Ninety-Five Percent: Preparing to Work with Previously-Incarcerated Clients By Brooke Sheehan, LCSW on 3/10/22 - 11:44 AM

On the heels of my previous blog about the stigma experienced by previously-incarcerated clients with mental illness, I find myself once again in a reflective state around the idea of re-entry for these challenged and challenging clients. I draw attention to the title of this writing, which reflects the staggering reality that, according to a recent congressional study, 95% of those who become incarcerated will return to the community. Let that sink in for a second. This means that almost everyone who is sent away to a penal institution will be back on the streets. Why, then, haven’t we pushed ourselves to view crime and the “criminal” as less of that individual’s moral failure, and more of a societal one that must be addressed upon their departure from incarceration?

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It is easy to sit in judgment of others, especially those who have transgressed, and it takes only seconds to formulate a first impression of someone. Pair this with the biases and prejudices that incarcerated clients experience, and they leave prison or jail with a complete narrative that may very well not be their own. Clients returning to the world beyond prison gates live with these preconceptions from the moment they interview for a residence and/or job to the moment they seek follow-up services for physical, mental health or substance use treatment. And in my experience, these particular clients know full well that welcome mats, smiling faces, and open arms will not abound upon their release. That being said, unless clinicians acknowledge their own fears and judgmental attitudes towards these clients and fully lean into their own discomfort, the cycle that perpetuates stigmatization and diminishes rather than enhances their successful re-entry will continue to imprison them.

I recently worked with a client I will call Brennan, who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness as well as a substance use disorder. Brennan is intelligent, resourceful, and sociable, but when taking his psychiatric medications tends to become more reserved, something that I have found occurs frequently with individuals experiencing psychotic or more severe mood disorders. Brennan does not have a lengthy history of incarceration, nor does he demonstrate an antisocial personality which would lead to a callous disregard for others. Instead, Brennan’s psychiatric challenges of late seem to have led him to correctional facilities, which, in turn, has made it difficult for him to re-engage with the world upon release. Recently, upon pursuing post-release community services, Brennan was left in limbo rather than being accepted into the program after he spoke honestly about an interest in smoking marijuana. Although he appropriately utilized the skills we taught him prior to release, Brennan was shamed and unable to successfully reintegrate into the community as he had hoped and, quite frankly, deserved.

As I continue to help facilitate re-entry for my clients and assist them in navigating the confusing labyrinth of providers, I’ve noticed that the doors for treatment do not fly open for them, which makes the struggle to resume or begin a life beyond the walls that much more difficult. Their psychiatric conditions, which often incorporate psychotic features, frequently lead to their presenting with strange or bizarre thought content that is even more evidence to community providers that they should be feared and turned away rather than assisted. One of the most potent interventions I’ve used when preparing these clients for life on the outside has been the process of reality checking and reality check sheets. For individuals with major mental illness, and especially for those who struggle with psychosis, this allows them to speak openly about whatever thoughts enter their minds in a safe space where they can receive supportive, rather than dismissive, feedback and learn that their thoughts do not have to be a source of shame or be given authority over their lives.

A client I will call Kent believed that he was related to a very powerful and influential celebrity. This was a persistent and fixed delusion. He did not typically converse openly about this except for when his paranoia was triggered, which could in turn contribute to erratic and sometimes volatile behavior. However, Kent felt safe with the staff members, who helped him to develop a small list of reality checks on printer paper in his cell. One such note asked him to respond with a “yes” or “no” to the question of whether he had been particularly invested or rigid in this belief on that particular day. He would then communicate his response to staff who could provide reality-based and instructive feedback for him while helping him to monitor himself. This intervention was effective because Kent trusted the clinical team, who always promoted safety as the most important value to the correctional community in which he lived. Kent exemplifies the importance of assisting these clients by providing concrete tools they can use once released and can share with providers on the outside.


What I wish for all of us is to continue challenging the status quo. To go outside of our comfort zones and take on the more complicated clients, the ones who keep us on our toes and challenge our clinical minds. I challenge you to push members of other professions, often the individuals we work with to establish services or provide housing, to do the same and, perhaps most importantly, to get more clinicians involved in services such as housing, substance use treatment, or community intervention upon intake. Let us truly meet people where they are on their journeys. There is no “perfect” client, and any client who says and does exactly what is expected of them is probably not getting all of their needs met either. Let’s keep our advocating voices strong and help those who need it the most, as in the case of the client who is trying to forge a life outside of prison walls.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections