Correctional Psychology

Correctional psychology is psychological evaluation and treatment applied within a prison, jail, or other correctional setting. Correctional psychology is distinguished from criminal psychology (the study of the motivations and intentions of the criminal mind, including profiling) and forensic psychology (the branch of psychology that interacts directly with the legal system, including serving as an expert witness in a court of law).

Correctional psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology that has existed in some form since the 1930s. A 1946 article published in the American Psychologist on the role of the prison psychologist detailed five main functions of persons in this specialty:

For the most part, these functions are still part of the job description of the correctional psychologist, as is the fact that the individual is not a solo practitioner. In 2015 as in 1946, the correctional psychologist worked as a member of a team that included a correctional psychiatrist, corrections officers, attorneys, and case workers. The different tasks and goals of these other professionals and staff members, however, added to the complications of correctional psychology in day-to-day practice.

Changes since the 1960s

Several major changes occurred after the 1960s in the training of correctional psychologists, in societal attitudes toward prison inmates, and in the prison population itself.

Changes in professional training

Correctional psychology has always required a graduate degree in psychology, a master's degree at minimum and preferably a doctorate in psychology. In the 1940s, some correctional psychologists completed internships in prisons, but these were largely informal. As of 2015, a correctional psychologist was required to complete a formally supervised internship in a correctional facility and preferably be certified as a mental health professional by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). Certification required passing a two-hour examination in addition to completing the undergraduate and graduate educational requirements.

Changes in societal attitudes

The primary goal of correctional psychologists in the 1940s and 1950s was the rehabilitation of prisoners, generally thought to be accomplished through individual treatment. The Federal Bureau of Prisons increasingly sought out and hired a growing number of psychologists to accomplish this goal. The problem was that individual psychotherapy did not lower the rate of recidivism, and there were numerous cases in the 1960s of dangerous offenders being released after treatment and committing additional violent crimes, often murders or rapes. The predictable result was a public demand for stiffer punishment and longer sentences.

In the 1980s, the correctional psychologist's role changed from a therapy-based model to a security model, such that the focus shifted from individual therapy for prison inmates to providing a safe environment within the prison and protecting the community outside the prison. The correctional psychologist's task shifted from preparing prisoners for reentry into the outside world to assisting the prison administration by keeping inmates compliant and easier to manage. This expectation is illustrated in an article from the Houston Chronicle: “The correctional psychologist works as part of a team … to modify the behavior of inmates. Throughout this process, the psychologist will work with other staff members to provide the safest environment possible for all inmates in the correctional facility.”

In 1986 the Federal Bureau of Prisons mandated that all correctional psychologists had to complete a three-week program, Introduction to Correctional Techniques, that included a review of inmate discipline along with instruction in self-defense, the use of firearms, and searching for contraband. Significantly, the course instructors made no distinction between the psychologists and the other corrections personnel taking the course. To many correctional psychologists, the consequence of training courses of this type is that corrections officers do not fully understand the psychologist's role as a mental health professional.

Changes in the prison population

Another reason for the altered role of the correctional psychologist was the changes in the prison population in the 1980s and 1990s. The first change was the sheer increase in size; the number of prison inmates in the United States increased in this period—from fewer than 500,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million by 2010—in response to public demands for tougher attitudes toward crime.


Led by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment examined the psychological effects of being a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was funded by a grant from the US Office of Naval Research and took place in a makeshift prison in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building. Originally scheduled to last fourteen days, the study was ended after just six days due to excessive psychological strain on the prisoners and increasingly abusive behavior of the guards. Half of the prisoner participants left the study early due to severe emotional reactions, however none of the guards left early.

Along with the famous obedience-to-authority experiments performed by Stanley Milgram, the Stanford prison experiment highlights the sadistic potential in individuals given the proper circumstances and environment.

The subjects of the study were 24 male undergraduate students with no mental or physical illness, no criminal backgrounds and no signs of a predilection to violence. Participants were recruited via ads in the local newspapers, and were paid $15 per day. They were divided into the roles of prisoners and prison guards randomly, using a coin toss method.

The experiment began with surprise arrests of the student-prisoners by Palo Alto police. These arrests (for “burglary” and “armed robbery” ) were followed by handcuffing, booking, and mug shots. The student-prisoners were blindfolded and brought to the makeshift jail in the basement of the Stanford psychology building where they were strip searched and sprayed with delousing spray.

