From Iran Launches Model Prison Project by Dr. Mohammad Tehrani in the Winter 1996 issue of Psychology International, published by the American Psychological Association Office of International Affairs. Dr. Mohammadi is chair of the Psychology Department at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, Iran.
Crime, criminals, prisons — just hearing these words makes many people cringe. Most people prefer not to think about prisons. A prison is a societal sore spot, a kind of refuse dump for people who could not act according to the laws of society; people who are ever after labeled offenders, criminals, convicts.
Unfortunately, these gut level impressions are often only too true. All over the world, persons convicted of breaking the law emerge from such environments none the better for it. A prison, however, can be something else. It can be a therapeutic environment, a place where human beings can learn to cope with the stressful situations they could not deal with in their past.
In 1994, the Khorassan District Security and Correction System in Eastern Iran launched a pilot reform program in the District's central prison. Prison officials asked the Psychology Department at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad to provide expertise in constructing a rehabilitative environment at the prison.
As a first step, we reached out to international experts on prison rehabilitation and forensic psychology. We were dismayed to find that psychological services are sparse; and in many countries existing services are being phased out.
We did, however, gain some interesting findings. In the Netherlands, the perception of the criminal seems to have shifted from the image of a person without conscience to an individual who is unable to handle his or her emotions, especially anger and hostility.
Studies in the United States have found that the person who commits violent crimes is unable to empathize, rendering victimization of others easy. Ironically, conditions in many prisons actually activate the stressors, providing angry environments in which little empathy is ever shown, and thus cannot be learned.
From these findings, we began to define the atmosphere necessary for our prison reform project. A basic premise is the need to treat the entire human being, rather than focusing on criminal behavior in isolation.
Thus we devised a comprehensive treatment plan that takes into account the individual's physical, economic, social, cognitive, psychological, and spiritual needs. Further, by providing inmates empathy and respect, we aimed to restore individual self-esteem, while presenting a model for respectful and empathetic treatment of others.
With these goals in mind, we began the central prison reform program. Using an adapted version of Catell's clinical analysis questionnaire, Ferdowsi University psychologists and graduate students tested the entire literate prison population. Three main groups emerged from this effort.
The first group is comprised of individuals whose scores on the depression factor indicate high feelings of helplessness, suicidal tendencies, and feelings of meaninglessness and lack of purpose. The second group show high levels of psychopathology, risk-taking, and exhibitionism coupled with suspicion and paranoia. The third group is made of mildly disturbed individuals, with low self-esteem and other problems, but with minimal levels of ego strength to enable their participation in the program.
Both the psychology staff members and general prison personnel were carefully screened and trained on their ability to interact on a human-to-human basis. Personnel provided extensive support serviced — in the form of on-going training opportunities, weekly debriefing sessions, and informal social outings. They share their worries and concerns; and while criminal behavior is never accepted, the person who committed the crime is never rejected.
Inmate participants in the program reside in a new separate compound, so that the total prison experience can be controlled. This assures that the multi-faceted treatment plan fosters health and growth in fully integrated human beings. Recognizing that total health and integration require a healthy body to provide energy for motivation and endurance to undergo the stress of change, the physical health component of the treatment plan offers a range of services and opportunities.
All participants have access to modern indoor and outdoor facilities for exercise and sports. Nutritional consultants devise menus tailored to meet individual profiles. And, there are comprehensive medical services, including opportunity for regular weekly consultation with a physician.
Economic needs are addressed through job training programs and through therapy. In the better context, prisoners come to understand that while there are no instant solutions to financial difficulties, enduring values cannot be ascribed to wealth. The program caters to the inmates' social needs, both outside and within the institution. There are special areas within the compound for family and conjugal visits in a relaxed, informal atmosphere.
For qualified inmates, there are leave opportunities of up to ten days, giving individuals the chance to reintegrate gradually into their social group. Interaction with other inmates in encouraged and facilitated, and a day room is provided for such activities.
Assertion without hostility, expression of feelings, understanding, and patience are some of the social skills stressed in this aspect of the treatment program. Cognitive therapy offers coping skills and helps inmates gain self-understanding and self-control.In addition to lectures and discussion groups, inmates have access to an extensive library that helps hone intellectual capacities.
Inmates are offered a range of psychological services through the on-site Consulting and Mental Health Center. One year of experience has shown that inmates receiving psychological services experience significant reduction in insecurity, anxiety, suicidal depression, paranoia, suspicion and resentment, feelings of inadequacy, and schizophrenic tendencies. Upon release from prison, former inmates are offered voluntary follow-up care on a fee-reduced basis.
Recognizing that religious values impart a sense of meaning and direction in life, inmates are offered voluntary daily devotion and meditation activities.
We believe our program is a success. In addition to the statistical indicators of reduced pathologies, both inmates and staff show enthusiasm for the project. Inmates have told us: “I see my future as bright. I have found self-confidence. Before, life was meaningless, but now I have found meaning in life” and “I used to become angry and violent easily. Now, I believe that troubles and difficulties are part of life. I see them as a challenge. I can form relationships with others more easily. No one is perfect.”
Staff report: “This program has changed me as a warden. I used to see them as offenders, now I see them as human beings” and “I used to have a lot of anger and hostility as a warden. Now I find I am able to be patient, even when inmates are offensive. I don't react immediately. I stop and think.”
Through this experience we are learning that the prison that only punishes and does not serve its inmates eventually punishes and fails to serve the entire society.