What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Prison Interviews: Book Excerpt

A Forensic Psychologist Evaluates Prisoners Under the SVP Law

The parking lot of a California state prison is huge, open, and nondescript, with the exception of an enormous fenced-in complex right next to it. There is a constant flow of foot traffic into the main building; employees and contractors present their badge to the correctional officer and sign in to the log book. They are buzzed through the first locked door which leads outside into a small, fenced-in area. Once everyone is through, the door closes and locks behind them and the gate “magically” slides open. (Way up high, to the left, there is a guard in a tower watching and opening the gate.)  When people walk through the gate, it slides shut firmly behind them; it clicks when it locks. On the other side is a maze of long, grey hallways and doors, many of them locked, where badges must be presented once again. Often walkways or sidewalks lead through open yards. Everywhere there are hundreds of men all dressed the same; either in lines, being walked somewhere, or exercising and talking with one another, all with “CDCR INMATE” lettered across the back of their clothing. Frequently inmates, correctional officers and staff will greet people politely as they walk by. There is the constant sound of voices, of metal, of heavy doors opening and slamming shut.

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She is dressed in a collared, button-down shirt and trousers, and not wearing tan, denim blue, or orange so she won’t be mistaken for one of the inmates in the event of a fight or riot and shot. Eventually she arrives at her destination: typically a small office with no windows that smells faintly of cleaning solution. She places the personal alarm she has been given on the desk. She has already reviewed the records of the man she is about to meet, including criminal record, police reports, court reports, psychological evaluations, prison records, and medical records. She sits down at a desk, pulls out her forms and pen, and waits alone. The chair is hard and uncomfortable, but she is mostly relaxed and at ease – she’s prepared.

A man, dressed in prison attire, after having been searched, is led into the room. At times he knows in advance why she’s there, often he does not. She explains to him that she is a psychologist with the Department of Mental Health.

I’m here to evaluate you, she says, and I’m going to read an explanation of why I’m here. If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.

She takes a deep breath, and says: You are being evaluated to determine whether you may be a Sexually Violent Predator under Section 6600 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

She continues: The purpose of the evaluation and interview is to decide if you have a mental condition that makes you likely to commit sexual crimes in the future.

If you are determined to meet the criteria for the Sexually Violent Predator law, you could be sent to court for trial.

If the court finds you to be a Sexually Violent Predator, you would not be released from custody. You would be sent to a treatment program at a state mental hospital.

This would be an involuntary commitment to a sex offender treatment program run by the California Department of Mental Health.

The commitment would end and you would be released from the treatment program when the court determines you are no longer likely to commit sexual crimes.

This comes as a shock to most men. She is telling him that instead of being released from prison at his upcoming parole date, he may instead be committed indefinitely to a mental institution.

As this man absorbs the information, she absorbs that shock with him, and allows him to spend some time before they get started, thinking out loud about what he should do and how he should respond, while trying not to influence his decision. The interview is voluntary, and, given that anything he says during the interview could end up in an evaluation report (and the courtroom), some refuse to talk. His choice.

Most do not refuse, either because they are afraid it will look as if they are uncooperative, or they want to tell their own side of the story. This man agrees to sign the consent, and to be interviewed.

And thus the process begins.

 

Excerpt from the book: They're Not All Monsters: Evaluating Prisoners Under the Sexually Violent Predator Act; A Journal of Words and Photographs © Samantha Smithstein

Interested in reading this book? Would love to hear it from you.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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