Mental Health in Corrections: The Continuing Dilemma

By Gannon, John | Corrections Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Mental Health in Corrections: The Continuing Dilemma


Gannon, John, Corrections Today


Mental health programs and correctional facilities have never been a good fit. Mental health patients come to the attention of legal authorities by engaging in illness-driven, aberrant or even bizarre law-breaking behavior--not a good match for an institution that is run by rules and holds people accountable for their actions. Mental health staff are, by both training and professional necessity, required to look deeper into specific, individual issues and problems. They must be flexible and tolerant in their responses, and they think best in egalitarian terms of common human experience. None of these are a good match for the anonymous, quasi-military, hierarchical orientation found in most facilities and certainly not for the "us versus them" mentality still present in some institutions. Effective mental health programs require thorough, oftentimes consuming diagnoses, and application of research-based interventions in an understanding and supporting environment--conditions and resources not often found in correctional facilities.

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Regrettably, the mismatch of mental health and corrections does not end there. When I took my first full-time job in the field in 1989, the facility had so little space for psychologists that we had to create a round-robin schedule for office use, often traipsing from one office to the other, packed briefcases in hand, and occasionally having to perform our practice in a hallway or broom closet. The shortage of space at that time reflected the broader lack of institutional commitment to mental health populations and practitioners that is not unknown in some departments of correction today. The lawsuits continue and for a reason.

Neither the true practical role nor the true ideal role of mental health in corrections was understood in the past and such understanding is only beginning to emerge. In the past, the role of mental health practitioners was as confined as it was disdained. The work was mostly crisis intervention and a few intake reports. Practitioners were seen as "thug-huggers," or worse. Now, better understanding of the impact of correctional mental health on the entire prison environment has led progressive institutions to increase practitioners' responsibilities for staff training, program development, classification, group and individual inmate treatment, and specialized reports such as those for the board of prison terms and regarding sexually violent offenders.

In an ideal world, policy-makers and administrators would be even more proactive in developing the major resources that mental health staff offer to an institution, and they would use the skills of these often well-trained staff members in much more productive ways. …

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Mental Health in Corrections: The Continuing Dilemma
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