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Students gain practical experience working with prisoners

By : Cait Anastis

Clinical psychology graduate students are gaining practical experience in their field while helping the inmates in state prisons get the mental health services they need.

A partnership, started in 1999, sends faculty and students into area prisons —including the Elmira Correctional Facility — to evaluate prisoners and provide treatment. The problems students encounter range from learning disorders to brain diseases and from attention deficit disorder to problems stemming from brain trauma, said Peter Donovick, professor of psychology. The need for mental health services in prisons has grown. In 1950, 350 people out of 100,000 were in-patients in mental health facilities, while 100 per 100,000 were in prison. In 1990, those numbers had shifted so that 40 per 100,000 were in psychiatric faculties while 300 per 100,000 were in prison.

“We’re asked to evaluate them to facilitate life for both the prisoner and the facility,” he said. “We’re brought into that mix so that we can help explain problematic behaviors or prisoners and make recommendations to the state facility.”

While the students are providing the prison and the prisoners with needed services, they are also gaining experience with the different mental health issues they will encounter once they graduate. “The prisoners that we see, just at the practical clinical level, represent a wide variety of psychopathologies and neuropathologies,” Donovick said.

“Prisoners are a group that also is likely to have had minimal involvement with mental and physical health care before incarceration.”

One aspect of the system that can make things more challenging for prisoners in need of mental health services is that, while the largest concentration of the state’s population is in New York City, the state’s prisons are located in upstate New York, separating prisoners from their families and support systems, he said. “The move is north and away from families so the problem of isolation is real.”

Laurie Gallo, who is working on her doctoral degree, is one of the students who gained experience in her field working with prisoners.

“Primarily what we did in the prisons was neuropsychological evaluations, to try to help with their placement in the prison system and also to help with their programming,” she said.

In addition to the evaluations, students have also guided on treatment plans. In one case, the team came up with a treatment program to help rehabilitate a prisoner who was unable to walk because of a disorder developed as a means of coping with the prison system,” Donovick said. Once this had happened, there was no face-saving way for him to come back and he was confined to the wheelchair.

“We designed a rehabilitation program for him which provided that for him,” Donovick said. “It was very labor intensive, but he ultimately was able to walk.”

Students also provide recommendations for services prisoners will need once they are discharged and out in the community, Gallo said.

After finishing her degree in the next year, Gallo is planning to work as a practitioner in her field. In addition to the practical experience she has gained, working in prisons has also given her a new perspective on the prison system.

“I think I learned a lot by interacting with the prisoners,” she said. “I was really surprised by how respectful they were and how appreciative they were that there were people interested in their well being and helping them better themselves.

“Overall it was a very positive experience for me,” Gallo said. “I know that when people hear about a woman working in a maximum security prison for men it sounds a little scary, but they really treated us with a lot of respect.” The need for both mental and physical health services also continues to increase and change as the prison population ages.

“With older prisoners, we begin to have increased medical problems associated with aging, such as dementia,” Donovick said.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08