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Grief and Loss in Correctional Facilities Essay

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Prison settings often complicate the ability for an inmate to process grief and loss leading to complicated and unresolved grief (Hendry, 2009; Wilson, 2011). The physical separation of the incarcerated and their loved ones create another complicated factor to grief along with the possibility of not being able to mourn with family and friends at memorial services (Young Junior, 2003; Hendry, 2008; Taylor, 2012).

As a social work intern at Monroe County Correctional Facility, this topic becomes of great importance when working with inmates experiencing grief and loss.

Providing treatment to these inmates mitigates the difficulties related to reentry, enhances the “ability to cope with prison life” (Hendry, 2009, p. 271), and decreases the likelihood of recidivism (Hendry, 2009).

Prevalence of Grief in Correctional Facilities

The research that is accessible on grief and loss for incarcerated individuals in limited within the United States; however, many studies have been published in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In one study conducted in the United States, Harner, Hentz and Evangelista (2010) discuss the prevalence of grief in women’s correctional facilities.

They state, “nearly half of all women in prison experience the death of a loved one during their incarceration” (p. 1). In 2009, it had been determined that no statistics were available regarding incarcerated males and the loss of a loved one (Hendry, 2009).

Given the limited amount of statistics for this topic, I will bring in personal experience from working at Monroe Correctional Facility. During the first week of working at the jail, two inmates in program were experiencing the loss of a loved one. The mother of one inmate’s child was shot to death in New Jersey leaving the inmate to grieve her loss and to be concerned about the placement of his child.

Another inmate’s grandfather, the positive role model in the family, died of cancer and had been sick for a period of time before his death. Since the family was concerned about letting the inmate know, he found out that his grandfather was sick during the same weekend that he had passed. He had no opportunity to talk to his grandfather one last time and because of complications, he was also unable to attend the funeral, despite driving him to the location of the service. Additionally, during groups, many inmates share their experiences of loss while growing up when discussing the reasons for their substance use.

This experience is inadequate to show the true depth of loss experienced by inmates because it is limited to what I have been made aware of during individual and group sessions. There are two jails in Monroe County and I am only exposed to approximately 100 of those inmates. Furthermore, it is not part of the jail culture to share the emotions related to loss which can lead to unresolved grief and loss (Wilson, 2011; Taylor, 2012). This “unresolved loss and grief can be a contributory factor in offending behavior (Wilson, 2011, p. 10); therefore, this topic must be further explored.

Worden’s Four Tasks of Grief

The research that provides a theory of grief and loss often refers to Worden’s four tasks of grief (Young Junior, 2003; Hendry 2009). Dr. J. William Worden (1982) has laid out four tasks of grieving and the normal grief reactions in his Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. These tasks include: accepting the reality of the loss, working through the pain of the grief, adjusting to the environment that the deceased is no longer a part of, and to emotionally relocate the deceased and continue on with life. Due to the restrictions in correctional settings, it is complicated, if not impossible, to get through these stages of grief.

The first task, accepting the reality of the loss, becomes difficult for inmates when they are unable to attend memorial services (Hendry, 2009). Even if they can attend, it is often embarrassing and humiliating to the inmate and others because of the security measures that need to be taken. Given the nature of prison, it becomes difficult for the inmate to mourn “because of the lack of support, counselling or other resources needed to
complete the process” (Hendry, 2009, p. 273).

The second task, working through the pain of grief, is grueling for an individual without all of the constraints an inmate experiences. This stage requires a manifestation of acknowledgement “through crying, anger and guilt, anxiety, helplessness and loneliness, and through behaviours such as sleep disturbance and intolerance of others” (Hendry, 2009, p. 273).

It can be argued that this task of grief is impossible for those incarcerated, especially males, because of the male stereotypes held by this population and the rules of conduct determined by correctional staff. Expressing emotions in this setting is a fear for most inmates; therefore, these emotions can be dwelled on independently causing outbursts and complicated grief (Schetky, 1998; Young Junior, 2003; Hendry, 2009; Harner, Hentz, & Evangelista, 2010; Wilson, 2011).

