It's not a very good time to be a prisoner in the United States.
Incarceration is not meant to be fun, of course. But a combination of strict sentencing guidelines, budget shortfalls and a punitive philosophy of corrections has made today's prisons much more unpleasant--and much less likely to rehabilitate their inhabitants--than in the past, many researchers say.
What is the role for psychologists? First and foremost, they are providing mental health services to the prison population, which has rates of mental illness at least three times the national average.
More broadly, they are contributing a growing body of scientific evidence to political and philosophical discussions about the purpose of imprisonment, says Craig Haney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
"Psychology as a discipline now has a tremendous amount of information about the origins of criminal behavior," says Haney. "I think that it is important for psychologists to bring that information to bear in the debate on what kind of crime control policies we, as a society, should follow."
The punitive turn
Until the mid-1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy. Prisoners were encouraged to develop occupational skills and to resolve psychological problems--such as substance abuse or aggression--that might interfere with their reintegration into society. Indeed, many inmates received court sentences that mandated treatment for such problems.
Since then, however, rehabilitation has taken a back seat to a "get tough on crime" approach that sees punishment as prison's main function, says Haney. The approach has created explosive growth in the prison population, while having at most a modest effect on crime rates.
As a result, the United States now has more than 2 million people in prisons or jails--the equivalent of one in every 142 U.S. residents--and another four to five million people on probation or parole. A higher percentage of the population is involved in the criminal justice system in the United States than in any other developed country.
Many inmates have serious mental illnesses. Starting in the late 1950s and 1960s, new psychotropic drugs and the community health movement dramatically reduced the number of people in state mental hospitals. But in the 1980s, many of the mentally ill who had left mental institutions in the previous two decades began entering the criminal justice system.
Today, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of people in prison are mentally ill, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates.
"Prisons have really become, in many ways, the de facto mental health hospitals," says former prison psychologist Thomas Fagan, PhD. "But prisons weren't built to deal with mentally ill people; they were built to deal with criminals doing time."
The mentally ill
The plight of the mentally ill in prisons was virtually ignored for many years, but in the past decade many prison systems have realized--sometimes with prodding from the courts--that providing mental health care is a necessity, not a luxury, says Fagan.
In many prison systems, psychologists are the primary mental health care providers, with psychiatrists contracted on a part-time basis. Psychologists provide services ranging from screening new inmates for mental illness to providing group therapy and crisis counseling.
They also provide rehabilitative services that are useful even for prisoners without serious mental illnesses, says Fagan. For example, a psychologist might develop special programs for substance abusers or help prisoners prepare for the transition back to the community.
But they often struggle to implement such programs while keeping up with their regular prison caseloads. "We're focused so much on the basic mental health services that there's not enough time or emphasis to devote to rehabilitative services," says Robert Morgan, PhD, a psychologist at Texas Tech University who has worked in federal and state prisons and studies treatment methods for inmates.
Part of the problem is limited resources, says Morgan: There simply aren't enough mental health professionals in most prisons. Haney agrees: "Many psychologists in the criminal justice system have enormous caseloads; they're struggling not to be overwhelmed by the tide."
Another constraint is the basic philosophical difference between psychology, which is rehabilitative at heart, and corrections, which is currently punishment-oriented.
"Right now there's such a focus on punishment--most criminal justice or correctional systems are punitive in nature--that it's hard to develop effective rehabilitative programs," says Morgan.
To help shift the focus from punishment to rehabilitation, psychologists are doing research on the causes of crime and the psychological effects of incarceration.
In the 1970s, when major changes were being made to the U.S. prison system, psychologists had little hard data to contribute.
But in the past 25 years, says Haney, they have generated a massive literature documenting the importance of child abuse, poverty, early exposure to substance abuse and other risk factors for criminal behavior. The findings suggest that individual-centered approaches to crime prevention need to be complemented by community-based approaches.
Researchers have also found that the pessimistic "nothing works" attitude toward rehabilitation that helped justify punitive prison policies in the 1970s was overstated. When properly implemented, work programs, education and psychotherapy can ease prisoners' transitions to the free world, says Haney.
Finally, researchers have demonstrated the power of the prison environment to shape behavior, often to the detriment of both prisoners and prison workers.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, which Haney co-authored in 1973 with Stanford University psychologist and APA Past-president Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, is one example. It showed that psychologically healthy individuals could become sadistic or depressed when placed in a prison-like environment.
More recently, Haney has been studying so-called "supermax" prisons--high-security units in which prisoners spend as many as 23 hours per day in solitary confinement for years at a time.
Haney's research has shown that many prisoners in supermax units experience extremely high levels of anxiety and other negative emotions. When released--often without any "decompression" period in lower-security facilities--they have few of the social or occupational skills necessary to succeed in the outside world.
Nonetheless, supermax facilities have become increasingly common over the past five to ten years.
"This is what prison systems do under emergency circumstances--they move to punitive social control mechanisms," explains Haney. "[But] it's a very short-term solution, and one that may do more long-term damage both to the system and to the individuals than it solves."