Correctional Predoctoral Psychology Internships Creating a Uniquely Qualified Mental Health Work Force

Article excerpt

By converging legal mandates, research findings and humanitarian concerns, a continuing need for correctional mental health services is clearly identified. Every day, psychologists practicing in jails and prisons are meeting these needs and addressing difficult problems such as substance abuse, suicidal behavior, severe mental illness, traumatic brain injury and disruptive personality disorders. Through numerous crisis intervention contacts and the coordination of residential treatment programs, they also make significant contributions to the administration of safe and orderly correctional facilities.


It is known that the successful delivery of these services is contingent upon a professional mental health work force with advanced training, yet few studies have ever examined the dynamics of this important group. (1) While contemporary correctional systems recognize the vital functions this work force serves, they continue to have difficulties recruiting qualified professionals into their ranks. (2) It is worth noting that, from a historical perspective, this particular challenge is not new. In their 1930 scholarship on criminal careers and the process of change, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck wrote: "The penal institution offers an excellent field for young psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and clergymen ... [S]ome means must be found to attract earnest and capable workers to this much neglected missionary field at our very door." This article identifies correctional predoctoral psychology internship programs as a method of attracting competent and well-trained correctional mental health professionals and explores strategies for retention of these individuals. (3)

Attracting an Earnest and Capable Work Force

Correctional agencies must compete with other government agencies and private industry interests to draw the attention of desirable work force candidates. The most strategic systems typically develop a series of embedded methods to attract talented and qualified psychologists to join their public service mission. Successful strategies include leveraging promotional and advertising opportunities that are affordable. Keeping an active network of correctional mental health professionals who maintain relationships with students and the larger professional body through training and public speaking in national and local communities also pays dividends. In addition, efforts to increase name recognition of a system through professional leadership and scholarship related to clinical practice in corrections can also be quite successful.

These overlapping approaches produce numerous benefits for both retention and recruitment. However, all of them combined barely approximate the opportunity for recruitment created by the investment of resources to develop an actual pipeline of uniquely qualified psychology service applicants through predoctoral internship training programs. Such programs serve as a bridge from the ivory tower of graduate school to the gun tower of corrections. It remains an essential strategy for the following reasons. In many correctional systems, mental health positions are classified as "hard-to-fill." In addition to an above average separation rate (the ratio at which employees leave their positions and the agency), the job market of available professionals to fill these positions remains small, and virtually none of the U.S. doctoral programs prepares students for clinical practice in corrections (the University of Alabama remains one of several exceptions). Furthermore, the median age of a person with a new psychology doctorate is 33, meaning many potential recruits may be ineligible for employment in correctional agencies that have age-related hiring restrictions. (4) As noted, the remaining, highly qualified professionals may choose from any number of career options offering various benefits. To compete for these finite resources, correctional agencies must maintain a mechanism within the educational process itself that demonstrates that employment within corrections is a viable career choice. …