Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Ethical Challenges of Criminal Psychology - Topic Choice


 Criminal psychologists face ethical challenges specific to their field.  Due to working in a prison setting, psychologists are called upon to work in various roles that may challenge the American Psychological Association's (APA) Code of Ethics and General Principles.  At times, functioning as both psychologist and correctional worker, the lines can easily blur, and worse, put the psychologist in the position of Multiple Relationships, Standard 3.05, as well as creating other issues with inmates.

If an inmate shares personal information with the psychologist and later that evening is involved in a "count" during a security lock down, the inmate may lose trust and view the psychologist in the same negative light as he views the Correctional Officers (CO's).

I chose this topic due to my interest in the Criminal Justice and Prison System. I have always found it interesting that we live in a society that is still committed to rehabilitation of our criminals.  No matter what you believe, we do have one of the most forgiving criminal justice systems in the world!  If you don't believe me, just ask anyone who has found themselves locked up in a foreign country and embroiled in years of a ghoulish nightmare to gain freedom, while never having the right to counsel or a fair trial.  Rehabilitation, programs, lawyers, and fair treatment does not exist in many of these foreign prisons. In fact, these prisons violate many Principles of the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics.

Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence; Principle D: Justice; and very importantly, Principle E: Respect for Other People's Rights and Dignity.  

I feel pretty confident in saying that respect for other people's rights and dignity are not a top priority in these prisons,which leaves our society in gratitude for our criminal justice system and the psychologists that endeavor to enter the prison walls. I believe that the role of a psychologist in prison might be the most challenging role for someone in psychology to pursue.  While you would like to make a difference with a population in need of your services, the ethics that must be followed and overcome must at times, feel insurmountable.

Whether or not you believe that we have a flawed Criminal Justice system, I personally feel it works as well as it can due to the cost of incarcerating an individual, as well as the cost of all the social services involved in providing rehabilitation to each inmate. It is a daunting task in a less than perfect environment.

Hats off to the psychologist's with the courage to make a difference by entering the field of Criminal Psychology.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's Rough for Everyone In Here...Even For The Psychologists.

Prison is a rough place for everyone, including the correctional/forensic psychologist. Imagine that you're a psychologist entering a prison with the main goal of providing counseling in an effort to offer rehabilitation as well as re-entry back into society to a specific population. Now, for a moment, also imagine that you will be making recommendations to a parole board that will dictate whether or not the individual remains in prison or is released. Is this an ethical dilemma? I would say so. Most correctional psychologists end up in dual roles which are in complete contrast with the American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (1992), which warns that "forensic psychologists should avoid participation in any practice that has multiple and potentially conflicting roles" (Decaire).

The role of the correctional psychologist has changed in the prison setting from a treatment focus to security and custodial focus. This shift has created ethical concerns that appear to have large "gray" areas with regard to ethics, causing the psychologist to draw upon his own morals and the general principles of the APA. For example, a psychologist refuses to reveal confidential information he is privy to during therapy with an incarcerated individual to the warden upon the warden's request. The warden's goal is to use the shared information to decide on an appropriate punishment for the individual after his involvement in physical altercations. Had the psychologist revealed this information to the warden, he could be in possible violation of several ethical standards, including 1.01, Misuse of Psychologists' Work; 3.05, Multiple Relationships; and 4.01, Maintaining Confidentiality (Fisher, pg. 53).

The dual role unintentionally begins immediately upon hire of the psychologist when they are mandated to participate in correctional training which is geared toward firearms training, inmate search procedures, and inmate review from a correctional perspective. The Federal Bureau of Prisons Manual (1987) states that in emergency situations, the psychologist's primary function is as a correctional worker, not a psychologist. In many cases, when the prison is short staffed, psychologists find themselves in dual roles by responding to emergency situations and taking head count. When responding to an emergency and functioning in a correctional capacity, Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence - to do good and avoid doing harm, becomes a paradoxical quandary.

In the prison setting, it is important that the roles and boundaries of staff remain clear. When a psychologist is called to function in any role other than therapeutic, the prison population will have a tendency to view them simply as a cop, thus reducing their main role status of psychologist. This can lead to individuals being less than honest during therapy due to fear of retribution or punishment for their honesty.

One of the main issues is the fact that correctional psychological services are categorized under correctional administration and not mental health, thus perpetuating the ethical issues that surround the position. I
t is necessary for correctional psychologists to be on high alert for situations that could place them in danger of violating the Code of Ethics and Principles. It is an on-going challenge for psychologists to function in their proper capacity in the prisons and remain effective and ethical at the same time. Vigilance and adhering to the Codes are necessary to be successful in this role.

Ethical Concerns in Correctional Psychology - Michael Declair - Lakehead University

Decoding the Ethics Code, A Practical Guide for Psychologists - Celia B. Fisher (2012)

Ethical and Professional Conflicts in Correctional Psychology - Linda E. Weinberger and Shoba Sreenivasan (1994)

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Stanford Prison Experiment - Ethical or Not?


