Capitalizing on the Differences: Pennsylvania's Response to Challenging Female Offenders

By Doebler, Barbara; Patton, David | Corrections Today, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Capitalizing on the Differences: Pennsylvania's Response to Challenging Female Offenders


Doebler, Barbara, Patton, David, Corrections Today


The recent nationwide trend to de-institutionalize mentally ill and mentally handicapped individuals has resulted in the incarceration of an increased number of inmates with limited coping skills. The State Correctional Institution at Muncy in Pennsylvania, which houses 900 women, has struggled to meet these inmates' needs within the standardized program framework available. Although the rate of substance abuse problems is about equal to that of men, women possess higher rates of co-morbidity for both medical and mental health issues. In addition, women tend to display more self-injurious behavior, especially with those mental illnesses.

As a result of these problems, many of these women also have difficulties effectively communicating their medical needs to staff and completing standard programming. These difficulties decrease already low levels of self-esteem and increase already high levels of frustration. The inmates' frustrations lead to situations requiring staff intervention, documentation of misconduct and subsequent disciplinary time in the restricted housing unit. While locked in most of the day with little to do, the women experience boredom and more frustration in the restricted housing unit. There, these vulnerable inmates, through observation and imitation, often learn new and, in many cases, even more pathological methods of coping. Clusters of serious incidents and suicidal gestures created concerns about the institution's ability to provide a safe environment for the inmates. As a result, a new program was developed to address these concerns. With many of the more difficult to manage inmates, just the absence or reduction of negative behaviors would be an improvement. Clearly, the program goals needed to be specific to each individual. The program also assists the correctional security and treatment staff who work closely with these women. In the scope of their normal working environment and job duties, they are not always able to evoke positive results with this population. Over the course of time, small but constant crises, with few useful resources and little obvious improvement, can cause frustration, personalization, decreased morale and increased stress in an overworked group of professionals.

Community mental retardation professionals provided information about relatively recent regulation modifications involving residential programming standards for lower functioning individuals with challenging behaviors. They spoke enthusiastically about changes in their system related to this "positive approaches" philosophy. The spring 1997 Pennsylvania Journal on Positive Approaches provided basic information and conveyed an outlook that was well-suited to SCI-Muncy's target population.

A program with intensive support and learning opportunities was developed using a positive approaches model. It provides inmates with positive, healthy, adaptive change based on listening, evaluating and giving individuals the opportunity to control certain aspects of their lives. It shifts the institution's emphasis from punitive consequences for rule breaking to rewards for positive behaviors.

A grant proposal was submitted to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for funding under the Drug Control Systems Improvement Program. This was based on the substance abuse needs of the inmates in this troublesome group and the fact that their involvement in negative behaviors and their limited intellectual functioning made traditional substance abuse programming ineffective.

The proposal was accepted and a vendor was selected to run the DAILE (Daily Adult Interactive Learning Experience) program. Staff include a director, licensed social worker, registered nurse and several mental health workers. A state correctional officer is also part of the treatment team. Fortunately, the basement of the special needs unit was available and minor modifications were made to create a small kitchen, showers and a laundry area. …

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