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Nancy White Feb 28, 2012

Corrections/Addictions Counseling: Concern for a Friend Leads to a Life Long Career

When I was a young first year graduate student in Counseling and Guidance a professor asked, “What area of counseling are you interested in?” The only answer I had at the time was mental health, substance abuse and corrections. You see, I had a personal experience that had haunted me for most of my late teenage years. First there was the phone call in the middle of the night that someone had died, and then my friend was arrested, next came the article in the local newspaper, and finally his many years of counseling trying to fight his demons.

What went wrong in this seemingly stable, middle class family? It started with a family history of alcoholism. The father was sober for most of their lives but there still were some memories of his drinking prior to sobriety. Today we call it trauma, probably a diagnosis of PTSD. Although the children were educated on alcoholism and the hereditary nature of the illness, it did not stop two of the four children from graduating from alcohol addiction to heroin and cocaine abuse in high school. The father knew what was going on with his two sons, but seemed powerless to act. Along with alcoholism and drug addiction the child could not read. School just kept passing him from grade to grade. In the 1960’s we did not know as much about learning disabilities as we do today. But families have to be willing to believe that their loved ones have issues that need attention.

My point by telling you this story is that my friend is still representative of present day inmates in America’s jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. Addiction, mental illness, and lack of education permeate our criminal justice system. Good families are losing their children to a life of crime.

In a 2006 Special Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails. Growing numbers of mentally ill offenders have strained correctional systems and the numbers continue to grow.

The American Counseling Association has had, since 1974, a division for those who are interested or work in the criminal justice system. The International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors (IAAOC) was formed in 1972 as the Public Offender Counselor Association (POCA). POCA was granted Division status in 1974 in the American Personnel and Guidance Association, which evolved into the American Counseling Association (ACA). The primary goals of POCA were to promote quality rehabilitation services to public offenders and to represent the interest and concerns of professional counselors who provided these services. Officially, POCA became IAAOC on July 16, 1990. This change reflected a more accurate membership orientation and scope, thereby including addictions counseling.

Mental health and substance abuse counseling programs are growing in our prisons, jails and juvenile facilities. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care whose origins date back to the 1970’s is leading the way, in setting standards for the delivery of health and mental health care in our facilities. With separate volumes for prisons, jails and juvenile confinement facilities and now with a manuel specifically for mental health services these standards cover, among other topics, care and treatment and increase the efficiency of service delivery.

Each day, as I go to work, I think of my friend, now deceased. My association with him shaped my life and my rewarding career in the criminal justice system. In the coming weeks and months I hope that we can share, by way of this blog, our correctional counseling programs, whether they are behind the walls or in the community. They are all important.

Nancy White, MA, LPC is a counselor who has spent much of her professional life working in corrections.

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