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The Failure of Correctional Counseling and Reentry
By Daniel Patrick Downen M.S. AJ/S
Published: 02/20/2012

Counsellingsession Reentry is the process of assimilating offenders back into society and our communities from prison. Its aim is to assist offenders in personal and vocational growth in order to increase probability that they will not recidivate. At most, we should strive to habilitate the offender to a state where they can earn a lawful living, pay taxes and not reoffend. At least, we should address moral reasoning skills and problem solving proficiencies to increase likelihood they will not reoffend.

I must premise this by stating there are some departments with comprehensive and effective Correctional Counseling and Reentry Programs in place that increase public safety and decrease recidivism. However, many don’t. Too many are not substantially committed to reentry initiatives and only put into place enough to fulfill a perfunctory role, minimum department requirements or political correctness. If tax payers understood the enormous cost savings associated with reduced recidivism through effective counseling and reentry they would hold their elected officials and prison administrators accountable and insist on aggressive action. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics taxpayers could save a large portion of the $100 billion spent for criminal justice activities through the nationwide implementation of effective rehabilitation programs. This is especially important when considering the cost of rehabilitating an offender is incurred once but the cost of repeated criminal activity can last a life time.

Retooling our core

Typically a Correctional Counseling and Reentry model is primarily facility based with a regimented curriculum of classes, therapeutic programming and casework. Anger Management, Parenting, Substance Abuse, GED and perhaps some vocational type classes like Culinary Arts, Construction Technology and the like are common. All good and well-intended but will usually fall short if not appropriately supported by a sound Correctional Counseling and Reentry strategic framework. It is important to understand Correctional Counselors are not licensed therapists. They are however responsible for general guidance and life skills counseling. If utilized appropriately, they can lay the foundation to enable many offenders to understand the importance of personal growth that comes from improved analytical thinking, decision making and problem solving skills. Cell house counseling is in fact the origin of the reentry process. It is this critical service that serves as the backbone in the reentry process. Unfortunately, it receives the least administrative support.

Cell house counseling that is provided on a regular and continuous basis throughout an offender’s incarceration is the core of reentry and should be supported by the occasional short term class room instruction. Not vice versa. Cell house counseling has been forsaken as non-essential or at least under-utilized for too long. It possesses the most potential if properly administered. It is the cell house counselor who will have the most contact with offenders and therefore in position to have the most impact. When the occasional, short term class becomes the primary component in reentry, we are not optimizing our counseling resources in the most efficient way possible. This is a major design flaw and if we are going to improve results, we must fix it. Day to day cell house counseling services must be supported as the primary component in reentry.

Intensive Case Management

To successfully influence offenders, correctional counselors must have very small offender caseload with at least monthly minimum contact standards that affords a well-trained counselor the time resources to provide meaningful individual and small group counseling, life coaching and moral reconstruction. Often counselors are overburdened with clerical or administrative related duties and tasks that don’t further habilitation of the offender which in turn undermines the very purpose of intensive case management. Duties that divert priority away from face to face therapeutic contact with the offender will decrease desired results. Having smaller caseloads is not enough if substantial contacts are not stressed. The primary objective in Intensive Case Management is to increase the number of quality, substantive contacts. Too many departments will increase contact standards without focusing on substance. This too is a waste of time and resources.

The recommended caseload size ranges from one to two hundred offenders. Much over this accompanied with cumbersome unrelated job duties will drastically minimize successful outcomes and transforms the function of correctional counseling to a perfunctory process. Intensive case management is integral because a counselor must feel they have the necessary face to face time to spend with each offender to properly evaluate and ensure proper guidance and counseling service delivery. It is important to remember we are attempting to teach life skills to an adult offender who has never been taught the skills needed to successfully navigate society. As such we must concentrate on the basics of personal growth, moral reconstruction, problem solving and decision making as a foundational beginning.

Additionally, this must be developed as a long term strategy not an overnight fix. If implemented and managed correctly significant impact on recidivism will be realized over years not months and will pass the test of time. Our goal is to provide efficient corrections that increases public safety. It is essential we utilize an Intensive Case Management Model that does not bog down correctional counselors with time diverting nontherapeutic tasks.

Professional Development

Intensive case management allows counselors the time required to facilitate meaningful guidance counseling to an offender population. However, the smallest caseloads are not enough if counselors are not properly equipped to do the difficult work they are charged with doing. Too many departments promote employees into counselor positions without providing the professional development necessary to successfully counsel offenders. As a result the effectiveness of the counselor is not optimized and the primary focus is shifted away from quality offender contact and rehabilitative counseling to more of a system that simply addresses offender requests for what they want. The focus should be on what they need.

If a counselor or a facilities’ Clinical Services Department is going to achieve high performance in recidivism reduction that increases public safety, professional development must be given its due attention in the administrative tactical direction. A comprehensive Counselor Training Program must be developed. One that provides professional tutelage in basic counseling skills like Active Listening, use of Voice Tone, Body language, the use of Open and Closed Ended Questions, the use of Self Disclosure, Paraphrasing and Feedback, Summarizing and Note Taking. An effective counselor will also understand the complexities of empathy and hone advanced skills of Motivational Interviewing.

