|Positive Psychology Group Therapy for Maximum Security Male Inmates: Identifying, Nurturing, and Enhancing Strengths and Virtues|
|By Alecia D. Chahine LMSW|
As a rookie prison therapist, I have quickly learned that among maximum security male inmates, the main topic of conversation will generally concern crime, drugs, sex, or prison gossip. Inmates often boast about what strategic criminal activity they have done or what they plan on doing in the future. Some commit crimes while incarcerated in an environment where manipulation is at its best.
What I have also learned is that many of these men want to be engaged. They want to feel like their time is worth something. They want to look forward to something positive and they want to maintain a sense of optimism. They long for positive interpersonal relationships and they want to have a sense of hope, to build resilience, and to have a purpose. They want to be happy.
But how does an inmate create happiness? How can one create a life worth living when constantly faced with hate and violence while primarily being surrounded by dirt, concrete, and metal fencing? How can an inmate really experience happiness with the lack of privacy, loss of freedom and rigid structure as in prison?
I began my search and started to gather literature and research. I quickly gravitated toward the positive social sciences and landed on Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Positive Psychology has been described as a type of psychotherapeutic preventative “medicine”. In other words, instead of only fixing something when it is sick or broken, positive psychologists advocate for identifying, nurturing, and enhancing those assets that contribute to mental wellbeing.
Looking through the Positive Psychology lens, I created a psychotherapeutic group for Maximum Security Inmates with lengthy sentences. I relied on several texts by Martin Seligman (the founder of Positive Psychology), Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and A Primer in Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson (2006). So far, I have completed 6 groups based on numerous Positive Psychology principles. I am currently facilitating 4 positive psychology groups of 8-13 participants at a maximum security correctional facility in Kansas.
The group covers 10-12 fundamental topics over the span of about 20 weeks. They are asked to focus on: strengths, gratitude, meaning/purpose, resilience, pleasure and positive experience, positive thinking, positive interpersonal relationships, happiness, and most importantly humor. Simply put, they start to learn how to be mindful of what is going right rather than what is going wrong. How to utilize group exercises and present group literature is constantly changing with the help and input of the inmates.
The group objective is to become familiar with the theoretical framework of Positive Psychology, to develop hope and meaning, to build resilience and to create a purposeful life behind bars. An additional goal of the group is to be able to leave each session feeling a little bit better than when you walked in. Through group exercises, the inmates are encouraged and challenged to welcome positive emotion.
Initially, this proves to be somewhat difficult due to the culture of prison and the discouragement of showing emotion or appearing weak/vulnerable. Although, once group cohesion is established the inmates become much more playful and relaxed. As stated in a similar article, Dr. Hatcher (2010) illustrates that “Because of the abundance of negative feelings in prison, it makes sense that men who are incarcerated would welcome an opportunity to experience positive emotion”. The majority of the inmates that I have worked with do welcome this opportunity and they tend to experience an increase in positive emotion over the course of the group. Group feedback is always welcomed and obtained. For example, when questioned about the group two former group members stated:
“At the beginning of each group like clockwork she tells us we need to come up with something that’s better since last time we saw each other. “Okay guys, what’s better?” she says. At first we were all like nothing is better this is prison. This is a shit hole and I’m doin’ all day [life sentence]…but then I start to notice stuff that happens during the week…Maybe a visit or getting a letter from my girl or not getting a DR [disciplinary report] or getting pictures of my kids…It gets a easier to see the good stuff going on”.
“I know that if I come to group I’ll have the chance to get a good laugh in. Last week I was ready to go off on someone, but I went to group all heated and I left smiling…we look forward to group it‘s a safe place to let our guard down little bit and to laugh. Even if it‘s only for an hour or something”.
Every single group member including these two, have been instrumental in the success of this group. These men have allowed me to enter a part of their world and I am so thankful that they have allowed me to learn from them. They have inspired me to continue on this path. The waiting list continues to expand and the group format will continue to evolve and grow.
As the group facilitator, I also look forward to these groups and at the end of each session I leave feeling rejuvenated and often cheerful. Considering the high rate of burnout among corrections personnel and mental health clinicians, I understand how valuable this part of my day is. This positive psychology group is something I am very proud of and very passionate about. I highly recommend the implementation of similar programs in similar environments.
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Corrections.com author, Alecia Douglas Chahine LCSW, has a background in psychology, philosophy and social work and is a graduate of Gonzaga University and The University of Kansas. She has been working in corrections for over 7 years and continues to provide mental health services at a state prison and at a county jail. Alecia’s primary interest involves the movement towards a more humanistic strengths-based therapeutic approach and the impact that humor plays in the therapeutic process. Alecia published a therapy manual in 2014 (Positive Psychology Group Therapy for Long-Term Incarceration: A Therapy Manual), which is now being utilized across the country in a variety of settings. If you have any questions or comments, please contact Alecia by email: PrisonPositivePsychology@gmail.com
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