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One CE Credit

Self-Renewal for Correctional Psychologists: Common Challenges and Successful Solutions  by Philip R. Magaletta, PhD,and Rokas Perskaudas, MA

Instructional Level: Intermediate

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the challenges and rewards of practicing psychology in a correctional setting.
  • Describe self-care strategies and self-renewal processes for correctional psychologists.
*The views and opinions contained in this essay are those of the authors only and do not reflect the views and opinions of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Department of Justice, or the Catholic University of America.


Professional psychologists practicing in corrections assume a wide range of roles. They deliver psychological services to inmates whose treatment and reentry needs are numerous and varied. They facilitate security and custody in a public safety/law enforcement practice setting that is equally complex and demanding. Ultimately, correctional psychologists engaged in this work must be able to balance the competing demands from within the system, and--while applying their knowledge of psychology--assure that they are also taking care of themselves.

Identifying and using strategies that promote self-care in corrections work can be a challenge. To assure that self-care strategies and self-renewal processes are relevant and adoptable by correctional psychologists they must meet three criteria. First, they should be congruent with, reflective of, and informed by the needs and realities of public safety/law enforcement organizational cultures. Second, they should be "empirically-supported" in that they map onto the best available burnout prevention and self-renewal literatures from both law enforcement and psychotherapy. Third, they should be envisioned across correctional psychologist career stages in a series of developmentally appropriate and sensitive methods. Ultimately, the healing of inmates requires a healing environment within corrections, and to heal corrections requires the involvement of healthy staff. Such staff are committed to: (1) knowing the common challenges within the correctional setting that require a self-care response; (2) doing what is required over time to facilitate adoption of self-renewal processes.

Knowing: Raising Consciousness about the Common Challenges of the Correctional Practice Setting

The work of psychologists who deliver services within correctional facilities presents several challenges, and the process of self-renewal among correctional psychologists must begin with raising consciousness of the nature of these challenges. An understanding of how correctional psychology becomes truly "correctional" begins with education and training provided by administrators, supervisory feedback, and supportive peer consultation. Those who wish to assist correctional psychologists in the process of self-renewal must appropriately and consistently reflect the types of challenges that will be encountered in the practice environment. Specifically, this reflection must accurately portray the independent and combined stressors derived from law enforcement practice alongside those stressors derived from clinical practice. Failure to understand or remain aware of these challenges creates vulnerabilities in correctional psychologists and may lead to adverse consequences, such as distress, role confusion, and burnout. Successful self-care strategies can only emerge with an awareness of these challenges presented by the correctional environment.

Law Enforcement Stressors

Practicing within a law enforcement setting exposes correctional psychologists to the same stressors that are part and parcel of law enforcement work. Based upon the best empirical studies on sources of correctional officer stress, Brower (2013) outlined four main categories of law enforcement stressors: inmate-related, organizational/administrative, occupational, and psychosocial. Inmate-related stressors are often the most readily understood for they concern the actions and behaviors of inmates directly under the correctional system's care. Such actions may include gang activity, sexual violence, and suicide, among others. Stressors in the organizational domain similarly feature direct associations with the administrative structure of correctional systems and may include understaffing, high caseloads, and policy-mandated paperwork. They can each become routine sources of potential stress for the correctional psychologist and their correctional colleagues.

Occupational Stressors

Occupational stressors arise from practicing in an occupation that places utmost importance upon consistently high rates of personal reliability. In a seminal volume on the future of corrections, Chris Innes (2015) situated corrections within the context of high-reliability occupations and organizational cultures (e.g., firefighters, air traffic controllers, or aircraft carrier deck operators,). Such systems and occupations are often characterized by a reluctance to simplify, a championing of multiple levels of redundancy, and commitment to resilience through close coordination and communication across units. Correctional systems must acknowledge and meet the demands created by an operational environment where an incident can quickly become a major crisis. This requires a high degree of organizational readiness and occupational vigilance, each of which can take an occupational toll upon correctional workers.

Psychosocial Stressors

Perhaps most pervasive are the psychosocial stressors associated with correctional work. Such stressors stem from a combination of individual level attributes and external sources that produce an internal stress response. A psychologist who is accustomed to an indirect non-assertive communication style may have trouble being assertive enough to mitigate potential conflict between inmates. Another psychologist may be assertive and direct in their communication with inmates, but become distressed when this style doesn't work in their family or parenting practices. Sometimes the culture of hyper-vigilance, lack of predictability, and role ambiguity between incarceration/rehabilitation can lead to distress. This may be expressed at work and home as sarcasm, negativity, fatigue. These psychosocial stressors are the ones most likely to transcend contexts into personal and family life producing compounded effects, all of which can place correctional workers at increased risk for eventual burnout if not properly managed (Brower, 2013).

