Social work in incarceration institutions, such as prisons and jails, may seem odd and farfetched. The incorporation of the concept of social work in the operation and management of incarceration institutions has existed in America since the early 18th century. In the 1800s, several social workers and social work organizations were heavily involved in the operation and management of prisons and jails. In the contemporary world, social work is an integral part of the American incarceration system and has a firm legal backing. Social work is fundamental in incarceration institutions as it ensures that the fundamental human rights and dignity of inmates are guaranteed, and this is quite vital to the rehabilitation process of the American prison system.
History of Social Work in Correctional Facilities
The influence of social work in the American prison system can be traced back to the 1800s. Although in the 1800s social work was not deemed as a profession, numerous social workers engaged with the American prisons and jails in a bid to take care of juvenile offenders in incarceration institutions (Vakalahi & Godinet, 2004). Social work officially became formalized as a profession in America in 1904, with a set of core values and doctrines that regulated the profession. One of the core values that regulated the profession was the doctrine of self-determination, which was limitedly interpreted to exclude incarceration institutions from the purview of social work due to the then prevalent authoritarian approach utilized in the American incarceration institutions (Vakalahi & Godinet, 2004). According to Olson (2005), the exclusion of correction institutions from the purview of social work did not deter individual social workers from dealing with delinquents and juveniles within American prisons. In the late 1940s, legendary social worker Kenneth Pray instigated a national debate on the place of social work within the American incarceration institutions. Kenneth Pray argued that social workers should be incorporated into the American correction system to help in the rehabilitation and integration of both adult and juvenile offenders back into society at the end of their sentences (Redfoot, Feinberg, & Houser, 2013). The national debate on the place of social work within the American prison system led to the official incorporation of social work into the American prisons and correction facilities.
The Legal Background of Social Work in Correctional Facilities
The place of social work within the American correctional facilities has a grounding on the law. The American Supreme Court, in the early 20th century, took note of the importance of social work in American prisons and jails. In the American Supreme Court case of Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the court held that prisoners are also humans; hence they should have their fundamental human rights guaranteed (Romero & Agénor, 2009). In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court held that prisoners have a fundamental right to access both basic and psychiatric medical care (Romero & Agénor, 2009). The court, in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle (1980), laid out the basic mandates that define and inform the purview of social work in the correctional institutions of America. The mandates include the identification of each prisoner’s medical problems, and where possible, their treatment; the keeping of inmates in a clean, safe, and human-friendly environment; and ensuring that prisoners are handled by well-trained professionals (Rose, 2014). The above mandates by the court in the Ruiz v. Estelle (1980) paved the way for social work to permeate into the once dictatorial confines of the American correctional system.
The Place of The Social Worker in Prison
Social work in correction institutions is challenging as there are numerous involvements. The need for social work services in prisons stems out of the demand for provision of quality services to inmates incarcerated in the American correction facilities. The role of social workers concerning social work in prisons is quite diverse. Social workers working within the American prison system provide basic and specialized healthcare services to both the adult and juvenile populations in prison. The provision of both basic and specialized health services to inmates is the basic role of social workers working with inmates (Rutherford, 1991). According to Rose (2014), social workers attached in incarceration centers are charged with assessing the physical and mental health of inmates upon their admission into prison. From the assessments, the social worker is then tasked with providing the required medical intervention to any sick inmate. The social workers must make special arrangements for the hospitalization and accommodation of mentally ill inmates (Taifa, 2004). Social workers also have to ensure that the prison environments are safe and clean to ensure that the dignity of prisoners is maintained.
Social workers attached to incarceration facilities engage in the advocacy for reforms in the American criminal justice system. The American criminal justice system is wrought with numerous evils, such as racial profiling, among others. Rutherford (1991) asserts that the number of African-American individuals held up in American prisons is way more compared to inmates from other racial groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013, the Black and Latino males locked up in the American prisons comprised a whopping 63 percent of the total American inmate population. Social workers are thus charged with the difficult task of advocating for reforms within the American criminal justice system. The social workers have to trace and research for the causes of the evils that pervade the American criminal justice to advocate for changes (Schram et al., 2009). The social workers also have to look at the problems facing juvenile and women inmates and come up with rational and dialectic recommendations on how to solve the problems. As noted by Evans-Campbell & Campbell (2010), one of the most effective ways of advocating for change in the American criminal service is by forming political pressure groups to pile pressure on the political elite to make amendments to the American criminal laws.
