ABA in the Penal Setting

In addition to its diverse applications in clinical and domestic environments, applied behavior analysis (ABA) has also consistently yielded positive results with subjects in penal settings. While there are many perspectives and views on the criminal justice system and modern rehabilitation practices, behavior analysis has practical value at almost every step in the process. Licensed ABA practitioners can use their skills to help law enforcement officials predict and apprehend suspects, or develop strategies to encourage lifestyle changes that reduce recidivism rates following incarceration. Psychologists can also take on administrative and research roles in facility management, special program design, and individualized therapy.

Related resource: Top 25 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

The Significance of ABA in the Penal System

As one of the few behavior modification techniques to consistently produce positive results, ABA has become an integral component of modern prison management, rehabilitation, and research into criminal behavior. With more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States as of 2018, the study of prison management and criminal rehabilitation has become a national concern. The sheer size of the nation’s prison population combined with high rates of recidivism and the rising cost of maintaining local, state and federal facilities has broad implications on a national scale. These factors emphasize the need for practical and effective rehabilitation, fueling demand for qualified behavior analysts specializing in criminal and penal issues.

Applications for Prison Management

Operant conditioning is a fundamental aspect of most applied behavior analysis strategies. These interactions typically aim to reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative ones with a variety of motivational tools. Token systems are a prime example of the application of these principles on an institutional level. A token system is essentially a local currency that participants receive for performing certain tasks or as a reward for a particular achievement. Token systems have found use in a number of different environments, including penal institutions, elder care centers, and youth facilities.

Conditioning positive behavior through an immediate, tangible reward can help create a sense of structure, progress, and motivation in the inmate population. However, behavior analysts also face several key challenges in designing and implementing these systems, so creative and innovative thinking are essential. Token economies must be carefully managed to avoid creating friction between participants in the form of debt or inflation, and facility staff must be carefully trained to properly distribute token rewards, according to Public Safety Canada.

Acquisition of Career and Life Skills

Many behavior analysts apply their skills to help people acquire new skills, ranging from essential daily living activities to academic ability in preparation for a new job. This can be a valuable tool for helping inmates adopt a new lifestyle following their incarceration. Reducing the rate of recidivism, or repeat offenses resulting in multiple sentences, is usually one of the primary goals of behavior analysis in penal settings. ABA sessions can be tailored to help subjects learn a variety of essential professional skills, including reading, writing, and interpersonal communications.

Management of Diagnosed Disorders

Just as they help patients with developmental, behavior and learning disorders in clinical environments, behavior analysts can also help manage these conditions for subjects in the penal system. Many people convicted of criminal activities suffer from a diagnosed cognitive or emotional disorder that impacts their behavior. Learning to master this condition and modify particularly detrimental behaviors can be crucial to long-term recovery and rehabilitation. While there are a few differences, therapists apply the same techniques on inmates as they would any other client suffering from a diagnosed disorder.

Behavior Modification for Chemical Dependency

Drug and alcohol abuse are recognized catalysts of criminal behavior and related offenses account for a substantial percentage of prison sentences in the United States. In 2018, roughly 200,000 of the 1.3 million people in state prisons across the country were incarcerated for a drug-related offense, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Chemical dependency can also lead to various behavioral and cognitive challenges in users, which can interfere with rehabilitation and other behavior modification efforts. While ABA isn’t a cure for addiction on its own, it can be coupled with other strategies to provide more effective and long-term treatment.

Working as a Behavior Analyst in Penal Environments

Behavior analysis is a relatively specialized discipline within the field of psychology, but it also has numerous applications and specializations in its scope. ABA professionals may specialize in criminal behavior from the beginning of their careers or transition into it after gaining experience in other environments. Analysts may work directly with inmates in one-on-one therapy sessions much like a clinical or educational environment. Others work on an institutional level by developing strategies to implement and improve ongoing programs in penal facilities.

Education and Career Preparation

There are some entry level positions available to graduates with a bachelor’s degree, but applied behavior analysts are typically required to have at least a master’s degree in their field to advance their career. Students and professionals interested in research and top-level management roles eventually pursue a doctoral degree following their graduate program. Anyone with an active or prospective interest in ABA as a career path should talk to current professionals and educators to learn more about key qualifications. Credentials from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) are considered an industry standard, so students should start preparing for BACB examinations as they prepare to launch their career.

The field of psychology has grown and evolved substantially over the last few decades, unleashing the potential of applied techniques for people with a wide range of challenges. Studying and practicing ABA provides professionals with the opportunity to help others and participate in a growing field that has limitless potential. Behavior analysis is far more than a theoretical or esoteric field of study, it is a working toolkit that provides the tools and structure needed to make consistent progress in managing undesirable behaviors. This is evident in the successful application of applied behavior analysis principles in various penal settings, including youth, adult and mental health facilities.