In This Issue

Balancing the tension of the opposites: Core qualities of correctional psychologists

Philip Magaletta, PhD, explores the importance of flexibility in working successfully as a correctional psychologist.

By Philip R. Magaletta and Jennifer N. Cermak, MA

Last year, I had an opportunity to visit with predoctoral psychology interns at the Federal Medical Center Lexington, Kentucky. This institution has an 80-year history of training psychologists to treat addictions in a residential substance abuse services context (Campbell, Olsen, & Walden, 2008). When invited to speak with interns, I enjoy the opportunity to learn something myself. This time I was curious to learn, from a student perspective, what they thought were the core qualities of effective correctional psychologists.

A range of responses were provided, including the most typical aspects of daily work illustrated in the literature (Boothby & Clements, 2000; Magaletta et al., 2011; Rodolfa et al., 2005): accurate documentation; provision of treatment services including crisis intervention; screening; and of course, interdisciplinary communication. The interns emphasized the importance of an ability to be prompt, direct, and jargon-free when speaking or writing to the non-psychology services staff throughout the prison. Then someone nominated a phrase frequently heard in describing correctional psychologist qualities, “Be flexible.” The last student at the table commented, “But also knowing where you can’t be flexible, that is important too.”

As a guy who “occasionally” struggles with being flexible, the last student’s comment really struck home. Over and over, I have heard correctional psychologists describe the need to be flexible; so it had always been a mystery to me how, after trying to be flexible for 17 years of prison work, I still had not mastered it. Did this student have something else to share with me that was worth considering? The answer was yes, she certainly did.

All along, I had a propensity to be the opposite of flexible. It was firmness that seemed to be the quality propelling me forward in my job as a correctional psychologist. How could this be? I quickly learned last student was right. The quality of being flexible in prison work was important—but equally important was mastering an understanding of when not to be flexible, the very thing that came naturally to me.

I came to realize, in the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, “The essence of today’s message is balance.” I had been “successful” in my professional development as a correctional psychologist precisely because of the tension created by these two seemingly opposite qualities. This tension created a need for me to practice balancing firmness with flexibility.

What I had been doing all along was developing an ability to know when to be firm and when to be flexible. Being firm may have come more easily to me, but it did not mean that I was simply ignoring the alternative. In corrections, there are plenty of opportunities for psychologists to choose in what manner they will respond. Serious situations might call for a firm hand. As one example, a correctional officer might suggest that an inmate does not need to be placed on suicide watch, but the psychologist’s clinical assessment of the case determines otherwise. Less serious situations, on the other hand, might be just as well served by flexibility. The psychologist might lend a hand to segregation staff by serving lunch one afternoon even though there is a range of clinical documentation to be completed. In this case, choosing to be flexible helps the psychologist to better understand the goals of other key staff in working with inmates. And in the process, the psychologist develops and solidifies productive relationships with other staff. The ability to balance the tension of the opposites—to balance firmness and flexibility—is essential to developing the qualities of effective and successful correctional psychologists.

Something so easy, even interns can do it! Interestingly, the student who was last to speak is now working at a United States Penitentiary, an intense environment where both qualities will no doubt be needed. Not surprisingly, I hear she is doing a remarkable job there.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Phil Magaletta is Chief, Clinical Education and Workforce Development, Psychology Services Branch, Federal Bureau of Prisons; Jennifer Cermak is a doctoral student of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. She is a graduate of Marymount University and completed an internship with the Psychology Services Branch, Federal Bureau of Prisons.


Boothby, J. L., & Clements, C. B. (2000). A national survey of correctional psychologists. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 27, 715-731.

Campbell, N. D., Olsen, J. P., & Walden, L. (2006). The narcotic farm: The rise and fall of America’s first prison for drug addicts. New York, NY: Abrams.

Magaletta, P. R., Patry, M. W., Gross, N. R., Butterfield, P. M., McLearen, A. M., Patterson, K. L., & Norcross, J. C. (2011). Clinical practice in corrections: Providing service, obtaining experience. Psychological Services, 8, 343-355.

Rodolfa, E., Bent, R., Eisman, E., Nelson, P., Rehm, L., & Ritchie, P. (2005). A cube model for competency development: Implications for psychology educators and regulators. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36, 347-354.