Helping Released Inmates Succeed

In October, the United States Justice Department announced its plan to release thousands of inmates early from federal prisons. With this, comes the question, how many of those released suffer from mental illnesses, and how, as a society, and more specifically as mental health professionals, will we address their needs.

Approximately one in every 100 Americans lives behind bars, according to a 2014 report by the National Research Council—approximately 2.2 million people currently reside in our nation’s correctional facilities. Out of this population, many will be released and commit additional crimes and return to the criminal justice system. Psychologists have seriously begun to look into the cause of this where intervention must occur.

Over half of today’s prisoners suffer from some sort of mental illness, and rates of serious mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are three to four times higher than that of the general population. In addition to mental illnesses, substance abuse compounds the issue.  Regrettably, June Tangney, PhD, a clinical psychologist at George Mason University who studies interventions for jail inmates admits, “The correctional system has become our de facto mental health system. It is one of our silent shames.”

Ironically, despite the pervasiveness of mental illness and substance abuse in today’s prisons, there is a dearth of quality services which adequately examine the root of the behavior as well as the familial impact or other factors before diagnosing and proceeding with a treatment plan.

Furthermore, those who do receive treatment are highly unlikely to either seek treatment after release or to possess the resources necessary to continue.

In addition to the lack of treatment of mental illness before and after release of these inmates, there are even more basic needs that must to be met in order to ensure these individuals will not succumb to recidivism. The Risk-Need Responsivity (RNR) Model created by the late psychologist, Donald A. Andrews, PhD, of Carleton University in Ottawa, has been the leading tool in assessing the needs of inmates. It not only assesses the risks of recidivism, but also measures the broad range of criminogenic needs associated with criminal behavior.

The greatest challenge is to accurately communicate and share the findings (knowledge) with certified social service professionals to ensure appropriate treatment. Fortunately, the Federal Government stepped in in 2008 and passed the Second Chance Act which provides grants to evidence based programs that aid in the reintegration, monitoring, and overall treatment of inmates.

One viable evidence-based modality for these inmates is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is the basis of EAGALA Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy practiced at Berkshire HorseWorks. This modality has been found to be highly efficacious with this population for its unique ability to identify and modify behavioral patterns.

To read more about this topic, visit the article “Life on the Outside” featured on the American Psychological Association website.