Friday, February 25, 2011

Forensic Psychology in Corrections: Roles and Ethical Dilemmas

The U.S. prison population has grown dramatically in the past decade.  The prison population within the U.S. has reached to the alarming rate of 2 million offenders behind bars (Morgan & Fitzgerald, 2007). Combined with the disproportionate increase in the number of mentally ill and substance-abusing offenders, there is a huge need for correctional and forensic psychologists in penitentiaries. While forensic psychology has become a highly desired discipline and plays a vital role in correctional institutions, it is also questioned with unique ethical dilemmas and conflicts (Gudjonsson & Haward, 1998).
Forensic psychologists have varied responsibilities within corrections. In the field of forensic treatment, these practitioners are required to provide counseling to inmates and ex-offenders. This may include drug education, sex offender treatment, resolution of family problems, crisis intervention, and assistance with problems that can arise due to incarceration (Arrigo, 2000). Counselors may also be responsible for developing and managing programs in order to reduce recidivism rates (Arrigo, 2000). Forensic psychology counselors also work with juvenile offenders in a variety of professional capacities. Forensic counselors run residential juvenile offender programs that include diagnosis, assessment, and treatment planning. Counselors often have the opportunity to provide therapy to clients as well as their families within their homes or a variety of other community settings (Gudjonsson & Haward, 1998). A correctional psychologist’s primary mission is to assist in offender’s rehabilitation and reintegration. However, the primary role of the correctional psychologist, treatment issues and confidentiality has created consistent ethical issues.
The main role of a correctional psychologist is to focus on the treatment of the individual, in order to create behavior changes. However, this approach is no longer the primary focus because with new laws and regulations, correctional psychologists have to focus primarily on the security of the institution and the community at large (Weinberger & Sreenivasan, 1994). These regulations for correctional psychologists have made dual role conflicts which created an environment that can seriously challenge the relationship between the therapist and the individual inmate. Weinberger and Sreenivasan (1994) described a situation when a short staffed correctional psychologist was asked to assist in a simple head count. This did not seem to create a major ethical dilemma, therefore the psychologist agreed. However, once in the correctional worker role the psychologist was ordered to assist in a contraband search of the prisoners. One could suspect that this dual role could destroy the therapeutic image between the psychologist and his clients, thus leaving the therapist recognized solely as another cop.
Another ethical issue that arises for psychologists engaged in forensic work is the issue of confidentiality. The relationship between practitioner and the client (inmate) in a correctional setting is greatly hindered by the limits to of confidentiality (Fowler & Brodsky, 1978). In a non-correctional practice, psychotherapist-patient privileges prevent psychologists from disclosing confidential communications to any other person. However, in the correctional setting information regarding abuse and violence towards others has to be reported in any situation (Fowler & Brodsky, 1978).
The ethical dilemma of neglect in the treatment of inmates with chronic mental illnesses is the next issue that should be considered. Mental health professionals continually have to intervene with angry and disruptive individuals, whether or not their behavior is the product of a chronic mental illness (Weinberger and Sreenivasan, 1994). As a result, those who are experiencing the chronic mental illnesses that psychology can treat (e.g., schizophrenia, mood disorders, suicide), are being forced to take a back seat to disruptive inmates who the correctional institution wants to bring under control (Weinberger and Sreenivasan, 1994).
Correctional psychology is clearly riddled with unique ethical dilemmas and conflicts. The primary roles of the correctional psychologist, treatment issues and confidentiality have created consistent ethical issues. The committee on ethical guidelines for forensic psychologists formulated guidelines for forensic practice in order to provide a more specific method to monitor professional conduct in a correctional setting. However, these standards have not lightened the majority of ethical problems, because they are vague, difficult to understand, and contradictory to other ethical principles (Weinberger & Sreenivasan, 1994).

Arrigo, B. A. (2000). Introduction to forensic psychology: issues and controversies in crime and justice. San Diego: Academic Press.

Fowler, R. D., & Brodsky, S. L. (1978). Development of a correctional-clinical psychology program. Professional Psychology, 9(3), 440-447. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.9.3.440

Gudjonsson, G. H., & Haward, L. R. (1998). Forensic psychology: a guide to practice. London: Routledge.

Morgan, R. , Beer, A. , & Fitzgerald, K. (2007). Graduate students'
        experiences, interests, and attitudes toward
        correctional/forensic  psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior V. 34 
        No. 1 (January 2007) P. 96-107, 34(1), 96-107. 

Weinberger, L. E., & Sreenivasan, S. (1994). Ethical and professional conflicts
        in correctional psychology. Professional Psychology: Research and
        Practice, 25(2), 161-167. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.25.2.161


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