History of Correctional Psychology

Lindner (1955) pinpointed 1913 as the date when psychological services were first offered in a U.S. correctional facility, specifically a women’s reformatory in the state of New York. Watkins (1992) identified the psychologist as Eleanor Rowland, who was asked to devise a test battery to identify offenders who would benefit from educational programs and be safely returned to society (Rowland, 1913). However, the main function of psychologists employed in some capacity in the state and federal correctional systems during these years was apparently the detection of “feeblemindedness” among offenders, a condition thought to lead to a life of crime (Giardini, 1942; Watkins, 1992). Again, the work of Goddard and his followers is relevant.

History of Correctional PsychologyConcurrently, however, some psychologists—like Rowland—became involved in a different endeavor: the classification of inmates into various groups for determining where they were to be placed (custody decisions) and what services might be provided (treatment decisions). The first prison classification system developed by psychologists was apparently instituted in New Jersey in 1918 (Barnes & Teeters, 1959; Watkins, 1992). New Jersey also became the first state to hire a full-time correctional psychologist. The first state in the United States to provide comprehensive psychological examinations of all admissions to its prison system and applications for parole was Wisconsin, in 1924 (Bodemar, 1956).

In the late 1930s, Darley and Berdie (1940) surveyed 13 federal and 123 state prisons and learned that they employed a total of 64 psychologists who called themselves “prison psychologists.” Although all considered themselves clinical psychologists, only about half had doctorates in psychology. Later, Raymond Corsini (1945) expressed concern that there was as yet “no history of prison psychology.” He estimated that during the 1940s, there were approximately 200,000 individuals confined in U.S. correctional facilities who were served by a mere 80 psychologists. Their work consisted of (1) testing (personality, aptitude, and academic progress); (2) providing educational, vocational, and personal guidance (usually at the inmate’s request); and (3) maintaining working relationships with all members of the prison staff. In one of the most comprehensive surveys undertaken during the early 1940s, questionnaires were sent to 4,580 psychologists (3,209 men and 1,371 women) in an effort to discover the nature of the profession (Bryan & Boring, 1946). Of the 3,241 questionnaires returned in 1940, 76 men and 20 women indicated they were employed as full-time psychologists in prisons or correctional institutions. Of the 3,106 questionnaires returned by the same group in 1944, 53 men and 27 women said they were employed in prisons or correctional institutions. Although these data support Corsini’s estimation that between 80 and 100 psychologists were employed in the nation’s correctional facilities during the early to mid-1940s, it is interesting to note that, by the mid-1940s, approximately one-third of prison psychologists were women.

Psychologists entered the Canadian correctional system much later, perhaps as late as the early 1950s. Watkins (1992) notes that Canadian correctional psychology made its first appearance in the literature in 1952 in a series of newsletters published by the Ontario Psychological Association. The newsletters focused on psychology in the Ontario provincial corrections programs and the federal correctional service. The first correctional psychologist in the federal system in Canada was employed in 1955 at St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary (later renamed Laval Institution) in Quebec (Watkins, 1992). Correctional psychologists in Canada were at first employed primarily to classify inmates for security placement and were usually not a com­ponent of the mental health treatment afforded to inmates. In the United States, their role appears to have been broader. Since these early days, however, Canada in many ways has outpaced American corrections—particularly state prison systems—both in developing risk assessment instruments and providing rehabilitation services to inmates (Wormith & Luong, 2007).

