forensic occupation

Here is a question I had the opportunity to respond to recently: Should the justice system focus on punishment or rehabilitation? Why? How does this affect occupational therapy?

I don't intend to take both sides of this issue as a 'cop-out' but I believe that prisons should focus on both punishment and rehabilitation. I'll address punishment first, as that seems to be the easier topic.

Some people commit crimes that are so heinous that they simply deserve to be punished. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to keep people incarcerated and separate from society for the rest of their lives, without opportunity for parole. Their treatment should be humane, but they should not be afforded luxuries including education, work-release, halfway houses, or parole. I believe that some people are not capable of rehabilitation, and they should not be eligible for rehabilitation. I don't know that I have a set of criteria ready to list that would preclude rehabilitation but it would make for interesting conversation.

As for rehabilitation, I did some cursory literature review and googling around to see what has been published. There is a tremendous amount of literature on this topic but much of it seems to be agenda-driven. To be more specific, it seems that a lot of the information that is available pre-supposes that rehabilitation is either a good thing or a bad thing. A lot of bias (in both directions) seems evident when I was reading some of the articles.

I was interested in the fact that this is a very actively debated issue - I found many interesting recent references to 'faith-based' rehabilitation (Pew Forum). Again, this was an example where people's bias is notable in their opinions regarding prison rehabilitation. It amuses me that people who would normally be very pro-rehabilitation become very anti-rehabilitation when the rehab includes religious conversion. It does not seem to matter that they are trying to develop multi-faith programs; the simple fact that it is religion-based makes many people upset.

The US Government's position is that "research has conclusively demonstrated that participation in a variety of programs that teach marketable skills helps to reduce recidivism. Additionally, institution misconduct can be significantly reduced through programs that emphasize personal responsibility, respect, and tolerance of others. Accordingly, the BOP offers a wide variety of program opportunities for inmates that teach pro-social values and life skills" (Bureau of Prisons, 2005).

I don't imagine that the concept of budgeting money to prison programs is the first priority of most people, but perhaps we need to discuss this issue more.

Occupational therapy definitely has a role to play in prisoner rehabilitation. I am aware that some fine colleagues at Duquesne have done some work in this area recently - one of their articles on this topic is in press now and will make for interesting reading. Everyone should look for it and read it when it comes out.


Eggers, M., Muñoz, J.P., Scuilli, J. & Crist, P. (in press) The Community Reintegration Project: Occupational therapy at work in a county jail. Occupational Therapy in Health Care, 20, 1.

Federal Bureau of Prisons, Inmate Matters, Retrieved 12/11/05 from

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Retrieved 12/11/05 from


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