The Vocational Push

It makes no logical sense to lock up an under socialized, unskilled individual in a cell for the majority of his incarceration, and not provide any or very little substantial vocational training. Finally, at the end of his incarceration, we release him and expect him not to recidivate. If an offender is not taught a legitimate means to make a living, upon release he will no doubt return to what he knows to make money and survive. For success in reentry, Vocational Training must be given an elevated level of importance and priority. Keep in mind, in most cases we are not rehabilitating, we are habilitating. We are not bringing the offender back to a point he was. We are teaching him skills to bring him to a point he should have been. We must teach real life job skills and begin the process of indoctrinating him with a strong work ethic. With that said, job training must be realistic, begin at the facility, continue in his community, be based on aptitude and immediately applicable upon release. To reduce recidivism, more offenders must have marketable job skills as they reenter society.

Taking it to the Streets

One of the most concerning mistakes made in reentry modeling is one of design and execution. Most reentry models do an adequate job of providing facility based therapeutic and habilitative support. However, when the offender is released into the community these services dry up and there is no one for him to turn to for assistance when faced with difficulty that he lacks the skills to resolve. Any habilitative assistance previously offered stopped at the gates. Remember, we are not talking about college graduates. We are talking about under socialized adult offenders with arrested intellectual and emotional development.

For reentry to succeed we must complete the job. A system overhaul is required. Reentry programing to be a complete process cannot stop at the gates. Counseling support must accompany the offender home. There must be a community component that offers a continuation of services that follows the offender back into his community at least until he can function appropriately. Reentry must incorporate a community correctional counseling (CCC) phase that provides follow up on services received at the institution. These CCC’s will pick up where the facility counselors left off. They will help the offender better address their free world difficulties of finding and maintaining employment, family dysfunction, utilizing social services, treatment issues, education and finding a positive direction in life. Additionally, they should extend the continuum of life coaching discussing needs verses wants, delayed gratification, coping with injustice, morale reasoning, understanding the human impact of crime and making amends.

The Final Design

If we are going to take Reentry to the next level we must utilize our resources wisely. It is essential we understand increasing public safety is reducing recidivism and transforming as many offenders as possible into law abiding, tax paying citizens is in our best interest. It is therefore crucial we develop a long term plan today to ensure better results tomorrow. Any correctional counseling strategy that does not incorporate true Cell House Intensive Case Management and proven Professional Development Programing will not work. If the set up does not freely afford well trained counselors the needed time to counsel, we fail to increase public safety. Reentry modeling that does not provide realistic offender Vocational Training and a follow up Community Counseling Component will not effectively reduce recidivism.

The next generation of corrections professionals will inherit a broken system of incarceration that produces very little and minimizes public safety if nothing changes. However, if we want a better system that genuinely improves public safety we must think big and become agents of change with a vision for the future of corrections.

We must change course.

References: 1) U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; 1992-1993. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics.

Corrections.com author Daniel P Downen MS. AJ/S received an M.S. in the Administration of Justice and Security from the University of Phoenix and a B.S. in the Administration of Justice from Southern IL. University at Carbondale. He has served in the following capacities, Juvenile & Adult Probation Officer, Intensive Supervision Program Manager, and Agency Supervisor. He is currently a Corrections Counselor With the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

Other articles by Downen:


  1. Maryam Khatri on 04/19/2020:

    Correctional counseling has not been good, and I am glad that you're owning up to it. The construction lawyers sydney will be happy to learn about the article that's been written here, and I'll share this article with them.

  2. mattykolej on 05/27/2019:

    In my opinion, this is a quite difficult process. I am going to be a lawyer and now I am studying at college. As far as I remember, we discussed such a theme and even had to write an essay about it. I usually use paper writing services that's why I can't say for sure

  3. onisimo on 12/25/2012:

    Actually I agree with the article, corrections systems and processes should be very clearly layed out and monitored. Yes, counselors should be given time with their inmates. In Fiji the same problem highlighted seems to exist. They are seen to be inefficient and not fully supported even though the target is to reduce recidivism. Shortage of manpower and leaders without mindset change occupy the territory of work and rip off the essential time from providers. Your article is very interesting and I believe alot has to be done to improve our corrections system.

  4. smokegrl on 02/17/2012:

    NYS is doing a good job on training counselors in the technique of motivational interviewing. However, I myself have way too much clerical work to do, and actually had to file a complaint about the amount of filing I had to do. My caseload normally used to run 225, I covered for a girl who went out on maternity leave, then it went up to 350. She wound up transferring, and another counselor transferred, leaving me with a caseload of 500. It is impossible to spend any quality time with any of my inmates...I don't even know their names anymore!! I do agree with many points expressed in your article. To the public, security staff, etc. Counselors just aren't that important unfortunately. I have a M.A. from John Jay College, and plan on leaving someday, as I am way too overqualified for my position. Perhaps I'll get involved in street aspect of reentry process. We'll see! S. Barrett, C.C. M.A. NYS DOCS

  5. dg19713 on 02/15/2012:

    I do agree with this article but there is a lot more to this problem in most of the prisons (State). One of the problems is the mindset that most female staff want to sleep with offenders and vise versa because of this issue some prison will establish time limits when speaking to offenders or if you speak to the offender too much you must be having in appropriate relations with them and when dealing with re-entry communication is a big key especially for those who have more needs. I see inexperienced staff becoming counselors and friends being promoted to supervisory positions regardless of their experience and because of staff shortages most staff is not held accountable for wrong doing. Another issue is the moral with prison staff is terribly low for various reason which, causes a severe backlash with the offenders. Now, there is a lot more to this but I would end up writing a book if I list all the issues that I have seen and or heard. End result we need to clean up our yard first before we can expect that same mindset to trickle down to the offenders.

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