveland.

 

Harsh juxtapositions

To think about therapeutic containment or the creation of a safe holding environment in the context of prison feels paradoxical at best. These young people are not safe in this environment, either physically or psychologically. Histories of trauma, coupled with the toxic stress and bigotry inherent to the prison system, often lead clients to feel utterly psychologically uncontained while completely physically restrained.

This kind of harsh juxtaposition defines the clinical environment I work in. Weekly group art therapy is the only therapeutic support that my clients receive. Art therapy is one of four hours out of the week in which these clients are let out of their cells. Simply being in the presence of a group can be overwhelming to them. To open up too much emotional expression in therapy can be dangerous because these kids are left to cope by themselves.

How then does a clinician establish boundaries and a contained, safe therapeutic environment in a context defined by walls, chains and fences? Walk beside and begin with the art.

Walking beside clients in their therapeutic journey is to embody empathy. It is to see the clients as unique individuals while understanding the cultural and sociopolitical forces (racism, toxic masculinity and other forms of oppression) at work around them. It is to continually investigate my place in that oppression. It is to know and accept that my mere presence and vast privilege as a white, upper-class, free individual may be painful for clients. It is to be open to dialogue about our identities and to hold anger. It is to express my anger at the systems of oppression that shackle young people.

Empathic embodiment is indeed visceral. I strive to walk beside these clients with my heart and, as clinical and liberation psychologist Taiwo Afuape writes, to have my heart broken. I work toward deep therapeutic attunement that allows me to experience the unbearable feelings of clients while remaining grounded. These feelings are simultaneously bearable and unbearable. I stand in the eye of the storm. This position allows me to support clients in the processes of identification, digestion and integration of feelings and experiences.

 

Art making as resilience

We always begin with art making in sessions. The materials automatically become physical containers for emotions. The concrete nature of the art materials stands in opposition to the rampant, formless boredom of prison. Art therapy interventions have a beginning and an end that is client directed, while time in prison is endless.

Clients often verbalize their creativity and creations as acts of resilience and resistance: “I felt free when making this”; “I forgot I was in prison”; “They can’t take these ideas from me.”

Early on in group therapy, I often implement the “I am” format of sharing about artwork. Clients speak from the perspective of their pieces and work to use literal descriptions of the artwork that begin with “I am”: “I am colorful. I am dark and light. I am chaotic. I am beautiful. I am bound. I am peaceful. I am bright. I am vibrant.”

The continual process of naming and deepening who you are in prison is indeed an act of peaceful resistance. To claim presence is to erode the stereotyped, bigoted treatment by the system.

A drawing Erika Berger made to help her process her work with prisoners.

I know our therapy is progressing when the art making begins to be inspired by the clients’ personal passions. It can take weeks or months of rapport building for clients to share their dreams and goals in therapy. Leading up to these passion projects are long hours of walking with clients through self-doubt, self-hatred, anger, depression, anxiety, fear and shame. Creative writing in the form of poetry, short stories and rap is common during these stages. It is a medium and coping mechanism with which clients are familiar and comfortable.

Passion projects begin to subtlety shift the orientation of time from the present moment to the future, indicating growing resilience and hope. Clients are often more self-directed with these projects. As self-regulation increases, the use of materials generally shifts from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, reflecting a literal inner growth or expansion. Drawings, paintings and writings transform to creations such as folded paper boxes, sculpted figures and dynamic collages. In this place of creativity and visibility, we can approach pain with enhanced flexibility and perspective.

 

In summary, fostering therapeutic containment in the prison setting is about holding steadfast to attunement and empathy. It requires looking our broken justice system in the eye and allowing our hearts to be broken. Remain grounded in this brokenness and always stay connected to each individual client’s uniqueness, creativity and inner light.

 

 

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Erika Berger is a recent graduate of Pratt Institute’s master’s degree program in art therapy. For the past two years, she has worked to create and implement clinical art therapy programming in western North Carolina prisons. Prior to becoming an art therapist, she was a bilingual special education teacher in New York City public schools. Contact her at Erika.wallace.berger@gmail.com.