Clinician Stressors

In addition to their law enforcement roles, correctional psychologists are also clinicians and the risk for burnout is especially high among caring professions that deal with trauma, death, and difficult populations (Ray, Wong, White, & Heaslip, 2013). Caring for another individual requires genuine human connection to ultimately be effective. Supporting human connection requires ongoing cultivation of personal resources to combat compassion fatigue and burnout. Self-care in such a context must therefore take an integrative, growth-based perspective of renewal.

An important recent review on burnout prevention among psychologists identified numerous job elements suggesting the need for self-renewal. Characteristics of the job environment are inherently important factors to consider. Prolonged hours spent doing rote administrative duties and successive paperwork correlate strongest with increased risk for burnout while a sense of control and workplace support are related to decreased risk. Personal resources are also key considerations. Psychologists who rely on emotional escape-avoidance solutions (e.g., wishful thinking, denial, substance abuse) are more prone to burnout. Maintenance of a sense of self-awareness and control, as well as reflecting on positive experiences of work, are  related to  emotional exhaustion, less depersonalization, and more personal accomplishment. Finally, the authors emphasized the importance of proactive balance in preventing psychologist burnout, whether between the bi-directional nature of the workplace and the home or among personal and professional strengths and weaknesses (Rupert, Miller, & Dorociak, 2015).

Interactional Stressors: Clinical x Law Enforcement

Tewksbury (1993) used the term interactional stressors to denote how the prison environment interacted with the professional duties of post-secondary correctional educators to conceive novel stressors of magnified intensity. Correctional psychologists experience similar, if not expanded, interactional stressors arising from the nature of the work they do and the context in which that work unfolds. The interactional stressors that develop for correctional psychologists touch upon both the unique challenges of being a care professional as well as the unique challenges of following a law enforcement mandate (Magaletta & Boothby, 2003).

For example, three common clinical features of inmates are trauma histories, dynamic suicidality, and personality disorders. These features have each been independently researched and are known to be extremely difficult to treat. They have also been found to have profound impacts on practicing clinicians. Of note, Rupert et al. (2015) highlighted that while time spent providing psychotherapy may actually increase psychologists' sense of accomplishment, an exception exists when clients are potentially psychotic, suicidal, aggressive, and prone to pushing boundaries. Correctional psychologists may have repeated interactions with such individuals who not only live in the facility but also have constant access to their service provider amidst the 24-hour-a-day correctional environment. Maintaining awareness of this interactional challenge, knowing the effects, and addressing them in a self-renewal approach is an important consideration.

Moreover, inmates can be a strikingly complex, heterogeneous clinical population with more divergent motivations, intrapersonal strengths and interpersonal weaknesses than is likely to be experienced in other practice settings (Lovell & Jemelka, 1998). The dizzying history of risk factors that follow incarcerated individuals offers challenges to contemporary theories of behavior change. This complexity often requires correctional psychologists to adapt accordingly. The question of how to best implement evidence based practices within the secure borders of the correctional facility must be thoughtfully considered and adapted. Expectations of how therapeutic alliances are built must be revisited, renewed, and shaped through repeated experiences of mistrust, boundary testing, and the overarching potential for aggression.

Regardless of the clinical complexity of the inmates, many of the services delivered in correctional settings are required by policy, not clinical presentation. For example, consider the psychological screening of all inmates who arrive on a bus at a new facility. In some of the larger or more urban facilities, this service may be required on a daily basis and constitutes a significant amount of rote administrative duties and successive paperwork, which Rupert et al. (2015) distinguish as being a primary contributor to emotional exhaustion and decreased personal accomplishment among psychologists in general.

It is clear that the correctional environment can present a complex assembly of interactional stressors impacting a psychologist at multiple levels. Such stressors neither detract from inmates' psychological service needs nor minimize the extensive contributions that psychologists make on many levels in correctional settings, but add to the burden placed on individual psychologists working in such settings. Recognition must be awarded to the fact that entire professional careers that are clinically rich and personally rewarding can be--and indeed are--successfully established, sustained, and concluded within corrections. Understanding the common challenges associated with correctional mental health work is only a prelude to taking the self-care actions that support the process of self-renewal and meaningfully maintain a correctional psychologist's career.

