McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
discourse analysis, clinical ethnography, critical prison psychology, whiteness studies, abolitionist critical psychology
Throughout the criminal justice system operates a discourse of corrections-reform. This responds to prisoner trauma and resistance by converting them into reforms that strengthen prisons and the larger carceral system while discounting issues of race and class that might undermine institutional legitimacy. The recent adoption of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Trainings in corrections is exemplary of corrections-reform discourse. ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek krinein, meaning ‘to decide.’ The crisis in mental health in prisons involves deciding when to implement what “services” or “programming” for whom.
In this discourse analytic clinical ethnographic study, I focus on the trans-disciplinary corrections and mental health professional community around the development, management, and implementation of practices prescribed in CIT trainings. Concentrating on CIT trainings in Pennsylvania prisons, I conducted several months of fieldwork (spanning 2016-2018) across sites including the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ central training facility, the trainings themselves, CIT International’s annual conference, and other interdisciplinary criminal justice conferences. Analyzing 14 recorded interviews, I examined prison staff’s understandings of crisis intervention team trainings and their work with prisoners labeled as either having or not having a mental illness.
I found that the border between categories of “severely mentally ill” and “criminal” is constantly regulated and contested by staff and prisoners in relation to benefits of being on the prison mental health roster. Colorblind racism is a factor of racialized institutional inequities, and my observation of a conspicuous absence of racial awareness throughout CIT trainings indicates need for scrutiny concerning potential racial disparities in the diversion programs within Pennsylvania prisons. My results reveal difficulties in reforming corrections organizations as more “therapeutic,” chief among these being a discourse of scarcity among “frontline” corrections staff that sees the apparent improvement of conditions for prisoners contrasted with their own perception of lack in supports. When prisoner trauma is discussed, it is often diverted to focus on correctional officer trauma and hardship.
This study is a critical contribution to the national conversation on mental health focused prison reform, providing ethnographic data on CIT trainings and their reception by participants that challenges the “new asylum” political consensus.
Gruner, D. (2019). "Frontline in Mental Healthcare": A Discourse Analytic Clinical Ethnography of Crisis Intervention Team Trainings for Corrections (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1840