The general public has become more and more obsessed with true crime in recent years. Phrases like ‘criminal’ or ‘forensic’ psychologist and ‘criminal profiling’ are now commonly used, but how much does the public know about what trained clinical psychologists really do when working with offenders in prison?
This blog will share what clinical psychologists do, how they specialise in forensic psychology (clinical psychology in a criminal justice setting), and how they help prisoners in real life.
If you’ve ever wondered what psychologists do behind bars, this blog is for you.
What is a Clinical Psychologist, and how do they specialise in working in prisons?
Clinical Psychologists use the practice of psychology to help treat people with a range of conditions and disorders such as anxiety, depression, ‘personality disorder,’ addiction. They also support families or individuals with relationship issues.
Their work aims to promote psychological well-being and enable people to live a more meaningful and engaged life. This can include helping people manage troubled relationships or to be involved in leisure activities and work that adds value to their lives.
As well as helping individuals and families with psychological issues that are affecting their day-to-day wellbeing, they also work with teams of professionals and services. In this role, they perform training, undertake research or clinically lead teams.
It’s a challenging, varied, and specialist role that can involve working in many different environments. So how does a clinical psychologist begin working in prison?
Clinical psychologists specialise in working with specific groups such as children and young people, learning disabled people, people with neurological problems, or forensic psychology – working in prisons.
It may surprise you to know that Her Majesty’s Prison Service is the largest single employer of psychologists in the UK. This means clinical psychologists have a wealth of opportunities to specialise in forensic psychology within the prison system, including working in prisons and rehabilitation settings.
Often clinical psychologists will begin working in prisons after they have completed their clinical training. The training is a 3-year programme that is only open to psychologists already registered with the British Psychological Society.
The role is very competitive, and it’s often a requirement for psychologists to have undertaken voluntary or paid experience in a forensic setting. As well as experience working in prisons or probation services, alternative voluntary or work experience includes:
- bail hostels and refuges
- drug or alcohol treatment centres
- secure hospitals and rehabilitation units
- young people’s services, such as a regional youth offending service.
What do clinical psychologists do in prison?
The leading role of a clinical psychologist in prisons is assessing and treating criminal behaviour. They spend a lot of time working with prisoners throughout their time in prison.
The assessment and treatment of prisoners involves interviewing prisoners one-to-one, deciding on the best treatment for each individual, and reviewing and assessing that treatment accordingly.
Work with prisoners also includes managing rehabilitation programmes that deal with anger management, alcohol, and drug addiction treatment, and developing social and cognitive skills.
Another crucial part of their day-to-day role is providing research-based evidence to help develop better policy and working practices within the prison system. They also regularly give evidence in court, to parole boards, and mental health tribunals.
Other jobs of a clinical psychologist in prison include:
- Undertaking research projects to evaluate situations affecting prisoners, for example, investigating the impact of bullying in prisons.
- Statistical analysis for forensic offender profiling.
- Training to support forensic staff in areas such as stress management
- Training staff on how to cope with understanding bullying and techniques for crisis (hostage) negotiation
What impact does their work have on prisoners?
Prisoners are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, die from suicide, and harm themselves or others than the rest of the population. Around 15% of prisoners have specialist mental health needs such as eating disorders and schizophrenia in the UK, and 2% have acute mental health problems. The need for psychological therapies and research in prison is stark, but how does the work of clinical psychologists benefit prisoners?
One of the most significant impacts that clinical psychologists have on prisoners is supporting them to deal with mental health problems that have led to offending behaviour, such as addressing emotional and anger management.
Clinical psychologists will help many prisoners by using CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and mindfulness techniques to manage mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
If working with a clinical psychologist while in prison is successful, it can be life-changing for prisoners. In practical terms, it can lead to them being moved to a lower category of prison or being released on parole if their clinical psychologist deems them to have made significant improvements and are at low risk of causing harm to themselves or others.
In the end, the real difference to prisoners comes when they can leave prison having developed coping strategies, dealt with addictions, and overcome negative behaviours. If prisoners can overcome these patterns while in prison, they can live a more fulfilled and engaged life in society and make more positive choices.
Of course, there is no guarantee that every prisoner who works with a clinical psychologist in prison won’t re-offend on release. However, the more clinical research, training, rehabilitation, and psychological therapies undertaken in prison by inmates and staff, the better chance prisoners have of making a new start and living a life away from crime.