Doing: Taking Action to Adapt to the Common Challenges, Establish Successful Solutions, and Stay Whole

Although there are no specific studies on self-care strategies or self-renewal processes among correctional psychologists, a recent study on Early Career Correctional Psychologists (ECCP) provides a good place to start. This qualitative study examined more than 190 ECCPs who described the best advice they had received so far in their corrections work. Despite being faced with the task of acclimating to a policy-driven correctional organization, ECCPs maintained a very clear awareness of how important self-care is when working in corrections (Magaletta, et. al., 2016). Development and application of "best advice received" categories revealed a frequent focus on finding equilibrium between personal and professional lives (balance); remaining open to change (flexibility), and career/professional development. ECCPs likewise noted that, outside of documentation and policy knowledge, their immediate training needs revolved around building personal and professional resources through networking; continued professional development; finding equilibrium between personal and professional lives; and employing self-care techniques to increase positive experiences and personal wellness while avoiding increased stress and burnout risk. Thus, even during an early transition phase into the correctional environment, these psychologists were able to express the importance and value of using self-care strategies. The strategies discussed next provide a rough road map for how self-renewal can ultimately unfold.

Create a Space to Dialogue with Others About Self-Care Needs

Correctional psychologists work in a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week setting. They are constantly interacting and dealing with the expectations of inmates and other staff. To allow clinicians an opportunity to talk about their own needs requires supervisors and colleagues to be diligent and courageous in their attempts to make time to listen to one another and ask the important questions, such as "how are you doing?" Within a psychology department, personal contemplation of self-care strategies and self-renewal processes can be encouraged simply by taking the time to discuss self-care as a group, conveying that it is necessary for every individual to actively practice self-care strategies.

Express Gratitude in the Created Space

Besides taking the action of creating space for self-care needs to be discussed, another action that supervisors can propagate and individuals can utilize is gratitude. Gratitude exercises have poignant mental, physiological, and psychosocial benefits for those who practice them. They also stimulate a positive attitude focused on building and maintaining resources through self-renewal (Wicks, 2014). In a recent training with ECCPs we asked participants to reflect upon what they were grateful for in their lives and work. Participants cited being grateful for their families' influence on finding balance between work/life; close mentoring by supervisors and peer associates; the support systems that engaged coworkers have built for each other; and humor. These responses echo many of the empirically supported positive career-sustaining behaviors endorsed by psychologists for longstanding growth and strong performance (Malinowski, 2013; Stevanovic & Rupert, 2004). Even this brief moment of reflection in a week long training session was very powerful.

Seek and Set Frequent Self-Care Reminders

There is no shortage of influences that will erode self-care attempts. Hence, creating reminders of concrete self-care activities and increasing their salience over time can be an extremely helpful strategy. We recently used this strategy in an ECCP training when we asked participants to write a self-care letter to themselves to help define self-care as an ongoing and dynamic process (i.e., self-renewal). Prompts were provided to either personally explore the idiosyncratic self-care strategies that are most beneficial to them, to encourage their future self to make time for self-care, and/or reflect on the passion that drives them to provide compassionate care for the population they serve. The completed letters were sealed in self-addressed envelopes and returned to their respective writers at random times at least half a year after the training. Receiving these letters will ideally serve as some momentum for self-renewal by maintaining a focus on the need to continue self-care long after the immediate effects of training may have worn off.

Seek, Explore, and Reap the Benefits of Alone Time

One of the first authors to describe the field of correctional psychology is Robert Wicks. He later went on to produce a remarkably insightful and informative set of books on the topic of self-renewal amongst caregivers. A common thread throughout his work and a prime strategy he advocates for remains applicable to corrections work today. It is the need to recognize and seek out spaces before, during, and after the work day where one can be alone to reflect, reorient oneself, reestablish perspective, and air out the expectations placed on us by others as well as ourselves.

Many correctional facilities are often located in rural areas--containers of vast generative silence, pastoral serenity, and timeless awe--that can help facilitate this reflection process. In the vastness of nature one can more readily expand and unfold what has become constricted, narrowed and tightened during the day-to-day administrative and clinically complex culture of corrections practice. Careers in corrections can pay vast dividends for those that are cognizant of these features of geography and understand how to use them in a self-renewal plan.

These contemplative opportunities exist inside the facility too. Despite the noisiness of a correctional facility, there are moments of quiet when--if the psychologist is present--a self-renewal experience may be had. Just a glimmer of awareness is all that may be required to recognize that the sixty seconds spent waiting for a steel door to slide open can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Connecting together such short, reflective encounters throughout the day can have a significant benefit in a correctional psychologist's evolving self-renewal process.