 

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Related reading, from Counseling Today: “Seeing people, not prisoners

Seeing people, not prisoners

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The fragility of freedom

By Carl Sheperis and Franzi Walsh October 4, 2017

With more than 2.2 million Americans behind bars, there are more citizens incarcerated in the United States than in any other country in the world, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The United States can also lay claim to the highest rate of recidivism. According to a Department of Justice study, a staggering 76.6 percent of released inmates are rearrested within five years. A lack of basic literacy skills and job training is part of the issue, but it is equally important that we begin to understand how imprisonment behaviorally and psychologically conditions individuals to perpetuate the cycle. It is a problem that is forcing lawmakers, think tanks and the public at large to rethink our nation’s current approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.

As educators in the social sciences and criminal justice, we recognize that education and vocational job training are crucial first steps to addressing rates of recidivism. A study by Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than were those who did not participate. Furthermore, those same individuals were 28 percent more likely to find employment upon release. These findings clearly suggest that those who are more prepared to tackle the challenges associated with the world post-prison are less likely to resort to criminal actions to achieve basic means.

However, when we talk about recidivism, there are issues and solutions that lie far beneath the surface, often entrenched deep within the psyche of former inmates. Simply put, we cannot overlook the psychological and sociological effects of imprisonment, including the barriers to achievement that they cause. From a mental health perspective, it is important to recognize that individuals who are transitioning from incarceration require support to be successful once they leave the prison system.

Many individuals involved in the criminal justice system have multiple mental health and substance abuse issues. In fact, the National Comorbidity Survey Replication demonstrated that strong relationships exist among mental health, substance abuse and history of incarceration. Based on research conducted by Jason Schnittker, Michael Massoglia and Christopher Uggen in 2012, the majority of common disorders documented among former inmates could be traced back to childhood, before involvement in the criminal justice system. Their research showed that mood disorders, substance abuse and impulse control disorders had strong relationships with various patterns of involvement in the justice system.

In 2014, research by Amy Blank Wilson, Jeffrey Draine, Stacey Barrenger, Trevor Hadley and Arthur Evans found that those individuals with comorbid mental health disorders had a 40 percent higher rate of recidivism in comparison with other offenders. In their study, more than 50 percent of the sample had at least one documented readmission to incarceration within three years. Clearly, problems with mental health act as a barrier to successful transition to the community for ex-offenders, and there is a need to develop more comprehensive support services for these individuals.

Incarceration also leaves little room for asserting personal responsibility, with basic functions such as eating, bathing, exercising and socializing largely outside of inmates’ control. Rigid programming has such a strong psychological effect on inmates that, once they are released, individual freedom often feels foreign or overwhelming. When combined with the additional stress of managing symptoms of mental health, the transition process becomes even more problematic.

Schnittker, Massoglia and Uggen demonstrated that there is a significantly higher relationship between mood disorders and subsequent disability after incarceration than what exists among the general U.S. population. This means that when offenders with mental health issues are released from the criminal justice system and left to create their own paths, it is likely that they will have extreme difficulty making successful transitions.

Counselors and support personnel can help break the cycle

Because mental health has been shown to have prominent comorbidity with incarceration, and because recidivism can be predicted for those with mental health issues, counselors who take an active role in addressing the needs of these individuals as they transition back to the community have the opportunity to make a significant impact. That impact extends beyond the ex-offender to the individual’s family, community and generations to come.

To create real change in the criminal justice system, all offenders — regardless of their history of mental health or substance use issues — need additional support to break a cycle that perpetuates their involvement. Offenders are considered a vulnerable population and should receive support in a manner that is commensurate with other vulnerable populations. Successfully addressing the complex needs of offenders requires a wraparound approach that is multidisciplinary and multifaceted, and counseling is an important element in the spectrum of needed services. Professional counselors experienced in addressing the unique needs of individuals who have been incarcerated can help to break down psychological barriers to achievement through the use of cognitive restructuring, motivational interviewing and other evidence-based approaches. Specifically, counselors can help relieve the stagnation in which many prisoners find themselves trapped. This can be done in part by offering education about appropriate decision-making and general life skills.

