By David S. Prescott, LICSW, and Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D
Two recent articles in the New York Times illustrate how the context of our work can shape our clients and our practices. The first article describes how the New York State inspector general’s office “has documented significant racial and ethnic disparities in discipline across New York State prisons, finding that over a six-year period, Black inmates were 22 percent more likely to be disciplined than white ones... The report comes six years after The New York Times published a 2015 investigation into racial bias in state prisons. The Times found that Black prisoners faced more punishment than white ones, leading to loss of privileges, longer stays in solitary confinement and, ultimately, more time behind bars…
“State inspectors reviewed 385,057 misbehavior reports filed from 2015 through 2020 to expand upon The Times’s analysis. They found that the discrepancies had actually worsened over time, most significantly in 2020, when Black prisoners were 38 percent more likely, and Hispanic prisoners 29 percent more likely, to be cited in misbehavior reports.”
Importantly, “The inspector general concurred with The Times that these discrepancies were most pronounced for violations that were, according to the report, arguably more subjective. The largest disparities were for offenses like gang activity, assault on another inmate and “involvement in a demonstration detrimental to facility order,” which saw Black prisoners five times more likely, and Hispanic prisoners three times, to be found in violation than white inmates.”
In the second article, About 200 to 250 people incarcerated in Louisiana jails and prisons have reportedly been held beyond their legal release dates in any given month, with the average additional time lasting around 44 days in 2019. As one lawyer observed, “To our clients, it is an extremely scary experience because they do not know why they are being held, when they will be free or how they can get free,” he added. “All they know is they should not be behind bars.”
It can be easy to miss these stories in the seemingly never-ending parade of crime stories in the media. However, it seems that unless we pay attention, we ignore these practices at our peril. Many ATSA members have felt the anguish of not being able to change the often ineffective and sometimes unjust systems in which some of us have worked.
It behooves us to stay attuned to the fundamental unfairness and injustices that often surface in various corners of the criminal justice system. We do not say this to throw shade on any one individual or institution in any particular area. At the same time that these events are taking place, many other institutions and agencies are working to improve their approaches. Likewise, in our experience, those in the helping professions often want nothing more than to make positive changes that will reduce risk while simultaneously enabling individuals to build lifestyles that are incompatible with offending.
Nonetheless, it’s vital for us to understand and discuss how the broader systems in which we work end up causing harm to people, including those referred to us in treatment. The implications are far-reaching, including for risk assessments and classifications within the various systems that have authority over these individuals.
Our clients absolutely take note of these experiences. It makes sense that if the media and our clients notice these various injustices, and yet we don’t acknowledge, know about, or account for them, we shouldn’t be surprised when our clients conclude that we can’t understand their perspectives and that they can only work with us in a limited capacity. Psychotherapy clients who feel heard, understood, and respected benefit more from our interventions than those who don’t. Working with our clients means understanding their perspectives without writing them off as treatment-interfering factors. Unfortunately, in this case, understanding and working with their perspectives involves involves taking a long, hard look at the systems within which we operate and being prepared to respond to clients accurately, empathically, and without colluding either with them or the systems involved.
Whatever the potential biases of the journalists and the media outlets, the data are shocking and impinge on human rights. Further, they illustrate that at the very time we have information to guide our attempts to level meaningful sanctions, some of our systems are actually becoming worse and in need of more effective leadership.