Academic journal article Education

A Half Century of Prison Psychology: 1950-2000

Academic journal article Education

A Half Century of Prison Psychology: 1950-2000

Article excerpt


The purpose of this writing is to compare the picture of correctional psychology today with its counterpart a half century ago. A good starting point might be the following composite summarizing psychology's status and functions within prisons fifty years ago.

In 1949 Raymond Corsini, San Quentin Prison, published an article, "Functions of the Prison Psychologist", as part of a volume entitled Readings in the Clinical Method in Psychology. He stated the number of prisoners in the United States in 1945, the last year of WW II, was approximately 200,000; the estimate for prison psychologists at the time was 80 qualified with an additional 20 or so with licensure. Many psychologists, of course, had already voluntarily left correctional work or were drafted for some form of military service.

The population of the country at the time was about 149 million in relation to the number of incarcerated prisoners noted above. Currently, the general population is roughly 271 million with a prisoner population estimated to be 1.2 million. In addition, War Department policy during WW II gave select prisoners the opportunity to join a military branch with promises of reduced sentences. Many served and some with honor.


Corcini proceeds to analyze different topics related to prison psychology, procedures and treatment primarily. Excerpts from the aforementioned article are presented. Following these excerpts are reactions or view-points mostly by way of similarities and/or contrasts to current thought and practice.

   Excerpt - "Psychology in prison, of necessity is a recent innovation, since
   clinical psychology may be said to have begun after the first World War

Response -

Of course, it is not now a recent innovation as it was then. Many events have occurred since WW I impacting the growth of prison psychology. Prior to WWI psychology was considered a trickle and a new social dimension in this country. Clinical psychology as a measure related to adults began its evolvement around 1917 spurred by war preparation and the required conscription of men for military service. Aptitude measurement or a means of assessing soldiers abilities became an important tool in classifying and assigning recruits to the "best fit" post or duty. Crude, though more efficient, formal testing enhanced military assignments naturally. The test classification system viewed as experimental soon became a codifiable instrument to be reworked and refined through the decades to follow. The success of the army testing program (Army Alpha) in 1917 justified the tests expansion on an enlarged scale during the outbreak of WW II. While prison system, school and industrial psychologists began using similar group tests after their establishment in 1917, the major force behind the spurt and growth within correctional psychology was the GI Bill, a post-WW II phenomenon. Some have claimed it to be the most significant event of this century. The Bill enabled psychology-bound soldiers, for one, to study and secure internships in prison facilities (juvenile and adult), in some cases rotating as well every three months through hospitals for the mentally ill and mentally retarded. A number of states provided this quadrangle of exposure enriching the experiences of those electing to work with prison populations.

   Excerpt - "For the most part, prison psychologists operate under civil
   service regulations, appointment being made on the weighted basis of
   clinical experience and training. In the State of New York the grades of
   junior psychologist and psychologist exist. For the first grade a masters
   degree in psychology plus one years' clinical experience is required; for
   the higher grade, three years clinical experience plus sixty graduate
   credits is needed".

Response -

While a number of psychology positions remain moored in the civil service system of our 50 states, a majority seemingly are provided by corporate consultant services or the route of privatization. …

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