Counseling is certainly an important facet of reintegration, but we believe that an array of social and human services support personnel must be in place to help make this process successful. Probation and parole officers monitor the transition process, but there should also be individuals who can provide support for the social, emotional, medical, educational, occupational and recreational needs of those transitioning from incarceration back into the greater community. This multidisciplinary group of professionals must work together to create change for the individual and for the overall system. They must provide effective treatment and serve to advocate for change.

Advocacy and change can begin with small steps. Through past experiences, we have found that labeling someone a criminal can become too easily generalized. We often think of a prisoner as a lawbreaker first, rather than as an individual who has broken a law. The key difference is the articulation of the individual, which encompasses an entire life that led to the moment a crime was committed — and, similarly, extends to the quality and achievement of life upon release. As a society, we have moved toward person-first language for special populations. It is now time to include offenders in the category of special populations and to drive change through the ways in which we talk about offenders.

Addressing the shortage of mental health professionals

Although the need is strong for counseling and human service support for ex-offenders, the fact is that a shortage exists of personnel available to provide these services. According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, there are nearly 4,500 shortage areas for mental health services throughout the United States, and there is no identified time frame for these shortage designations to be removed.

The shortage of trained professionals is daunting, and it becomes even more problematic when examining the need for specialized providers such as those who have experience addressing the needs of offenders. As educators, we believe one of the crucial elements of our role is to prepare students to meet the needs of our communities. We also believe that we must educate students to consider perspectives that challenge stigmas and help promote positive change.

Because there is such a shortage of counselors who specialize in working with offenders, the process of filling this gap must begin in the educational realm. Addressing the workforce gap can also be done through the development of bachelor’s-level programs in psychology, social work and human services that have specific tracks dedicated to the support of the offender population. In addition to helping meet a population need, programs of this nature would serve as natural bridges for undergraduates to pursue graduate degrees in counseling or similar helping professions.

Counselor educators can change the conversation

One way to change the conversation is through formal education. Standard F.7.c. of the ACA Code of Ethics requires counselor educators to take an active role in educating students about diversity. Because offenders are considered a vulnerable population, it is important for counselor educators to include this population as part of the knowledge base for counselors-in-training. Counselor educators can also make concerted efforts to develop field placement relationships with the criminal justice system and community agencies that serve offenders.

Changes to the way that we serve the offender population ultimately will be driven by the strength of voices among practicing counselors and other helping professionals. As stated in Standard A.7.a. of the ACA Code of Ethics, “When appropriate, counselors advocate at individual, group, institutional and societal levels to address potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients.” It is an ethical imperative for counselors who work with offenders to engage in individualized efforts to advocate for the elements needed to help their clients make successful transitions. Each individual effort is important and creates momentum toward greater social change.

Although we take small individualized steps toward a new process, we also must keep our eyes on greater systemic change. Rehabilitation is a matter of systems, encompassing the criminal justice system, the parole system, the mental health system, the human services support system, the employment sector and the broader community. Those experiences directly following imprisonment often have the greatest impact on an individual’s success in transitioning back into the community. We can begin tackling this issue seriously if we combine training and education with a renewed focus on the psychology of both imprisonment and freedom, working as one to promote transformation even for those individuals for whom we might have thought it impossible.

Summary recommendations

Social change is a process that unfolds over time, but it begins with recognition of a disparity. This leads to grassroots efforts to develop a movement that will create sustainable change. At the University of Phoenix, we have taken a step toward addressing these issues by creating a bachelor’s degree in correctional program support services to train individuals to help offenders be successful during and after transitioning back into the community. We have also worked to collaborate across our colleges of social sciences and criminal justice to develop multiple projects that address the broad needs of offenders. These small efforts are just one step in creating broader change. We invite readers to join the effort and to develop their own small steps.

