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Rokas PerskaudasBuilding Resources in a Correctional Setting through Self-Care

Rokas Perskaudas*
The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, DC

Philip R. Magaletta
Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, DC

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rokas Perskaudas, 400 First Street, NW, Room 4023, Washington, DC 20534. Contact: rperskaudas@bop.gov

*The views expressed in this article are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or The Catholic University of America.

Positive Psychology as a distinct discipline, area of application, and intervention has grown exponentially over the past 15 years. Theories and research on the positive aspects of humanity now proliferate more freely throughout the larger field of psychology in which perspectives focused on deficits have long held dominant sway. Positive psychology interventions feature concrete attempts to not only alleviate the negative but to accentuate the positive, extend strengths, and engender continued personal growth. Organizations both private and public have undoubtedly benefitted from this influx of innovation. As a result, scholars have begun to examine the general characteristics of positive organizations and to also integrate the individual employee’s development into the organizational trajectory.

The intuitive extrapolation is that organizations function best when the people in them are operating at their best. More specifically, hopeful, self-efficacious, optimistic, and resilient employees engender organizations with analogous characteristics by building collective psychological capital (PsyCap; Luthans, 2002; McKenny, Short, & Payne, 2012). Positive psychology perspectives and practices, however, do not always naturally disseminate where they are needed most and there are times when a more structured approach is recommended.

Such an approach has recently been adopted in the training of early career correctional psychologists (ECCPs). These individuals practice within a challenging law enforcement environment that often places correctional workers at increased risk for burnout (Brower, 2013). Burnout is generally a serious concern for all organizations but it acutely poses challenges to the safe, efficient, and humanistic operation of a correctional organization. Furthermore, risk for burnout is especially high among the caring professions, like psychology, that deal with trauma, death, and difficult populations (Ray, Wong, White, & Heaslip, 2013) because caring for another individual requires genuine human connection to ultimately be effective. Each connection nonetheless utilizes large amounts of personal resources to maintain over time. Failing to consistently cultivate those personal resources places mental health professionals who work within the correctional system at theoretically the greatest risk for compassion fatigue and burnout.

The decision to structure a positive psychology approach with ECCPs during their initial familiarization training to the correctional organization was informed by a study that examined aggregate data from ECCPs over 5 years and explored their perceptions of developing professionally within prison (Magaletta et al., 2015). Development and application of categories revealed that the best advice ECCPs received early in their positions focused on balance (27%), flexibility (22%) and career/professional development (14%). They likewise noted that, outside of documentation and policy knowledge, their training needs revolved around building personal and professional resources through networking and relationships (27%), continued training (24%), finding balance (9%), and self-maintenance (6%). If early emphasis on self-care for psychologists is strongly encouraged in general (Bamonti et al., 2014; Barnett, Baker, Elman, & Schoener, 2007), then self-care for correctional psychologists appears to be paramount for optimal functioning.

Therefore, three positive psychology activities have been developed and used to make sustained, thriving self-care an integral part of practice for these psychologists: consciousness raising; expressions of gratitude; and letter writing. In terms of raising consciousness, a discussion around self-care is generated via a model of awareness, acceptance, and action rooted in simple mindfulness techniques and a self-compassionate attitude.  Simply taking the time to talk about self-care conveys that it’s necessary to actively practice it. Consciousness is also raised around the notion that supporting and encouraging others in their workplace to practice self-care is of equal importance.

Gratitude is another poignant avenue to increase the salience of building and maintaining resources through self-care. ECCPs are routinely asked at the beginning of each familiarization training what they are grateful for in their lives. Responses reveal that taking the time to reflect on the experiences that brought them thus far in their careers is immensely powerful, especially when EECPs are at the initial entry point into the correctional workforce. Participants often cite they are grateful for their families’ influence on finding balance between work/life, the support systems that engaged coworkers have built for each other, close mentoring by supervisors, and humor. These responses echo many of the positive career-sustaining behaviors endorsed by psychologists for longstanding growth and superlative performance (Malinowski, 2013; Stevanovic & Rupert, 2004).

The immediate benefit aside, it remains imperative to expand self-care beyond the training setting. One exploratory way to do this was also recently implemented. A cohort of ECCPs attending familiarization training were invited to write a self-care letter to themselves to help further facilitate self-care as an ongoing and dynamic process. Prompts were provided to either personally explore the importance of self-care, to encourage their future self to make time for self-care, to reflect on the passion that drives them to provide compassionate care, or whatever amalgamation of topics they felt most strongly drawn to at the moment. The completed letters were sealed in self-addressed envelopes and will be returned to their respective writers at a random date after at least six months. Receiving these letters will ideally serve as a booster shot, or a way to keep a strong focus on continuing self-care long after the immediate effects of training may have worn off.

The end goal of the positive psychology approach outlined here is really to motivate enough sustained personal growth via active, adaptive self-care to ultimately build collective institutional momentum. Though there is no such research within correctional psychology yet, correctional employees with greater hope, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience would potentially affect everyone within the institution. Self-care is proposed as the entry point for building those resources and can also be foundational to enlivening and sustaining an organization’s core values.

About the Authors

Rokas Perskaudas, M.A. is a doctoral student at Catholic University of America and a Psychology intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Reentry Services Division. His interests include the mechanisms of mindfulness and the beneficial effects of loving-kindness meditation on social cognition.

Dr. Philip Magaletta is the Chief of Clinical Education and Workforce Development at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is a psychologist with 19 years of experience performing criminal justice and mental health administration, research and practice.  His interests include psychology training, spirituality, staff wellness and recovery.


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