Inmates were made to wear smocks, nylon stocking caps and chains on their right ankles. Zimbardo's intention in choosing these uniforms was to quickly simulate the depersonalized and emasculating effects of prison. Each prisoner was given a number and only referred to by this number. They were also required to address fellow prisoners by their numbers to further instill a sense of depersonalization and anonymity. Guards wore matching uniforms and mirrored sunglasses, carried batons, and were referred to only as “Mr. Corrections Officer.” They were given no formal training in how to be a guard. Zimbardo acted as a prison superintendent, keeping his distance but giving the guards a loose set of rules including not to commit acts of physical violence, not to permit prisoner escape and to maintain law and order.

Guards quickly became abusive towards prisoners. Methods of abuse the student-guards used on the studentprisoners included sexual harassment, solitary confinement, restriction of bathroom access (sometimes forcing them to urinate or defecate in a bucket in their cells), forced repetitive and mindless activities and making prisoners sleep on the floor. On the second day of the experiment the prisoners attempted a rebellion, which led to further harassment and punishment from the guards.

Some critics have argued that the behavior of the guards was largely the result of “demand characteristics” (being encouraged to behave in the ways they did by Zimbardo, and given his tacit approval when he was silent during the abuse) rather than merely a result of the situation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment again came to public attention in the wake of Iraqi prisoner abuse by US military guards at Abu Ghraib prison. Zimbardo himself served as an expert witness for several of the US soldiers on trial and was verbally opposed to the military's assertion that the abuse was merely a result of “a few bad apples” rather than a situational cause and a consequence of the prison system itself.

The experiment raised many ethical concerns. Zimbardo has since apologized for the suffering on the part of student-prisoners in his study, saying in his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect, “[T]he findings came at the expense of human suffering. I am sorry for that and to this day apologize for contributing to this inhumanity.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment has been featured in television documentaries and magazines and was the subject of a 2015 film. Filmed portions of the experiment are readily available online.

Zimbardo continues to be vocal in his criticism of the prison system and the behaviors it may foster. Although controversial, his 1971 experiments demonstrated the potentially damaging psychological effects of imprisonment, and the potential for abuses of power by authority figures.

Ethical dilemmas in correctional psychology

Specialists in the field of correctional psychology point out that it is burdened by several ethical dilemmas unique to the prison environment that are difficult to resolve. The first is confidentiality. While the American Psychological Association (APA) and other groups of mental health professionals have published codes of ethics underscoring the duty of the psychologist (or psychiatrist) to maintain strict client confidentiality, the correctional psychologist is often asked to convey details of an interview with an inmate to the prison warden or other corrections officers, particularly if the inmate is thought to be a danger to him-or herself or others in the prison.

Another ethical dilemma arises in correctional psychology regarding the psychologist's role in emergencies; in many cases, the psychologist is asked to assist corrections officers in conducting pat-down searches and similar correctional tasks when the prison is understaffed. These requests compromise the psychologist's effectiveness as a counselor and therapist, insofar as inmates are likely to see the psychologist as just another corrections officer. A similar dilemma occurs when the psychologist is asked to serve on the prison disciplinary board. Some correctional psychologists do not see a conflict of interest as long as they are not the clinicians treating the inmate in question. Others, however, are troubled by the discrepancy between professional codes of ethics that emphasize the protection and welfare of individuals and the role of the prison disciplinary board in determining and inflicting punishment of some kind. This dilemma is particularly worrisome when the inmate is likely to be transferred to a high-security prison in which he or she is more likely to be victimized.


Goods that are illegal to possess or use, particularly those smuggled into a prison.
Referring to principles of right and wrong; also, being in line with the standards of right conduct that govern the practice of a profession.
Informed consent—
A process required by the ethical standards of the healthcare professions for obtaining a person's permission before a healthcare intervention occurs.
The tendency to relapse or return to a previous undesirable behavior, usually criminal behavior.

The other major dilemma for correctional psychologists is the issue of informed consent. In general, psychologists are required by professional codes of ethics to inform people of the nature and purpose of a professional evaluation before they conduct it. Prison officials, however, often request psychologists to perform covert evaluations of inmates scheduled to appear before a parole board on the grounds that informing the prisoner of the reason for a psychological evaluation would sabotage its effectiveness. Corrections officers are understandably concerned to protect the public by ensuring that dangerous offenders are not released into the community, while the psychologist is obliged to maintain the standards of the profession.

See also Criminal psychology; Forensic psychology .



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American Correctional Health Services Association (ACHSA), , .

Federal Bureau of Prisons, 320 First St. NW, Washington, DC, 20534, (202) 307-3198, , .

International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology, 897 Oak Park Blvd., No. 124, Pismo Beach, CA, 93449, (910) 799-9107,, .

National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), 1145 W. Diversey Pkwy., Chicago, IL, 60614, (773) 880-1460, Fax: (773) 880-2424,, .