Explore Opportunities to Align Self-Care Strategies and Self-Renewal Processes with the Mission of the Organization

Self-care can be a set of rote actions devoid of interconnection to a context, but self-care practices are exponentially more beneficial when integrated with the foundations of an organizational culture. The intuitive extrapolation is that organizations function best when the people in them are operating at their best. For example, hopeful, self-efficacious, optimistic, and resilient employees engender organizations with analogous characteristics by building collective psychological capital (PsyCap; Luthans, 2002; McKenny, Short, & Payne, 2012). Similarly, corrections benefits most from an individual's continued personal and professional development when that growth is related to the core values of the organization.

How does one integrate the core values of an organization into self-renewal? The role of supervisors cannot be overstated, in that such individuals can best provide guidance as to how to balance organizational needs with self-care practices (Morganson, Litano, & O'Neill, 2014). If an organization values respect for those they serve, then supervisors can remind employees that respecting their own needs and self-renewal is a facet of genuine respect for others. If integrity is high on the list, then employees can be encouraged to keep themselves whole in order to maintain their steadfast dedication to ethical principles. If an organization prioritizes excellence in performance--and most organizations do to some extent--then each employee's self-care is an integral determinant of the performance level they can sustain. If an organization's expressed values are overly ambiguous, conflicting, or too numerous to grasp, integration of self-care into the organizational structure is impeded. Supervisors' roles in such situations become even more influential as their modeling, promotion and attempts to integrate self-care, may be the key to impelling organizations to adopt more proactive self-care strategies.

Consider Self-Renewal Along a Developmental Career Trajectory

Fundamentally, practicing self-care and maintaining self-renewal for the correctional mental health workforce is most adaptive when considered developmentally. Whereas ECCP developmental self-care strategies may be focused on those who are entering the system, learning its culture and establishing a work/self balance, a mid-career phase might place emphasis upon strategies for career sustainment via self-renewal, possibly by a mid-career assessment of how the individual's strengths and gifts positively contribute to the organizational culture, nurturance of ECCPs, and service-delivery improvement. Later career stage strategies might emphasis a technique for consolidating gains and preparing to disengage from the daily activities that form the work week.  Greater development and deepening of social networks and leisure pursuits are important in preparation for the late career transition.

Be Reminded of the Organizational and Occupational Benefits Across a Career Span

Awareness of the complexities of the correctional environment and service delivery to inmates must be balanced with the benefits associated with working in a correctional setting. A full appreciation of the organizational and occupational benefits of practice as a correctional psychologist (Norcross, 2000) is an important self-renewal strategy. Organizational benefits such as law enforcement pay and retirement plans as well as access to comprehensive insurance plans enhance employment in the correctional setting. The ability to relocate geographically, (depending on the size of the correctional system) and the availability of career advancement in different locales or in servicing different inmate populations (i.e., different risk levels, gender, clinical populations) is an additional factor providing correctional psychologists unique opportunities to shape career trajectories in personally meaningful ways. Working in a challenging environment also tends to engender camaraderie and shared bonds that facilitate family and social activities away from the institution. The opportunities for mid-career psychologists to mentor psychologists new to the many challenges of correctional work also serves as a significant source of self-renewal.

Several national studies of correctional psychologists highlight these and other benefits that may enhance self-care in the correctional setting. Nationally surveyed correctional psychologists report reasonably high levels of satisfaction with various aspects of their work despite challenges of working in the correctional environment (Boothby & Clements, 2002; Ferrell, Morgan, & Winterowd, 2000). Among the sources of satisfaction reported by Boothby and Clements (2002) were job security, safety, and relationships with inmates and coworkers. While the inclusion of job safety as a source of correctional job satisfaction may seem somewhat paradoxical, it should be recalled that correctional facilities place great emphasis on maintaining a safe environment. All staff are prepared for dealing with aggression and related deleterious behavior in a timely, orderly manner, a focus that may be missing in other settings where psychologists may be employed.


Delivering psychological services within correctional settings presents unique challenges. The first psychologist to systematically train others in the correctional environment was Professor William Root who, early in the 20th century, established an internship at Western State Penitentiary for University of Pittsburgh psychology graduate students. Today, psychology students have the advantage of a national training landscape where more than half the graduate programs in psychology offer external practica in criminal justice and correctional settings. There is resounding agreement that the broadly trained counseling and clinical psychology student who transitions to the role of a correctional psychologist is well prepared to meet the demands of the inmates they will serve. Teaching and encouraging them to stay healthy as they provide this public service is a responsibility that should not be overlooked, but rather courageously pursued. 

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