This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

Prison Counseling

Today's prison psychologists face a range of problems which can easily seem overwhelming: HIV infection is common, large numbers of prisoners are there because of dealing crack cocaine or meth, and women may be pregnant or have small children outside the prison. Nothing is simple, nobody can be trusted, and counseling is of dubious effectiveness

What are problems in today's prisons?

Prisons are supposed to be correctional institutions. Unfortunately, many prisons do nothing to rehabilitate their inmates. They become custodial institutions, serving mostly to keep dangerous people locked away from law-abiding citizens. Efforts to rehabilitate prisoners with various psychological programs have been remarkably unsuccessful. One expert said he was tempted to title his chapter on prison rehabilitation programs "Some Grand Failures."

Why is prison counseling often difficult?

Before criticizing prison officials for failing to rehabilitate their charges, one should recognize the difficulties of changing people against their will. In therapy, change normally occurs because people want to change. The problem with prison counseling is that prisoners usually do not want to change. They are in prison against their will. Their main concern is getting out. If they seek counseling at all, they may look upon it as a way of playing the model prisoner role and getting an early release, or as a way of getting favors from prison officials. Yochelson and Samenow (1977) were disillusioned to discover this fact.

When we began working with criminals fifteen years ago, we used the term therapy, and for several years we regarded ourselves as psychotherapists. We soon learned that criminals were feeding us what they thought we wanted to hear, as they had with others who had worked with them....The criminal views therapy as a means of removing himself from jeopardy. (Yochelson & Samenow, 1977, p.47)

Yochelson and Samenow observed that therapy in prison was like a big game. The object of the game was to gain early release or favorable treatment. Real progress, when it occurred, seemed to be an accidental byproduct of "playing the game."

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