Here are some suggestions for beginning the advocacy and change process:

  • Become an informed counselor by exploring the research on mental health, substance abuse and incarceration.
  • Examine the organizations in your community that serve the offender population, and develop a relationship with providers in that network.
  • Look for opportunities to advocate for system change at the local, state and national levels. Contact your state counseling association or the American Counseling Association to determine any ongoing initiatives that you can support.
  • Obtain additional training in evidence-based practices that have been effective with the offender population.
  • Counselor education programs can consider developing specialty courses or specialized field experiences related to the offender population.
  • Counselor educators can develop cross-disciplinary relationships that help to promote greater understanding of the needs of offenders transitioning back into the community.
  • Counselors can develop relationships with legislators and local officials.
  • Join organizations such as the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, a division of ACA.
  •  Join a professional network of colleagues who have an interest in serving the offender population.
  • Look for opportunities to educate and encourage the conversation about system change in your home community. Raising awareness is one key to successful change.

Conclusion

The research and literature have clearly demonstrated that:

  • Offenders are a vulnerable population
  • Many offenders have mental health and substance abuse disorders
  • Those offenders with comorbid mental health issues have a 40 percent higher rate of recidivism than other offenders
  • Offenders — regardless of mental health history — face incredible barriers in their transition back into society

Our hope is that as a result of reading this article, more counselors will feel empowered to address these issues and advocate on behalf of this vulnerable population. We encourage counselors to take a stand to address the existing barriers that block offenders from successful reentry into our communities, and we look forward to using our collective knowledge and training to impact future generations.

 

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Carl Sheperis is the social services program dean for the College of Humanities and Sciences at University of Phoenix. Contact him at Carl.Sheperis@phoenix.edu.

Franzi Walsh is the criminal justice and public administration program dean for the College of Humanities and Sciences at University of Phoenix. Contact her at Franzi.Walsh@phoenix.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Seeing people, not prisoners” https://wp.me/p2BxKN-4tq

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Bridging the divide between police and the public

By Kylen Farrell December 8, 2016

In a 2012 Counseling Today article titled “Counselors: Support local police by sharing your skills,” counselor educator Diana Hulse and retired police Capt. Peter J. McDermott advocated for counselors and counselor educators to serve their communities by training local police in interpersonal skills. They made the case that interpersonal skills are not inherent, but that they can be learned when taught according to counselor education best practices. They also emphasized the need to integrate interpersonal skills training in police academy curricula nationwide.

This past spring, Fairfield University’s Counselor Education Department and the Center for Applied Ethics sponsored a pilot interpersonal skills training program designed by Hulse for local police. As a current school counseling graduate student, I was invited to participate as an interpersonal skills coach. Through this experience, my eyes were opened to the immense potential for interpersonal skills training to change the culture of law enforcement and improve relations between police and the public.

The pilot program

Four sergeants and three officers from five police departments in the state of Connecticut participated in the pilot training program. After meeting the participants and speaking with them about their jobs, I came to realize that police work involves high-stakes interpersonal demands. I found myself contemplating the complexity of the interpersonal tasks that police personnel routinely carry out, including delivering death notifications and intervening in domestic violence situations.

I was astounded to hear that police personnel typically negotiate these challenges without first undergoing specific training courses for interpersonal skills. In response to this gap in police training, the pilot interpersonal skills training program designed by Hulse, chair of the Fairfield University Counselor Education Department, models the type of instruction that needs to be implemented into police academy curricula. A key objective of the pilot program is to help police-smallpolice personnel develop an awareness that using effective interpersonal skills can create and foster positive relationships within the communities in which they work.

Hulse and McDermott operated as lead instructors with help from 13 volunteers — a mix of faculty, licensed counselors, practicum supervisors, alumni and current students who served as skills coaches. The training was organized around three categories: setting the stage for effective interactions, gathering information and evidence, and summarizing and confirming information and evidence. Skills for these categories were taught and evaluated according to standard interpersonal skills instruction carried out by counselor educators. Verbal and nonverbal attending skills, door openers and minimal encouragers were covered first. Focusing, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings and confronting were reviewed next. Clarifying and summarizing were examined last.