Classification, however, has always been an important enterprise for psychologists working in correctional settings. Reliable offender classification was (and is) both an important service to offer to correctional administrators and in many respects a prerequisite to effective treatment. In both the United States and Canada, from the mid-20th century on, psychologists became increasingly involved in devel­oping and testing more sophisticated classification systems. One of the earliest of these “modern” systems was the Jesness (1971) Classification System. Best known, however, was the system proposed by Edwin Megargee and based on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Megargee (1977), using his research on overcontrolled and undercontrolled personalities as a springboard, identified 10 “inmate types.” Prison officials then made use of these groupings to assign inmates to custody levels, job assignments, and rehabilitation programs. Megargee’s system is still in use in some prison systems, and Clements (1996) observed that Megargee deserves much credit for providing correctional psychologists with an excellent list of seven criteria for a good classification system.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, correctional psychology as a subdiscipline of forensic psychology began to expand. Even to this day, though, many if not most psychologists working in corrections prefer to be called correctional psychologists rather than forensic psychologists (Magaletta, Patry, Dietz, & Ax, 2007). This may be because they see their primary function as one of providing services to inmates, not to the legal system. Until the 1960s and 1970s, although there were exceptions, psychologists in correctional facilities focused more on classification than on treatment, although important treatment models were proposed by psychologists such as Herbert Quay and Marguerite Warren (Brodsky, 2007). Nevertheless, treatment was not the predominant activity, both because the demand for diagnostic services was great and the obstacles relative to respecting confidentiality and achieving the trust of inmates were difficult to surmount.

Perhaps even more relevant was the suspicion directed toward psychologists by both administrative and correctional staffs. In an essay reviewing this period in the history of correctional psychology, Brodsky (2007) cited examples of military psychologists being given punitive assignments or civilian psychologists being obstructed from providing meaningful treatment services to inmates—in some cases even reporting for work to find themselves no longer employed, their possessions waiting for them at the prison gate. “With the exception of psychologists in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, psychologists working in American prisons reported organizational impediments to conducting meaningful assessments and offering meaningful treatment” (p. 864).

In the 1960s, rehabilitation as a correctional goal began to gain favor, and—in some but certainly not all prison settings—psychologists spent more time working directly with offenders and providing treatment services. Although positions were plentiful, the turnover rate was high, primarily because psychologists often had not received adequate preparation for responding to the unique challenges of these environments (Watkins, 1992).

One noteworthy innovation that was introduced in federal prisons during this era was the unit management system, which was initially conceptualized by Daniel Glaser (1964) and later promoted by Robert Levinson (Toch, 1992). Unit management divided prison populations into small groups of prisoners and staff members based on the programming needs of the former and the expertise of the latter. Some units—those in which more intensive treatment services could be provided—became “therapeutic communities.” Other units provided education, training, or work experiences, together with some counseling (Toch, 1992). Although unit management lost support in the United States during the punitive 1980s and 1990s (with overcrowding having its obvious effects), the concept survives in some state and federal facilities, particularly where substance abuse treatment is provided.

Many correctional psychologists worked in the trenches during the 1960s and early 1970s and made significant contributions. Stanley Brodsky was instrumental in launching modern correctional psychology in the United States, but many other individuals (e.g., Robert Levinson, Ascher Pacht, Hans Toch, Edwin Megargee, and Marguerite Warren) made significant contributions as well. Canada has its own group of pioneers who have had great impact on correctional philosophy and practice on an international level. They include psychologists Paul Gendreau, Karl Hanson, Don Andrews, and many others whose work is cited in the excellent historical reviews and summaries of Watkins (1992) and Wormith and Luong (2007).

In the United States, Brodsky’s term as president of the American Association for Correctional Psychology (AACP) helped provide the impetus to move correctional psychology into a recognized and viable profession. (The AACP was actually born in 1953 with the name Society of Correctional Psychologists and underwent several name changes during the late 1950s through the early 1970s [Bartol & Freeman, 2005; Brodsky, 2007]. It is now called the International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology.) During 1972 and 1973, with Brodsky at the helm, the AACP played a key role in setting up a series of conferences on psychology in the criminal justice system, with emphasis on corrections. The proceedings were published in a volume edited by Brodsky (1973), Psychologists in the Criminal Justice System. The publication of this influential book could arguably be the official launch date of modern correctional psychology, even though the AACP itself predated Brodsky’s book. Brodsky also became the founding editor of the international journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, launched in 1974 and sponsored by the AACP. Brodsky’s leadership and enthusiasm also helped build one of the earliest doctoral programs specifically designed to prepare clinical psychologists to work in the criminal justice system, particularly corrections, at the University of Alabama. In the late 1970s, the APA approved a clinical internship in corrections at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. Today, such programs exist in a variety of colleges and universities, many of which provide internship opportunities for students in state prisons as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Return to overview of the History of Forensic Psychology.