Cover Story

Tom Fagan's résumé is a testament to his dedication to psychology in correctional institutions.

He started as an intern in 1976 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va., and received his PhD from Virginia Tech in 1977. Since then, he's held a number of positions for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, including staff psychologist, chief psychologist, regional psychology administrator for the Northeast region--which spans Virginia to Maine--and director of clinical training and chief hostage negotiator.

He now teaches at Randolph-Macon College and Mary Washington College in Virginia. Indeed, his career path mirrors the development of the field of "correctional psychology"--a good deal of which he spearheaded.

"When I started, [psychologists] were providing a very basic set of services," he says. Now they've expanded their role beyond routine services like intake screening and crisis counseling to recognizing that many prisoners have unique needs that require specialized treatment for issues such as substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or specialized geriatric services.

Fagan, along with psychologist Robert Ax, PhD, aided that expansion by developing the first APA-approved internship program in the federal prison system. Now the system trains approximately 40 interns per year and also offers 10 postdoctoral residency slots. "We really worked hard to professionalize psychology within the bureau," he says.

Negotiating a new role

Fagan's work in prisons also led him to perhaps his most unique role--that of hostage negotiator. "I fell into it," he says. Before his tenure as a negotiator, several major events, especially the prison riot at Attica in 1971 and the Munich Olympics in 1972, "served as a wake-up call for corrections and community enforcement," he says. He became involved in hostage negotiation for the bureau in 1983 and, in 1988, became the chief hostage negotiator and trainer--a job he held along with his duties as director of clinical training until he retired in 1999.

During his tenure in that position, Fagan trained negotiation teams that dealt with 11 events involving more than 150 staff hostages. "Some were resolved tactically, others through negotiation," he says. Three hostage situations stand out most in his mind.

"In 1987, we lost two whole prisons--the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and the Federal Detention Center in Oakdale, La.," he says. In Atlanta, 138 staff were taken hostage by 1,400 rioting inmates and in Oakdale, 1,000 inmates took 28 staff hostage. And in 1991, 115 inmates held 11 staffers hostage in Talladega, Ala. That standoff lasted nine days.

"In Atlanta, I spent a few days in the negotiation area and then set up a debriefing program for released hostages, as well as a center where family members could come for information about their loved ones, protection from the media or counseling," he says. His job during the Talladega crisis involved setting up shifts, working with the FBI and strategizing with tactical teams.

"Each crisis situation is unique," he says. In some situations, negotiators need to develop a plan to calm down the hostage-takers. In others, he says, they might come up with strategies to bargain with the hostage-takers for the safe release of hostages. Sometimes tactical force is needed to motivate hostage-takers to come to the negotiating table, he adds.

Generally, negotiations begin on the phone or with a bullhorn. Eventually, he says, "When you're down to the nitty-gritty, you do some things face to face." The skills involved in negotiation meld psychotherapy and sales, Fagan says. Negotiators--most of whom are not psychologists--are trained in active listening, defusing highly emotional people and persuasion.

"Part of negotiating is selling a plan--the idea of a safe surrender," he says. What makes negotiation completely different from therapy, he adds, is that the person you are talking to could be killed if you don't get through to him or her.

Negotiators also learn about human motivation and personality types--and what set of skills works best with different types. "In prisons, an antisocial person might take hostages because it's exciting or because he got caught doing something wrong and needs to use hostages as a human shield or buffer until he figures out what to do next." With these types, "you might use more persuasive skills or a more straightforward, common sense approach," he says. With inmates who are agitated and angry with their victims, negotiators would typically work to de-escalate emotions.

When he took over as the prison bureau's chief hostage negotiator and trainer in 1988, only a few negotiators were trained to deal with hostage situations. When he left in 1999, there were 65 trained negotiation teams and low rates of staff and inmate injuries during incidents. "Things have come a long way," he says.

Fagan recently put his knowledge of hostage negotiating on paper. His book, "Negotiating Correctional Incidents: A Practical Guide" (American Correctional Association), is due out this summer. And just last year the "Correctional Mental Health Handbook" (Sage, 2002), co-edited by Fagan and Ax, was published.

Fagan's experience in the correctional system also got him elected chair of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), a nonprofit organization whose board is made up of 36 supporting agencies, including APA, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Associa-tion of Correctional Psychologists. For the past decade, he has worked with the APA Practice Directorate as APA's representative to NCCHC.

The group develops and maintains standards for the provision of health and mental health care in correctional settings and accredits the facilities. He'll take over as chair in October. "For so long, medical services have been the primary focus," he says. "This gives me an opportunity to move mental health issues forward." Judging from his long career, that's certainly something he's qualified to do.