Corrections system has career opportunities

By Nicole R. Gross and Philip R. Magaletta, Ph.D.
March 1, 2009



The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses more than 200,000 inmates and remains the nation’s leading correctional system. With a doctoral level hiring standard for psychology service providers, the bureau currently employs more than 450 psychologists to address the multifaceted needs of federal inmates.

Far beyond the simple importation of psychological principles and their application to those behind the walls, the clinical practice of these correctional psychologists requires a broad and general understanding of mental health, substance abuse and systems principles within individuals and across the embedded systems that form the typical correctional institution. For many psychologists this challenging type of work has led to stable, rewarding and lifelong careers.

It is hard to envision a practice environment where a psychologist could find the diversity in population or job responsibility as in corrections. Psychologists rarely have one repetitive practice area, as they are often responsible for conducting suicide risk assessments, crisis intervention, brief counseling, individual and group treatment, drug abuse and sex offender treatment and clinical supervision of treatment staff. This list is by no means exhaustive as the roles of the clinical practitioner changes with the dynamic needs of the inmate population and the mission of the prison setting.

How does one develop the expertise for such a challenging career? Clinical knowledge and the application of such principles are learned and developed through graduate education in counseling and clinical psychology. Such education lets one to transition smoothly into a chosen area of practice.

The same is true for individuals who decided to apply their clinical skill set to inmates in prison systems. Working in a prison requires a strong foundation in general clinical competencies (psychopathology, suicide assessment, individual and group counseling skills) and the ability to learn about the complex and unique prison system in which they will be applied.

Prisons are practice environments that build upon the broad and general skills obtained in graduate school. Through on-the-job experience one learns about the unique aspects of the corrections environment and the individuals who live inside its walls. The need for mental health services is often present within individuals before they enter the prison. However, that need can be both provoked and exacerbated by the environment of the prison.

This is where knowledge of the functioning of the correctional facility is an important feature of clinical practice. The nature of living arrangements (the unit an inmate is on), disciplinary actions received and other institution-imposed structures all have the ability to affect one’s functioning. Receiving collateral information from those who are in contact with the individual on a daily basis (correctional officers, unit staff, etc.) is an important means of detection of psychiatric symptoms that may need to be addressed.

In general, inmates represent an underserved population in grave need of mental health intervention. It is the mission of the Psychology Services Branch in the Bureau of Prisons to apply expertise in a manner that maintains a safe and humane environment for both inmates and staff. Psychologists ensure that all inmates with an identified need for mental health services have access to the appropriate level of care. The implementation of empirically based practices is used to foster the development of behaviors that allow the inmate to safely acclimate to incarceration and to become productive members of society upon release.

Loan repayment programs in certain locations, the possibility of living in many geographically diverse regions of the United States, accelerated and early retirement benefits and overall safety are among the top factors that bureau psychologists describe when expressing satisfaction with their careers.

In addition, the overall pay scale that can range from $54,000 to $120,000 depending upon location and experience provides a nice incentive for seriously considering this line of work. With the opportunity to provide meaningful public service on one hand and the stable human resource benefits on the other, many established and newly minted psychologists are choosing clinical practice in the Bureau of Prisons as a career for life.

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Nicole R. Gross is completing her master’s degree at Marymount University and is a volunteer research assistant/intern in the Psychology Services Branch, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, D.C.

Philip R. Magaletta earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from St. Louis University. He has administered and practiced correctional psychology for more than a decade with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and currently serves the agency as clinical training coordinator for the Psychology Services Branch. He is also a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail address is pmagaletta@bop.gov.

Note: This column does not contain the official policy or opinion of the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Counseling and clinical psychologists interested in learning more about employment opportunities in the Bureau of Prisons should go to www.bop.gov, and click on the career link for clinical psychologist.

References available from authors.

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