An important aspect to consider is the way inmates coped with grief and loss on the outside, often resulting in substance use. Being currently incarcerated, they are unable to cope the only way that they know how to and now have to face these emotions sober (Finlay & Jones, 2000).

The third task, adjusting to an environment without the deceased, is “made more difficult because of the lack of information and an environment that limits the freedom to express grief” (Hendry, 2009, p. 274). The inmate has already had limited interaction with the deceased, so now the loss becomes apparent more sporadically, when he or she would normally interact with their loved one during the incarceration.

The final task, emotionally relocating the deceased and continuing on with life is a difficult task for those incarcerated for reasons mentioned above. The inability to mourn with family and the difficulty of trusting others in prisons or jails hinders the ability to move on with life (Hendry, 2009). Typically the grieving process happens for the inmate once released from the correctional setting, if at all. Due to the complications of mourning in prisons and jail, the grief experienced by the inmate will typically take form of complicated grief.

Interventions and Therapeutic Strategies

Given certain aspects of incarceration prevent inmates from grieving successfully, it is essential to look at the interventions and therapeutic strategies that are available to this population. Resources tend to be limited in correctional settings, but at times there are different forms of counseling and support available (Young Junior, 2003).

Social workers and other clinicians who specialize in grief counseling should be made available to inmates when they experience the loss of a loved one, without a restriction of only immediate family members. Just as non-offenders may feel closer with a friend rather than a relative, this is true of inmates as well.

In order for the inmate to experience the news of the death without increased shock, “a support system (ie., chaplain, counselor, relative) should be present to reduce the chance of complicated grief” (Young Junior, 2003, p. 78). Young Junior (2003) offers additional recommendations for helping inmates experiencing loss, including: listening to his or her experiences, have the inmate ask a family member to bring in the program of the funeral service, encourage the inmates the share their feelings with those around, suggest keeping a journal, ensure the inmate is engaging in self care, etc.

Dr. Diane H. Schetky provides one example of a grief and loss group that showed positive outcomes in her article about mourning in prison. She offered a grief support group to inmates in protective custody in Maine State Prison. This group not only covered the loss of a person, but also the symbolic losses that go along with incarceration.

These include “loss of self esteem and personhood, sexual relations, autonomy, professional identity, choice of medical care, and material possessions” (Schetky, 1998, p. 386). Since many inmates are not used to experiencing grief, especially with others, issues of trust, confidentiality, and resistance came up at times during Schetky’s group. However, as time went on, individuals in group began to share experiences and show a great amount of care for one another. Another positive outcome was that the group offered a safe place for conflict resolution and examples of “supportive, respectful, nonexploitive relationship[s]” (Schetky, 1998, p. 390).

Schetky offers that grief work may be more complicated in general population since “compassion and self protection are often incompatible in prison” and “kindness may be viewed as a sign of weakness” (p. 389). However, when running a group in general population, they ended up being “more open, trusting, and higher functioning than those in the [protective custody] group” (p. 390) over time. In a separate study on the value of bereavement support groups, the chaplain of the prison offered that participants were “being more reflective, offering peer support to other bereaved men on the wing, demonstrating new-found confidence” (Wilson, 2011, p. 12) and showing other positive outcomes.

Wilson suggests that during group, inmates may have a shift in their belief systems causing some outside conflict with other inmates, family, and friends who “do not acknowledge or accept these changes” (p. 15). Another important consideration that Wilson offers is that prison staff should be trained on “bereavement awareness [to] help promote a more accepting culture and encourage more prisoners to seek help” (p. 15). At Monroe Correctional Facility, there are no formal grief and loss groups or counselors available; however, interns occasionally bring this topic into their groups since this is a major issue to our population. During the first week of my internship, when the two inmates were experiencing significant losses, an intern did an activity which addressed losses in the inmates lives.

