Criminal Minds: Counseling Inmates at Terminal Island Federal Prison Takes Skill, Optimism, and a Heavy Dose of Courage

Criminal MindsOn a typical workday, after passing a routine security check, Dr. Laurie Schoellkopf makes her way through the tree-lined courtyards of Terminal Island Federal Prison and into her office in Psychological Services. It is 9:55 a.m., “controlled movement” time, when all unit doors open and inmates are free to move around the common areas.

As she walks, carrying a stack of papers in her arms and wearing a radio and a heavy belt of keys, groups of inmates watch her go by. She smiles, “I’ll see you later today, don’t forget your appointment.”

Schoellkopf (M.A. 1989, Psy.D. 1993) is Terminal Island’s licensed clinical drug abuse psychologist, a position that, years ago, she would never have imagined holding. As a student in Pepperdine’s doctor of psychology program, she wanted to treat children. In fact, Schoellkopf worked at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for four years and wrote her dissertation on pediatric cancer patients. Her detour from child psychology started in her pre-doctoral clinical internship at the Child Guidance Center in Santa Ana, California, where she treated severely abused and neglected children. Many of the kids she saw had parents in jail for drug violations. “But the parents of those kids had release dates,” she says. “They were coming back home eventually. As much as I could try to heal the children, I realized the real impact would come if I could heal the parents.”

Correction Institution

Schoellkopf started teaching parenting classes, and when she was required to complete an adult rotation before licensure, she chose Psychology Services at Terminal Island Federal Prison. Thirteen years later, she has a thriving practice at the prison and a career that has been full of opportunities. She says that the energy she puts into her work comes from the improvements she has seen in her clients over the years. The inmates at Terminal Island have been convicted of federal crimes such as drug trafficking or murder or rape committed on federal property. Although most inmates are initially mandated to be in her office, in the course of therapy, some of the most hardened criminals have opened up to her. “It’s not uncommon for a seasoned gang member to break down and cry in my office, telling me things he has kept secret his whole life,” Schoellkopf says.

In therapy, Schoellkopf says she is able to separate her clients’ past criminal actions from their human qualities—keeping her gut reactions from clouding her clinical judgment. But most impressive is the confidence she maintains while working in an undeniably intimidating environment. She walks the prison hallways without an ounce of self-consciousness and sits face-to-face with violent criminals as she would any other client. “You cannot let them see fear,” she says. “If they know you’re intimidated, you’ve lost a bit of your advantage. It’s over pretty quickly unless you treat these men like human beings—with respect, but also authority.”

Dr. Laurie Schoellkopf

Today she passes through the hallways of the J complex, a semi-private unit where each inmate has his own bed, toilet, sink, and locker. In comparison to other bunk units with open dorm living, it is a highly coveted place to be. She calls out to an inmate down the hall—one she has recently been treating in therapy. He emerges from his cell and the two chat briefly about his treatment. Scheollkopf says that depression is a serious problem in prisons, and suicide prevention is key. An inmate who is highly suicidal will be put on a continuous twenty-four-hour watch and seen routinely by a therapist. The inmate nods, “This is my third time in prison,” he says. “When I was incarcerated in Oregon, I saw two guys kill themselves. Maybe if they had gotten some psychological attention…who knows?” He describes prison as the only place he has been able to slow down and think about his life and the choices he has made. And as for his time with Scheollkopf, he says, “To have someone to talk to helps take your mind away from where you are, but you always come back to these bars. They don’t let you forget.”

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Terminal Island’s Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Programs have also been effective at helping inmates stay sober after release. Schoellkopf teaches part of a 500-hour drug abuse course in English and Spanish (she is a self-taught Spanish speaker). A five-year longitudinal study showed significantly lower relapse rates for drug-addicted inmates who had completed the program versus those who had not. In fact, Schoellkopf mentions that it is not uncommon for her to receive letters from former inmates thanking her for the impact she has made. But when cases do not turn out successfully and a client ends up right back in prison and back in Schoellkopf’s office, her strategy is unwavering. “A relapse to me is a bump in the road. My attitude is, ‘where do we go from here?'”

Pepperdine Colleague magazine has been asked to refrain from printing the names of Terminal Island inmates.

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