The social workers attached in prisons also help the inmates to rehabilitate by coming up with rehabilitation programs for inmates. The main role of prisons and incarceration facilities is to rehabilitate the locked-up inmates and help them integrate back into society. The rehabilitation and integration of inmates require specialized rehabilitation programs that aim at imparting vocational and educational training to the inmates. The cost of coming up with an effective rehabilitation program, especially for a large population, is quite expensive, and this is where social workers step in (Medina, 2010). Social workers attached to prisons have the opportunity to interact with specific inmates or groups of inmates and identify their particular areas of interest, thereby making their assignment into pertinent rehabilitation programs much easier. Moreover, integration programs are quite important to ensure the smooth transition of individuals from prisons to society. Most long-term convicts relapse back to crime soon after they are done serving their terms due to the hostile reception they receive from society once they are freed (Medina, 2010). The problem of recidivism, which is defined as the process by which a person repeats an undesirable act even after being punished, can be solved by the proper integration of convicts back into society (Magaña, 2011). Similar to rehabilitation programs, integration programs, and initiatives are quite expensive and cannot be adequately provided and maintained by the government. Therefore, social workers rise to the challenge of providing the requisite integration programs needed to foster the smooth transition from prison to society. Through integration programs, social workers provide inmates with the requisite skills required to integrate back into society. Social workers also provide the convicts with employment opportunities upon the completion of their sentences to ensure the freed convicts do not resort to their former lives of crime.
Social workers operating with incarcerated individuals are charged with providing legal services to needy inmates. Numerous inmates in America require legal services, although they end up lacking legal presentations due to the high costs of procuring legal services. Lack of legal presentation, more so among inmates charged with federal criminal charges, is responsible for the conviction of numerous innocent inmates who, with proper legal representation, would have walked scot-free. Thus, social workers offer free legal services to inmates in a bid to help them avoid long-term convictions and even the death penalty in extreme cases. To tackle the issue of inmates’ representation, social workers should advocate for the provision of free or subsided legal services to inmates, especially those facing felony charges. Social workers working in correctional facilities also have the responsibility of advocating for a national policy on criminal justice issues to ensure that inmates’ issues are well taken care of. The American policy on criminal justice is quite outdated and provides for the numerous evils that pervade the American justice system (Acevedo, 2010). Acevedo (2010) adds that social workers have the responsibility of drafting a national policy on criminal justice that takes into account the realities of prison-life. Since social workers attached to incarceration facilities have direct access to the prisoners and can relate to their struggles and challenges, they are best placed to come up with the national policy on the American criminal justice system. León & Ortega (2010) opine that a national policy on criminal justice should seek to answer the hard questions on the racial profiling and disproportionate incarceration of ethnic minorities and the ubiquitous arrest and imprisonment of mentally ill individuals. According to León & Ortega (2010), America has one of the highest numbers of mentally ill individuals in its prisons in the world. This is largely attributed to the fact that America has a shortage of critical psychiatric facilities that offer specialized medical attention to those suffering from mental illnesses.
Challenges Facing Social Work in Correctional Facilities
Social workers attached to correctional facilities face numerous challenges due to the conflicting values of social work with the dictates of correctional policies. Segal (2010) affirms that social workers attached to prisons normally face numerous ethical and value dilemmas as contemporary correctional facilities are not focused on rehabilitation but behavioral control and punishment of offenders. The focus on punishment and behavioral control by the American prison system makes the work of the social workers difficult, as the human rights and dignity of the prisoners are not guaranteed (Acevedo, 2010). Social workers have to decide between sticking to the authoritarian rules that regulate the operation of prisons and their social values, which they need to professionally safeguard. Social work within the precincts of prison is made difficult by the numerous special groups that exist in the American correction facilities. Some of the special groups that exist within the American correctional facilities include children of incarcerated parents and the mentally ill. Most women convicts are admitted to prison while pregnant and deliver while still in prison. This brings a lot of issues, both ethical and professional, with regard to social work. The question as to whether the child is also a criminal due to her mother’s crimes and whether the child should also be punished together with her mother becomes quite pertinent. The social workers are troubled on how to handle the children who find themselves behind bars due to the illegal actions of their mothers. Moreover, according to Segal (2010), more than 67 percent of inmates in America are parents. Acevedo (2010) argues that parental incarceration has serious effects on the psychological development of children. Scientific research reveals that inmates with children undergo psychological distress and torture when they relive the fact that they left their kids all alone when they got admitted into prison. The issue of children, whether born in prison or born by incarcerated parents, muddles further the murky waters that are social workers in prison.
American correctional facilities have a high number of mentally ill inmates, and this makes it difficult for the smooth operation of social work in prisons. Mentally ill inmates require specialized care and treatment compared to other inmates who only need basic healthcare services. The high prevalence of the mentally ill makes it difficult for social workers to carry out their normal operations in the prisons, as most of them lack the requisite training and skills required to deal with the mentally ill. Moreover, working with the mentally ill unfairly exposes the social workers to harm, as most of the mentally ill inmates exhibit high inclination towards violence (Sole-Smith, 2015). Magaña (2011) argues that social workers can, however, come up with programs specifically tailored for the mentally ill inmates. Those programs should aim at providing specialized psychiatric help to the mentally ill inmates. Moreover, the social work programs should aim at providing a safe environment for the mentally ill, normally separate from other normal inmates.
Social work in prisons, especially in America, is quite challenging and requires not only professional competence but also personal dedication and passion for social work. Regardless of the difficulties involved, social work in prisons is quite essential and is required for the smooth running of the American prison system. Proper social work involves the identification of the challenges currently beleaguering the American correctional facilities and coming up with dialectic and pertinent recommendations to the solutions. For the actualization of the recommendations, social workers have to take the last step to advocate for change by pressuring the political elite to reform the American criminal justice system and the prison system.
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