Each training session commenced by introducing skills in a slideshow format. The significance of the skills and their utility in the field for police personnel were then discussed through lecture and rounds. Groups of two to three participants and one to two coaches broke off into separate rooms to practice the skills until the participants demonstrated them successfully. Finally, the coaches delivered verbal and written feedback to the participants. Between sessions, participants completed reflection forms on their learning and their ideas for future improvement.

At the program’s conclusion, participants were asked to complete an evaluation form about the training. In support of the original mission of Hulse and McDermott, participants unanimously agreed that interpersonal skills training would improve the curricula of police academies.

As one participant stated, “This training needs to be introduced ASAP. As the divide between the police and the public grows, we need to start developing the skills that will bridge this unfortunate gap. The skills learned in this class would produce a more well-rounded officer, who is able to interact with the public on a much higher level.”

Personal reflections

Leading up to this training, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of working with a group of police personnel, partially because of the stereotyped image of them being tough, stern individuals with guns strapped to them. My confidence wavered as I questioned whether I was qualified to coach these individuals, some of whom possessed up to 20 years of professional experience in their field. Furthermore, I wondered whether the participants would be open to learning skills that might seem “touchy-feely.”

My uncertainties were resolved quickly as I discovered that the participants were extremely open to learning material that was outside the norm for them. They continually expressed appreciation for the efforts of the instructors and coaches. This increased my confidence and helped me realize that over the course of my own training, I had developed many skills and insights that I could share with participants to improve the effectiveness of their interpersonal interactions.

At the start of each new session, I listened to the participants excitedly share stories about using their new skills on the job. Their execution of the skills demonstrated to me that interpersonal skills can, in fact, be taught, learned and applied to various fields. In addition to mastering specific skills, the participants reported being more aware of the perspectives of others, and more empathetic in general in their daily lives. These stories confirmed for me the positive impact the program had on these participants.

I learned valuable lessons while working with the participating police personnel that will enrich the remainder of my studies and my future career in counseling. In observing how eagerly the participants awaited feedback on their interpersonal skills, I was inspired to adopt greater openness toward the feedback that I receive as I prepare for my practicum and internship.

I also witnessed the effectiveness of learning in relationship with others. The participants shared that it was stimulating to interact with their fellow learners in such a dynamic way. Watching them grow closer as a group each session and gain appreciation for perspectives that were different from their own has encouraged me to focus on relationship building in groups as a future school counselor.

In light of the success of the pilot training program, I urge other counselors and counselor educators to support their local communities by offering interpersonal skills training to police personnel and departments. These programs not only would result in more effective interpersonal skills being practiced in the field of law enforcement, but also would increase the visibility of the counseling profession and enrich the academic experiences of counseling students. These results align directly with the mission of the American Counseling Association “to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote and respect human dignity and diversity.”

My experience confirms the various benefits of providing interpersonal skills training to law enforcement personnel. Embarking on this journey offers counseling students and professionals the chance to work with a unique population, serve their communities, share their knowledge and practice their interpersonal skills and feedback delivery. I am grateful that I was presented with the opportunity to take part in this groundbreaking program during my studies, and I strongly encourage other counselors and counselor educators to sustain the effort to provide interpersonal skills training to police.

 

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To follow the latest news and developments in the initiatives of Diana Hulse and Peter J. McDermott, visit their website, talktrumpstechnology.com.

 

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Kylen Farrell is a graduate student in the school counseling program and a graduate assistant in the Counselor Education Department at Fairfield University. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association, and is co-president of the Gamma Lambda Chi Chapter of Chi Sigma Iota. She recently received the Connecticut School Counselor Association Graduate Student of the Year Award and was inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit honor society. She will be starting her school internship in the spring. Contact her at Kylen_farrell@sbcglobal.net.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for getting your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Seeing people, not prisoners

By Kathleen Smith September 28, 2016

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 branding-images_prisonprison 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.”

Mentoring ex-offenders

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.

Addressing trauma

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.”

Fostering motivation 

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.”

 

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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 ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.