Should You Become a Prison Psychologist?

Forensic psychology is a field that deals with the psychology of crime and the intersection of psychology and the law. A degree in forensic psychology prepares you for a wide choice of career paths, including a career in criminal and civil courts, education, government and consulting. Being a prison psychologist is just one of your career options when you earn a degree in forensic psychology.

As a prison psychologist, you’ll have the potential to earn a relatively high salary and you can do meaningful work with an underserved population. Prison psychologists enjoy a great deal of upward mobility in their careers. However, prison psychologists often work long hours as they’re expected to be on call for inmate emergencies at night and on the weekends. The primary duties of a prison psychologist include evaluating and treating inmates, determining when an inmate’s condition may warrant special protection, and making recommendations about specific inmates to members of the legal system. Check out some of the courses you’ll need to take if you plan to pursue a Masters in Forensic Psychology and become a prison psychologist.

Skills You’ll Need

Aside from advanced training in forensic psychology, prison psychologists should possess a unique set of skills that will help them meet the challenges they’ll face day to day. They need to relate to and treat inmates who are suffering from multiple psychological issues, as many prison inmates have a history of trauma, poverty, abuse, addictionand personality disorders in addition to mental health issues. You’ll need exceptional emotional stability, strong boundaries and solid communication skills. You’ll need to stay calm in stressful and dangerous situations, think clearly and objectively under stress, and present yourself as a good role model.

Daily Duties

A prison psychologist’s primary duties include evaluating, diagnosing and treating the inmates, which can be complex, due to the multiple issues many inmates face. In addition to looking for emotional and psychological issues, you’ll also need to evaluate inmates for cognitive and developmental delays that can inhibit functioning.

It’ll be up to you to decide which inmates need assistance to perform the tasks of daily living, and meet legal and personal responsibilities. You’ll also be responsible for identifying inmates who need special protection from the rest of the prison population because of their issues and needs. Prison inmates are under a great deal of pressure to conform to the social standards of the population. Non-conforming behavior, including emotional expression, can put them at risk of violence.

You will also, of course, be responsible for managing the treatment of inmates who have a diagnosis. This could mean administering treatment yourself or making referrals. You’ll need to administer individual and group therapy treatments for inmates.

As a prison psychologist, you’ll be responsible for giving court-ordered assessments of specific inmates occasionally these assessments tell the courts whether you believe a particular inmate requires prison or probation, based on your professional opinion of his mental and emotional state. You’ll also have to write recommendations for parole boards, detailing whether you believe specific inmates should be paroled, and what the conditions of parole should be. Some inmates will also need recommendations and assessments for therapy, parental visitation and addiction treatment, for example.

Emergency Responsibilities

As a prison psychologist, you’ll be responsible for handling psychiatric emergencies in the prison, even if they occur after hours. This will mean dealing with patients who want to hurt themselves or others. It could also mean dealing with patients who refuse to make use of clothing, food, hygiene products or other necessities of daily life, due to their mental illness symptoms.

Risks of Being a Prison Psychologist

The field of prison psychology is not without risk. You’ll be asked to forge therapeutic relationships with people who have the potential to become violent. Indeed, many of your patients in the prison may have already demonstrated their capacity for violence; it could be the reason they’re in prison. You will have to treat patients suffering from some of the most severe, debilitating and difficult-to-treat conditions, like schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder. Some of your patients will be dealing with issues that could cause them to become belligerent, aggressive or violent with little warning. However, you’ll also have the chance to make a real difference in the lives of your patients, and, by extension, a real difference to society as a whole.

As a prison psychologist, you’ll need clear personal boundaries, emotional stability and good communication skills. You’ll need to evaluate and treat prison inmates who may be capable of violence, may be suffering from numerous concurrent conditions and who may have endured a great deal of suffering throughout their lives. However, many who work in this field find it extremely rewarding.

About the Author: Contributing blogger David Scottsdale has been a prison psychologist for over 10 years.

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