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Inmate Counseling & Therapy: Eight Years Inside San Quentin

by Patricia Frisch Ph.D. and Alan Emery

In 1976, we saw at San Quentin a desperate human services need for both prison staff and inmates. We responded to that need by co-founding Counseling & Training Consultants (CTC), a nonprofit corporation, to provide psychological services for inmates and stress reduction and communication trainings for correctional staff.

Then as now, the focus of prison was predominately custodial. Human services were a low priority and minimally provided. The harsh environment, limited space, and deprived atmosphere, coupled with warring camps of race against race, inmate against staff, and gang against gang, made the need for psychological services acute. Inmates were suffering from depression, acute withdrawal, psychosomatic illnesses and other clinical symptoms. These problems were magnified by drug abuse and addiction. The mandate for longer sentences made the atmosphere tense, full of conflict, hopelessness, and despair.

The quality of life for inmates was diminished and the stress level for staff was dangerously high. From 1976 to 1984 we worked to bring a humanizing perspective into this closed custodial environment. Our program worked because it was independent from the institution. As consultants, we brought a freshness from the community that was sorely needed within the bureaucracy. Further, our independence gave us freedom to maintain therapeutic integrity as professional clinicians.

Although we maintained an office inside San Quentin to conduct business and interface with staff and inmates, we also maintained a community presence through our office outside the walls where we conducted non-correctional clinical work. Thus our independence both financially and psychologically allowed us to sustain intimate involvement within a difficult setting. First we established a working relationship with inmates through group and individual psychological treatment services. We began as volunteers leading one substance abuse treatment group. After forming the nonprofit corporation, the number of groups expanded, and interest inside the prison grew. The participating inmates named their groups the “Personal Expansion Program” (PEP) and became ardent supporters of the project.

From the beginning, the warden acknowledged the value of the program and through his strong support, it became integrated as an independent institutional program and was followed with interest by the California Department of Corrections. From these small beginning steps our program expanded its inmate services from one group to eight and added additional therapeutic options.

At the same time we developed an accredited graduate student internship program to train and supervise graduate students from Bay Area universities to work with the incarcerated population. Interns conducted individual therapy sessions and participated in group sessions under licensed supervision. It soon became apparent that we needed to work with both sides of the prison population. So we developed an 18week Correctional Officer Communications and Stress Reduction Training Program, including a comprehensive training curriculum. We also developed a detailed step-by-step trainer manual containing all the training elements needed for the program. Our intention was to have this program incorporated into the California Department of Corrections on a statewide basis with the idea of training correctional officers to teach the course.

The training included presentation of didactic material on communication within the context of a group process. Thus the experiential training format was both educational and therapeutic. Early on we recognized the importance of defining specific and measurable goals for both the inmate and correctional staff aspects of the program.

For the inmate program, we identified objectives that were realistic and achievable within the prison setting and relevant to the inmates’ quality of life. For the Correctional Officer Training Program, we identified specific, desired outcomes that were useful on the job and in their personal lives. An independent researcher was hired to design, implement, analyze, and report the findings on an annual basis.

— Patricia Frisch and Alan Emery

Read the entire article or download a printable copy at: Inmate Counseling & Therapy: Eight Years Inside San Quentin.

For Dr. Frisch’s biography, please click here.