Forensic Psychology and the Prison Service

Psychologists have a part to play in many aspects of prison life, from the training of officers to decisions about the release of prisoners. The range of psychological techniques employed within the prison service is wide. It stretches from assessment using psychological instruments to the delivery of therapy. Modern prison services are likely to have tailored cognitive behavioural programmes for the treatment of sex offenders and some violent offenders.

This paper will begin by examining the effect of prison on inmates and whether there are realistic alternatives to incarceration. It will explore the use of cognitive behavioural therapy in the treatment of sex offenders and anger management therapy for violent offenders. There is no consensus about the purpose of prison. The three major views about prison are retribution, utilitarian, and the humanitarian.

Retributionists regard the purpose of prison as delivering punishments; utilitarians see prison as part of a process of bringing about changes which reduces the probability of re-offending, and humanitarians see that prisoners often come from backgrounds of deprivation and victimisation so are deserving of rehabilitation. There has been research into whether the experiences of inmates have a regressive impact on mental health. The need for this research stems from alarming figures regarding prison life.

For instance, there are higher rates of suicide among prison populations. The risk is especially high during the early stages of imprisonment, as is the risk for psychotic episodes. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the average suicide rate is two per week (Howitt, 2006). One of the most disturbing features of suicide in prison is the fact that those awaiting trial, who have not been sentenced, are at very high risk of suicide. Serious self-injury is also more common in prison than among the general public, as are stress-related disorders and acute physical ailments.

Depression and anxiety seem to develop as imprisonment continues. While there is ample evidence to suggest that there is a higher incidence of mental health difficulties among prison populations there is a dispute over whether these problems are due to imprisonment or whether the prisoners bring the problems 'in with them'. The reasoning behind this theory is that the incidence of mental disorders among criminals is no higher than that from the subpopulations they belong to: the poor, the undereducated, and the socially and culturally deprived.

The often-heard anecdotal observations about prisoners' adjustment patterns in confinement were confirmed by a study by Bukstel and Kilman, cited in Blackburn (1995). When first incarcerated, prisoners usually show an increase in distress stemming from the shock of the conditions of confinement and the struggle of adapting to these conditions. As inmates develop coping strategies there is a return to more or less usual personality and behaviour. Then, as time of release approaches there is an increase in anxiety and distress, characterized as "short-timer's syndrome".