Rapport and Relationship Building in a Therapeutic Community: Examining the Dynamic Between Correctional Officers and Incarcerated Persons

Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2023, Vol. 34(1) 43 –64
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211069097
Rapport and Relationship
Building in a Therapeutic
Community: Examining
the Dynamic Between
Correctional Officers and
Incarcerated Persons
Sami Abdel-Salam1, Michael E. Antonio1,
Michele P. Bratina1, and Ashley Kilmer2
Correctional officers (COs) are vital to prison safety. While focused on security, some
believe COs should also be trained to engage in the rehabilitation of incarcerated
persons by offering motivation and support. This study examined incarcerated
persons’ perceptions of COs working in a prison-based therapeutic community (TC).
Data were gathered through qualitative interviews with individuals detained in a state
correctional system for men. Findings revealed several themes related to incarcerated
persons’ perceptions of COs’ knowledge toward treatment, their experiences and
interactions with COs, and recommendations about how to improve the role of COs
as therapeutic agents of change. Practical opportunities for implementing correctional
research and practice using a positive criminology perspective are considered.
therapeutic communities, treatment, prison, correctional officers, positive criminology
The role of prison rehabilitation and its impact, if any, on criminal behavior has been
vigorously studied. Since the “what works” era (Martinson, 1974), the pendulum for
1West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA
2Towson University, MD, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michele P. Bratina, Department of Criminal Justice, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, 700 S High
St., West Chester, PA 19383, USA.
Email: mbratina@wcupa.edu
1069097CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211069097Criminal Justice Policy ReviewAbdel-Salam et al.
44 Criminal Justice Policy Review 34(1)
prison programming has continually swung back and forth between rehabilitative
approaches (Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Gendreau, 1996) and strict criminal control
(Carmichael & Kent, 2017). In line with a resurgence of interest on the prevalence of
mental illness and substance use among incarcerated persons—in particular, potential
treatment and diversion strategies (Forrester et al., 2018; Kubiak et al., 2020; Lurigio,
2019; Simpson & Jones, 2018)—current evidence-based practices in many correc-
tional settings embrace various forms of rehabilitative programming to treat individual
needs of correctional populations. Based on a review of the literature, it is possible to
conclude that correctional programming that incorporates a cognitive behavioral
approach (Bozick et al., 2018; Clark, 2011; Landenberger & Lipsey, 2005; Wilson
et al., 2005), and/or the risk-needs-responsivity principal (Van Voorhis et al., 2013), is
associated with reduced recidivism rates post-release. Similar outcomes have been
found for intensive-inpatient prison environments such as therapeutic communities
(TCs) that address individual needs related to severe substance abuse and mental
health problems among incarcerated persons (Jensen & Kane, 2012; Shuker & Newton,
2008). In particular, the premise is that correctional-based programs grounded in prin-
ciples of systems integration, collaboration, and social acceptance may lead to increas-
ing perceptions of justice, fairness, and quality of life among incarcerated persons,
thereby providing resilience and a desistance from reoffending (Bennett & Shuker,
2018). Reflecting principles of procedural justice, programming in this context may be
grounded in what has been referred to as positive criminology.
Positive criminology is a concept that may help guide our understanding of TCs
and the role of correctional officers (COs) within this environment. It is worth noting
that these ideas are also congruent with social learning theory (Bandura & Walters,
1977). In this study, however, we extend the research to incorporate more about the
content of the behaviors that can be realized through the social learning process, with
an emphasis on positive social elements of the behaviors learned through the interac-
tions with prison staff. Traditionally, criminal justice researchers and practitioners
have been hesitant to embrace a paradigm shift that is based on the identification and
analysis of key motivators, such as trust, mental well-being, rehabilitative goals, and
personal fulfillment or life transformation, as a means for desistance to crime (Ronel
& Segev, 2014). However, as the discourse related to offender rehabilitation continues
to shift its focus on strengths rather than failings, research and policy may produce
more positive outcomes. This may include the shifting responsibilities of COs from
traditional custodial functions to a more positive and supportive role in the lives of
those incarcerated.
Our research focused on the relationships and attitudes of incarcerated persons
toward COs as part of the rehabilitative process. The specific location was a TC, given
the importance of supportive relationships and role modeling behaviors as a means of
influencing positive outcomes (e.g., personal growth). To understand this process, we
begin with an overview of traditional relationships (including both barriers and facili-
tators) between COs and those incarcerated followed by a description of the structure
and purpose of TCs, and how COs fit within this environment. The value of positive
criminology in supporting these relationships is also included within this discussion.

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