Psychology Services in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Image courtesy psychserve.net By Christopher Zoukis

Every prison within the Federal Bureau of Prisons includes a Psychology Department, where inmates participate in various mental health and drug treatment programs.  These departments are managed by one or more staff psychologists and other workers.  In fact, some psychology departments, such as the one at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg, have close to a dozen staff psychologists.

Mental Health Treatment

For most inmates, the only exposure they will have with their institution's Psychology Department will be their admission interview and programs they voluntarily enroll in.  Reduced funding within the BOP has pared Psychology programs down to the bare minimum.

At admission in the BOP, all inmates are required to fill out a questionnaire for Psychology to review and will be required to speak with a staff psychologist at least once.  This is to ensure that the inmate is acclimatizing well, is not a threat to themselves or others, and to introduce the inmate to available program offerings.  This interview is not so much a counseling session as it is an exchange-of-information session.

Most psychology departments offer a variety of programs, groups, and classes.  Many institutions offer programs such as Stress Management, Criminal Thinking, SMART Recovery, Anger Management, and sex offender treatment programs.  Other creative groups such as 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Parenting Skills may be offered depending on local preference.

The classic one-on-one therapy that once underpinned such services is becoming rare within the BOP, largely due to overcrowding and resource concerns.  While some facilities do still offer such services, they are not the rule, and many facilities offer only emergency interventions.  However, Psychology is still the usual starting point for referrals for psychiatric medications, i.e., antidepressants and other mood altering drugs.  The department is also the initiator of other medical therapies, too, such as hormone therapy for those inmates suffering from Gender Identity Disorders (GID) and other conditions.

With the growing number of sex offenses being prosecuted by federal authorities, Psychology staff members have become enmeshed in the continuing treatment and referral for civil commitment for sex offenders.  At some locations, formal treatment groups are in place.  While there are several federal prisons that specialize in the handling of these offenders, many facilities house such inmates, and Psychology staff members are sometimes involved in tasks such as monitoring these inmates for possession of unauthorized materials, sexual conduct and other matters relating to such treatments.  To date, the BOP has yet to promulgate extensive national policies for such offenders, but at some prisons there are special communications monitoring programs and other enforcement type activities beyond the scope of the usual therapeutic model.

Members of the Psychology staff are also charged with monitoring inmates on Suicide Watch and, routinely, policy-required checkups of inmates confined in Special Housing Units (SHUs).  These activities can vary in their complexity depending on the local institution.  Many institutions assign safe sex and HIV awareness programs to Psychology staff as well.

Drug Treatment Programs

The BOP, like most correctional agencies, has developed a complex, well-funded system of drug treatment programs revolving around varying levels of treatment, ranging from long-term residential programs that can result in sentence reductions to one-day seminars.

The most widely attended of these is the so-called "40 Hour Drug Education Program."  This is not because the program is enthralling, but because for many federal prisoners, it is mandatory.  If an inmate has any history of drug abuse detailed in their Pre-Sentence Investigative (PSI) report, they will be required to enroll in this program.  If they refuse, the inmate will be restricted to the lowest pay grade ($5.25 per month for the remainder of their imprisonment, or until completion of the Drug Education Program), suffer halfway house retardation or restriction, receive the worst possible housing, and other sanctions.

The Drug Education Program consists of two weeks of 1.5 to 2 hour class sessions, said to total 40 hours, but in practice can consist of roughly 12 hours.  During this program, a staff member explains the different groupings of illegal drugs, their addictive traits, and their side effects.  The instructor also talks about addiction in general, how it manifests itself, and how to treat it.  Inmate participants are required to complete a fill-in-the-blank booklet and take a final test in order to pass the class.  As our instructor informed us, as long as the participant attends all classes, they will pass the final test.  In fact, some are known to make 100% on both the pre-test and the final test.  This is due to the level of general knowledge among the inmates, and the elementary nature of the program.

The most popular non-mandatory program is probably the AA/NA program.  This is a voluntary program which is sometimes led by inmates.  While inmates do receive a certificate for completion of 24 hours of attendance, most do not attend for the certificate, but for the support.  There is a certain sense of camaraderie and mutual support in inmate led programs like this, which are usually modeled on "street" AA/NA groups.  As such, AA/NA programs tend to be longstanding and of tremendous use to participants.  Inmates in AA/NA programs tend to hold one another accountable for their actions.  Thus, this might be the only program in most prisons where inmates do what is right because it is right, not because of some applicable consequence which could be applied to them (i.e., RDAP program) for failure to abide by program principles.

At the mid-level of drug treatment programming, many BOP facilities offer a non-residential drug treatment group, typically lasting for several months of weekly meetings, operated in the classic group therapy configuration.  No reductions in sentence result from participation in this type of program, but Psychology recommendations of maximum applicable halfway house placement are awarded upon completion.

The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) is the only BOP drug program that can result in a sentence reduction of one year.  To receive such a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3621, an inmate must be referred to RDAP by the sentencing judge, and have no history of violence, which has been deemed an exclusionary factor by the BOP.  Participation in RDAP usually occurs in the inmate's last three years of incarceration, and is limited to a small number of institutions that have dedicated housing and staff assigned to the program, which can involve several psychologists and Drug Treatment Specialists.  Inmates participating in RDAP may also receive additional halfway house time at the end of their sentence and other incentives for completing it, which runs much like a traditional behavior modification program, complete with group therapy, singalongs and plays, and inmates being required to hold each other accountable or face expulsion.

Federal Prison Psychology Departments: A Mixed Bag

The long and short of the matter for federal prisoners is that their Psychology Department will be helpful or useless to them depending on the local culture of the institution.  For the discerning prisoner who desires to improve their mental health, learn how to cope with troublesome personality characteristics or addictions, and find a place to get some help for what ails him, the Psychology Department can be extremely helpful.  Almost any federal prisoner can find the help they need in their Psychology Department, subject to staffing and budgetary constraints.  But for those who are engaging in illegal or offensive sexually oriented activities, there could be concerns about potential civil commitment proceedings, or of internal investigations, and their prison's Psychology Department can become an adversary.

The Psychology Department has a unique role in the BOP, and it can be a useful tool for rehabilitation and improving one's quality of life while incarcerated, provided the inmate is aware of its inherent limitation.