Adapting Social Work Values to the Corrections Environment

By Severson, Margaret M. | Social Work, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Adapting Social Work Values to the Corrections Environment


Severson, Margaret M., Social Work


Corrections is a boom industry. In 1988, 951,000 people were incarcerated in jails or prisons in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991a). In 1989, the new prisoner population numbered 40,000 more than that of 1988 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991c). At the end of 1989, 4.1 million adults were in the care or custody of a correctional agency (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991b). Experts predict that by 1995, U.S. detention and correctional institutions will house over 2 million people, with federal, state, and local governments devoting over $60 billion per year to the detention-corrections industry (Travisono, 1990).

State departments of corrections, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and local governments are building prison and pretrial detention facilities at a rapid rate. One measure of this building activity is the fact that between 1981 and 1988, 766 persons attended the National Institute of Corrections' Planning of New Institutions (PONI) Program, designed to help local officials in planning their jail construction (Osterhoff, Permaloff, Grafton, Gilbert, & Cox, 1991).

Ten percent to 35 percent of inmates in correctional facilities nationwide have serious mental health problems (Rubright, 1986). These percentages are based on data pertaining to convicted felons serving time in state or federal prisons. These figures do not include the pretrial, presentenced inmates housed in detention facilities who may be diverted from jail to the mental health system. Accordingly, it is estimated that the number of jail inmates with mental disabilities exceeds the number of prison inmates in the same condition (Dvoskin, 1990). Determining a reliable estimate of the percentage of inmates with mental illness has proven difficult. Variations in defining mental illness itself and the failure to detect mental disorders in incarcerated people are two of the major problems associated with developing estimates (Teplin, 1990). Nonetheless, social scientists agree that given the dismantling of psychiatric hospitals during the past 30 years and the fragmented community mental health system, care of the mentally ill population has shifted from the psychiatric hospital to the correctional institution (Johnson, 1990).

Amidst these changes social workers planning to practice or already practicing in the corrections field are confronted with the need to examine their own attitudes about working in this boom industry. Evidence suggests that social workers fill the majority of clinical positions in the detention-corrections field (Otero, McNally, & Powitzky, 1981). Very little, however, has been written about the delivery of social work services in the correctional institution. In fact, very little is being taught in schools of social work related to the fields of corrections and criminal justice (Ivanoff, Smyth, & Finnegan, 1991).

Social work must take an active leadership role in providing for the delivery of adequate mental health services to the incarcerated population. Numerous issues in this regard are ripe for further research and study. This article serves as a starting point for social workers who are already, or who are contemplating the prospect of, providing services in a correctional institution.

Social Work Values in the Correctional Institution

There are few areas where ideologies are as varied and controversial as in the field of corrections. Every person has developed attitudes about the propriety of the death penalty, the treatment of sexual offenders, appropriate inmate privileges and rights, sentencing lengths, and so on. One notable example of how attitudes affect correctional institutions can be drawn from the Supreme Court ruling in Payne v. Tennessee (1991). In Payne the Court ruled that family members of capital murder victims have the right to testify at the sentencing of the offender. Social workers involved in victim advocacy work may applaud this decision, seeing it as a partial vindication of the victim's rights, whereas professionals working with the incarcerated population will recognize the serious impact such emotional testimony will have on the incarcerated person and his or her future. …

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