Prison psychology: cognitive behavioral interventions

Prison psychology: cognitive behavioral interventions

The prison psychology It is a discipline within legal psychology that deals with the evaluation and forensic psychological intervention in the field of prison. Prison psychologists have different approaches, the majority being cognitive-behavioral.

From this theoretical framework it is argued that criminal behavior is learned. This behavior is regulated in terms of its acquisition, maintenance and extinction by the same set of laws that govern any other type of behavior.


  • 1 Prison psychology: cognitive behavioral interventions
  • 2 Cognitive behavioral interventions
  • 3 Conclusions about prison psychology

Prison psychology: cognitive behavioral interventions

Interventions derived from the orientation of learning are grouped into a set of procedures and techniques that have as common characteristics:

  1. They are theoretically based on different learning paradigms, operant conditioning, social learning.
  2. They rely on empirically proven data and incorporate the most relevant contributions from different scientific disciplines.
  3. Result considerably simple procedures.
  4. They are oriented to specific behavior control and treatment.

The application of these techniques to the treatment of criminal behaviors has a very recent history. They are welcomed with some optimism, based on the successes obtained with the application of these techniques in other contexts.

In addition, the Penitentiary Institutions provide an unmatched framework for the application of these techniques. This is because in these centers the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment can be regulated with an accuracy comparable to that of the laboratory.

The chip economy

A very frequent application of incarcerated behavior therapy is the Token Economy. It has been used primarily for training purposes, such as attending certain courses, as well as the development of basic grooming behaviors (cell cleaning, personal hygiene) and at development of alternative behaviors to violent and antisocial behaviors.

Behavioral contracts

Behavioral contracts are another exclusively behavioral technique, although little used in prisons. The problem is that by exercising less control over the subject, he loses part of his effectiveness. It is seen that, many inmates cannot be left to their free will or trust that they will do something simply because they commit to it.

Strictly behavioral treatments, except for the chip economy, have not been used excessively within the prison world.

Following the inconveniences seen with strictly behavioral techniques, specialists have found it necessary to develop a wide range of skills in interns:

  • Let them to cope with difficult and conflicting situations
  • Plan your way of acting
  • Take decisions
  • Behave in the most appropriate and effective way

These objectives are covered by another set of techniques that focus on cognitive aspects that must be modified.

Cognitive behavioral interventions

An example of this is the Social Competence Program, which includes some of these techniques, which have also been applied in isolation. This program is detailed below:

  1. Evaluation of cognitive deficits and subject interaction skills.
  2. It works with small groups (8-12 subjects) in sessions of 1-2 hours, 1-5 times per week.
  3. The following techniques are applied:
    • Problem solving: subjects are taught to recognize problematic situations and generate solutions to them.
    • Social Skills Training: it is intended to improve the interaction of individuals in their social environment (modeling, role-play, structured practice ...)
    • Emotional control: You learn to anticipate cholera situations and use certain cognitive skills to avoid them.
    • Critical thinking: Subjects are taught to think reflexively and critically about their own behavior and that of others.
    • Stock Development: technique in which, through work on "moral dilemmas," individuals are taught to take a social perspective, putting themselves in the role of the other.
    • Negotiation skills: It is taught to negotiate strategies as an alternative to confrontation.
    • Creative reasoning: The aim is to develop “lateral thinking” or alternative thinking, in the face of the usual frequently violent solutions that many criminals use to address their problems

Conclusions about prison psychology

Rehabilitation programs, psychological intervention techniques and their correct application can positively influence crime. Above all, they can help reduce recidivism and adjustment of the person once they leave the prison.

However, much more data is still needed to be able to draw stronger conclusions. Research in prisons, on many occasions, is not usually easy. In addition, the data we have are mainly nomothetic. It would be ideal to be able to make individualized evaluations and interventions.


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