 I pose the question, was the Stanford Prison Experiment ethical or not?  If your answer is no, then you agree with me.  I refer to the Stanford Experiment in an effort to show the psychological effects prison has on everyone, not just the prisoners. Correctional psychologists are exposed to the same stressors as the correctional officers, and even worse, are put into dual roles as officer and psychologist.  The Stanford Prison Experiment was successful in showing that when and individual is placed in a position of authority, they can change drastically and assume authoritative stances that border on abuse.  These roles have a commonality with an average psychologist who is called upon to conduct a head count during an evening shift and act as a psychologist by day, creating a dual role as well as creating a psychological challenge for the correctional psychologist.  The two roles can become taxing and stressful, rendering the psychologist ineffective in his primary role of therapist. Unethical situations run rampant in the correctional system and we will visit the Stanford Prison Experiment to ponder some of these issues.

In 1971, psychologist Phillip G. Zimbardo began what was to be a two week experiment that ended abruptly within six days due to extreme stress and depression on the part of the participants acting in the role of prisoners.  For $15.00 per day, twenty-four (24) college students voluntarily participated in a study to examine the psychological effects of prison life. The students were middle-class, white males from the U.S. and Canada.  The study was conducted in a make-shift, simulated prison in Palo Alto, California.  The twenty-four students were randomly assigned to either the prisoner or guard role. Guards were dressed in khakis, given night sticks, as well as mirrored sunglasses that were worn to obscure any emotions and to avoid any real eye contact. They quickly became comfortable in their roles of power, and began to exert force upon their fellow classmates.  During head-count, the guards took advantage of this time to exercise their control over the prisoners as the prisoners attempted to maintain some sense of their own control.  

Ultimately, the guards became abusive, dehumanizing, and the prisoner's began to show extreme levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.  As Kendry Cherry states in her article entitled,  The Stanford Prison Experiment, An Experiment in the Psychology of Imprisonment, " Even the researcher's themselves began to lose sight of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as prison warden, overlooked the guard's abusive behavior until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced her objections to the morality of continuation of the study".

The study was terminated on August 20, 1971. There was no official "debriefing" of the students (prisoner's and guards) and while the prisoners were happy it was over, the guards appeared upset that the study was ending.  Basically, the guards had become so "drunk" on their power status that they did not want it to end.  The prisoners (students) were left victimized, damaged, and suffered the effects of the stress that continued long after the study ended. The students had no idea what they were really getting themselves into and were deceived and ultimately traumatized by the study.

Following is the laundry list of violations to the Code of Ethics and General Principles that this experiment involved:

General Principle's not adhered to by this study:
  • Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence - to do good and avoid harm
  • Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility - to show high standards of competence in their work
  • Principle C: Integrity - honest communication and truth telling
  • Principle D: Justice 
  • Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity

Code Violations:

  • Standard 2.01a, 2.01c, Boundaries of Competence
  • Standard 3.04, Avoiding Harm
  • Standard 3.05, Multiple Roles (Phillip Zimbardo functioning in two roles: in charge of experiment and participating as the warden)
  • Standard 3.08, Exploitive Relationships
  • Standard 3.06, Conflict of Interest (Phillip Zimbardo functioning in two roles: in charge of experiment and participating as the warden)
  • Standard 8.02a (1,2,3,4), Informed Consent to Research
  • Standard 8:04, Client/Patient, Student, and Subordinate Research Participants
  • Standard 8.07a & 8.07b, Deception in Research 
  • Standard 8.08a, b, & c, Debriefing 

The Stanford Prison Experiment would not be allowed to be conducted today due to the plethora of violations to the code of ethics.  It is a valuable lesson to be learned in the field of psychology. Please click on the hyperlink in the first sentence to visit the website for the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, An Experiment in the Psychology of Imprisonment

By , Guide (retrieved 9/27/12)

Stanford Prison Experiment - (retrived 9/27/12)


Sunday, October 28, 2012

To Breach, or Not to Breach....That is the Question


 In 2000, the American Psychiatric Association formed a Task Force to revise the guidelines on Psychiatric Services in Jails and Prisons. Paul Applebaum, in his writings on ethics and forensic psychiatry, suggested that ethics in the correctional system differ from those in the community.  There are situations that arise in prison that have no clear cut standards on a proper decision to breach or not to breach confidentiality regarding something a prisoner has shared confidentially; Standard 4.01, Maintaining Confidentiality. It is suggested by some experts that psychologists inform inmates that in certain situations, there is no guarantee that confidentiality will be kept, Standard 4.02, Discussing the Limits of Confidentiality.  This approach serves two purposes: 1) to cut down on information being shared that would lead to a breach; and 2) promote trust that if a breach is necessary, the inmate is not surprised. 

In his article, "Decisions to Breach Confidentiality When Prisoners Report Violations of Institutional Rules", Dr. Pinta states, "It is useful to categorize decisions to breach confidentiality as either treatment driven or security driven." Pinta explains that although this seems to oversimplify these issues, it assists in cutting through the moral dillemas with regard to the dual roles (correctional officer and security, and psychologist and treatment).  For example, a security driven decision would be if an inmate shares that he is going to start a prison riot, already has hatched the plan, and has engaged numerous inmates to participate, the decision to breach confidentiality is clear as it will endanger the entire prison population.  Additionally, if an inmate shares that he is planning to kill his cellmate due to on-going differences, and is in possession of a weapon, the psychologist has no choice but to go to prison officials with this information; Standard 4.05b (3), Disclosures, as well as the possibility of
Tarasoff laws being applicable in this case (vary by state).  A treatment based decision might be if an inmate shares personal sexual encounters that are on-going in exchange for cigarettes. There is no threat to security of the facility or any specific person, therefore, the psychologist must adhere to Standard 4.01, Maintaining Confidentiality.

Pinta goes on to say in his article that there are numerous gray areas for which there is no right or wrong decision to breach confidentiality.  Some examples he uses are possessing a makeshift weapon, possessing/using marijuana, selling drugs, and having sex with a staff member.  With the latter situation, I question whether or not this area is truly gray and if it would possibly fall under Standard 1.03, Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands; or possibly 3.05, Multiple Relationships, although correctional staff members are not held to the APA Code of Ethics.

Although correctional psychologist are on a slippery slope with regard to ethical situations, making sound decisions and thinking things through in steps, while adhering to the APA Principles and Code of Ethics, is the key to delivering services in the correctional setting. With experience, the psychologist can do important work for a population greatly in need of these important services. 

Pinta, E.R. (2009). Decisions to breach confidentiality when prisoners report violations of institutional rules. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, (37), 150-154.
Retrieved from

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Decriminalizing Mental Ilness - Georgia's Progressive Approach

Should we care that this inmate is a non-violent, dual-diagnosis case who came into the criminal justice system due to mental illness and substance abuse? According to Georgia Corrections Commissioner, Brian Owens, we should.  In an article titled, "Decriminalizing Mental Illness in Ga.", full article (Ranking, Teegardin, 2012), Brain is quoted as saying, "I think it's about time to decriminalize mental illness." 

With the state looking to save money on the cost of incarceration, Governor Nathan Deal proposed a solution to save $264 million in costs to house prisoners over the next five years.  In a landmark move, fourteen (14) "day reporting centers" will be formed and staffed by mental health counselors. The day centers are earmarked for non-violent offenders with a history of mental health issues, as well as dual-diagnosis (mental health and drug and alcohol issues). According to Owens, once an offender with a history of mental illness enters the prison system, a permanent cycle begins.  This goal for for this approach is to lower recidivism rates, save money, and make communities safer.

According to Owens, the cost per day of housing a prisoner in a state facility is $50.00, versus $14.00 per day to staff the day reporting center.  Also, allowing the person to remain in the community while dealing with his challenges on a daily basis, will hopefully provide him/her with the tools necessary to be a productive member of society.  The day reporting centers will provide programs on substance abuse, criminal thinking, education, and employment issues.

Owens makes a poignant statement by saying, "It's about understanding the needs of mental illness...not to mention the ethical part of it.  It's just the right thing to do." It is a refreshing expression of concern for those struggling with mental health issues who continue to be stuck in the loop of the correctional system.

Although I tend to applaud Owens for his ideas, this modern approach is not without pitfalls and ethical concerns.   Some General Principles and Standards from the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics that need to be considered in this scenario are:

Standard 9.01, Basis for Assessments - How will the assessments be given to the offenders, by whom, and what is the criteria that will decide success of failure for the various programs?

Standard 9.02 c, Use of Assessments - Language barriers will need to be considered with regard to assessments.

Standard 9.03 - Informed Consent - all mental health providers will need to adhere to this rule to ensure receiving consent prior to any use of assessments for the programs.

Standard 9.05 - Test Construction - any assessments used to determine an offender's ability to meet program requirements, will need to be appropriate, scientific, and current.

The mental health providers will also need to be monitored to ensure that all operations of the centers are ethical.  Any of the following ethical violations are possible to occur in this more relaxed setting:

3.01 - Unfair Discrimination
3.02 - Sexual Harassment
3.03 - Other Harassment
3.05 - Multiple Relationships

I think that Georgia is onto something good with this approach to incarceration and mental health.  Prisons do not help people with mental health issues and I see this approach as a way to make a change in individuals, communities, and society, although it is not without its' challenges.

Rankin, B., & Teegardin, C. (2012, July 16). Decriminalizing mental illness in Ga.: Georgia corrections chief works on treatment options for 9,382 inmates. Retrieved from