They would write a message on a leaf to the person that they had lost and tape it to a drawing of a tree. The one inmate who was dealing with the loss of his grandfather was angered by this activity because he was not ready to face this loss. The impact that grief and loss has on any individual suggests the importance of having a specialized plan and/or staff for inmates since there are many significant barriers in properly grieving in a correctional setting. In order to reduce extreme reactions to the loss of a loved one, there should be a specialized team delivering the news and there should also be continued work offered to the inmate.

This will allow the inmate to address previous issues of grief and loss, receive support, and work through their current loss.

Ethical Issues and Dilemmas in Social Work

Social workers in correctional settings may face ethical issues and dilemmas when working with inmates handling issues of grief and loss. One core value social workers live by is the right for everyone to experience social justice. This includes fighting for equal opportunity “and meaningful participation in decision making for all people” (Workers, 2008, p. 2).

Although there are policies in place allowing the inmate to attend a memorial service, there can sometimes be complicating factors such as security or finances that will cause the inmate to not participate in an important step of the grieving process (Taylor, 2012). Specific to this issue, Hendry (2009) suggests that inmates are “accompanied by the inability to make decisions about the future” (p. 271).

The first ethical responsibility of a social worker that may cause conflict in this setting is the client’s right to self-determination. Since the inmate is considered a mandated client, there can be issue with this ethical principle. Some inmates may be required to attend a grief and loss group without having an option to opt out. At Monroe Correctional Facility, our supervisor puts together a list of people to attend our groups based on what he believes the inmates can benefit from.

A second responsibility of social workers that can be compromised in correctional setting is competence. The Code of Ethics (2008) states that “social workers should provide services and represent themselves as competent only within the boundaries of their education, training, license, certification, consultation received, supervised experience, or other relevant professional experience” (p. 2). At my internship, there are no interns that specialize in grief and loss; however, this is a topic that we address with inmates constantly. Of the seven interns currently at Monroe Correctional Facility, three are currently taking a masters level course on grief and loss and only one has interest in pursuing this subject professionally.

Culture competence and social diversity can be a potential issue for some social workers if they are not educated on different grieving practices
based on religion, culture, or other factors. To properly grieve, we ask the inmates to go through different steps than they had been taught growing up which can demonstrate extreme side effects. For those who grew up in families and institutions that did not share emotions, allow for ‘weakness’, or promote Worden’s (1982) normal grief reactions, going through a bereavement group may present additional difficulties in processing grief.

Confidentiality becomes of great importance in support groups as demonstrated through various literature (Schetky, 1998; Wilson, 2011). Since there are policies in place that do not allow for true individual work at Monroe Correctional Facility with interns, when an inmate decides to disclose information, they must do so to at least two individuals.

Additionally, an inmate may not fully understand the concept of supervision and the interdisciplinary approach to counseling in the setting. Since interns are constantly asking for feedback on how to approach a particular client with their needs, more information may be revealed to a supervisor than an inmate would desire. There are also no private areas in the correctional facility where interns can discuss confidential information, which can cause complications if not handled appropriately.

Interruption and termination of services are difficult to handle appropriately at times given the sporadic nature of the setting. Inmates can be transferred, sent to solitary confinement, or released without proper termination due to unforeseen circumstances. This limits the social worker’s ability to “make reasonable efforts to ensure continuity of services [and] take reasonable steps to avoid abandoning clients who are still in need of services” (p. 4). since interns are discouraged from continuing any form of a relationship when an inmate is no longer present in the unit.

There are many issues that can arise as a counselor in a correctional facility. The nature of jails and prisons do not allow for privacy and guaranteed continuity of services. The aspects that are more controllable are becoming educated on other cultures’ approach to grief and loss, making clear the limitations of confidentiality in this setting, and taking the necessary steps to be competent in the area of grief and loss.

Diversity Issues

As mentioned above, regarding ethical issues and dilemmas, there becomes issue with cultural competency and social diversity. During counseling, a social work practitioner should consider the different approaches to grief and loss based on religion, culture, age, gender, and the type of grief or loss. Based on religion and culture alone, the death of a loved one is handled in numerous ways.

Specifically, Muslim and Catholic understandings and approaches of loss can vary and a practitioner should be aware of and respect these differences. If a practitioner is not fully educated, it may be best to bring in a chaplain in order for the inmate to have his or her needs met during this time of loss.

Age and gender bring in other differences for the practitioner to be aware of during counseling. Developmental abilities when coping with the loss of a loved one will vary among inmates based on age and cognitive functioning. Many individuals in this population experience a number of losses which can “impair further growth and development” (Hendry, 2009, p. 272).

Age and cognitive abilities can also attribute to the emotional ability of an individual to grieve the loss of a loved one. In regards to gender, female inmates tend to feel more guilt regarding the loss and have limited “opportunity to deal with their psychological issues” (Young Junior, 2003, p. 76).

Finally, differences in the type of loss will produce a variety of grief reactions. Taylor (2012) suggests that when a loved one is murdered, an inmate will tend to experience “shock, depression, anger, and guilt” (p. 40), while suicide will produce “shock, disbelief, anger towards the person who committed suicide, or even anger at God or oneself” (p. 40). The death of a child produces heightened feelings of guilt and anger tend to override other reactions of grief. Finally the death of a parental figure leaves unsettled feelings if the inmate is “unable to resolve conflicts or unfinished business” (p. 41).

With a great deal of diversity, a social work practitioner needs to be prepared to counsel individuals with different factors relating to their grief. The uniqueness of each individual should be considered so that they are properly counseled and are able to work through their grief in a therapeutic manner. Having the ability to grieve properly can have an extreme positive impact on the individual during their incarceration and for when they return to their community.

One example of a prison considering the diversity of grief processes occurs through the Corrections Department in New Zealand. The policy in place allows Māori people in New Zealand facilities to practice their beliefs during the death of a loved one. The inmate is allowed to see a Māori elder, a collaborative approach is used with the prison, family and Māori priest, grief processes and death rituals are conducted, and the incarcerated individual attends the “tangi (Māori death ritual ceremony) [and]…the Marae (meeting house)” (Hendry, 2009, p. 275). Models such as this should be implemented and followed in the United States and around the world.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Recommendations for this area of grief and loss would include more research being done about inmates experiencing the death of a loved one during their incarceration. This will allow for greater competence in this field and will bring the issue to the forefront of the academic world. Within the correctional setting, there should be a support network when informing the inmate of a loss, trained professionals available to inmates needing to process unresolved and new grief, and competent staff members encouraging inmates to seek bereavement counseling.

By having these recommendations implemented in correctional settings, there can be an increase in proper coping skills, a decrease in altercations during incarceration, and a decrease in recidivism.

Taylor (2012) states that “grief is universal but it becomes complicated when the bereaved include not only inmates, but also their families, the victim’s families, and even correctional staff” (p. 40). Since grief is often compounded for those incarcerated, it becomes essential to determine appropriate methods for helping the inmate grieve to the fullest extent possible. Resources for inmates need to be expanded when it comes to grief since unresolved grief can have many negative consequences on any individual.


Finlay, I.G. & Jones, N.K. (2000). Unresolved grief in young offenders in prison. British Journal of General Practice, 50, 569-570. Harner, H.M., Hentz, P.M., & Evangelista, M.C. (2010). Grief interrupted: The experience of loss among incarcerated women. Qualitative Health Research, 1-11. doi: 10.1177/1049732310373257. Hendry, C. (2009). Incarceration and the tasks of grief: A narrative review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 270-278. Schetky, D.H. (1998). Mourning in prison: Mission impossible? J Am Acad Psychiatry Law, 26(3), 383-391. Taylor, P.B. (2012). Grief counseling in the jail setting. American Jails, 39-42. Wilson, M. (2011). Exploring the efficacy of a bereavement support group for male category c prisoners: A pilot study. Bereavement Care, 29(3), 10-16. Worden, J.W. (1982). Grief counselling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer, New York: Tavistock. Workers, N.A. (2008). NASW code of ethics: Guide to the everyday professional conduct of social workers. Washington, D.C.: NASW. Young Junior, V. (2003). Helping female inmates cope with grief and loss. Corrections Today, 76-94.

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