The International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation

Psychotherapy and Education in Prison With Two Native American Youths

Russell Eisenman, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
University of Texas-Pan American
Edinburg, TX 78539-2999

Eisenman, R.  (2002)   Psychotherapy and education in prison with two native
american youths.  International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. 7, 29-34.

Educational and psychotherapy experiences are presented for two Native American youths incarcerated in a California Youth Authority prison treatment program. Although both were Native American and were both 16-years old, their personalities were very different, with one being very aggressive and dangerous, and the other being passive, and mostly a threat to himself. Both had educational problems, which were helped somewhat at the ungraded prison school.

What do you think of when you think of Native Americans, or of American Indians? Do you have a particular stereotype in mind? This article should help you avoid that, and think of them as individuals, each different from one another, despite also possibly having similar cultural backgrounds. Stereotypes are an integral part of prejudice (Allport, 1954; Lefton & Brannon, 2003), thus we need to learn to avoid or overcome them. Native Americans have many problems in American society, and we need to look at them as individuals and not stereotype them (or any other group), in order best to be able to help them to succeed in life, and assist them with their various problems (Bryant, 1998; Capper, 1990; Deyhle, 1995; Green & Tonnesen, 1991; Hasse & Soldier, 1993; Napier, 1995; Ness, 2002; Ryan & Shanley, 1993; Scott, 1996; Simms, 2000; Tierney & Jun, 2001; Warner, 1991).

 For almost two years I worked in a California Youth Authority prison treatment program, working with youthful offenders. Two of these were Native Americans, one I will call Jesse, and the other Ron, both 16-years old.  The state requires education for all youths, even those in prison. We had a prison school, where students attended ungraded schools, and teachers worked with them on their individual scholastic problems. Most youths had major deficiencies in educational matters. Most found sitting still in school and following instruction to be very difficult. This was either because they had some kind of neurological problems that made paying attention a major problem, or perhaps due to their anti-social nature, wherein they did not want to do what others told them (especially when it was not fun and exciting). Also, we did psychotherapy with all the youths in the prison treatment program.  As Senior Clinical Psychologist, I, along with a full-time psychiatrist, was largely in charge of that, and helped supervise the therapy as well as have a large psychotherapy caseload of my own. Jesse and Ron presented very different kinds of problems, showing that though they were both American Indians, they were also unique individuals.


 Jesse was highly anti-social and violent. During group psychotherapy he would sometimes give me the finger when he thought I was not watching, or throw a ball at the wall or window, almost breaking the window.  One of his many offenses was firing a gun at an official who took a dog away from his reservation. When I questioned him about his over-reaction to the dog being taken away, he said, "Animals are sacred to the Indian."  I never knew when Jesse might attack me. He seemed totally wrapped up in himself and his needs, and had little or no regard for others. Once, he asked for a book on photography from the prison library. I went and got the book for him. But, I was a little afraid to open the door to his room (our prisoners were in small rooms, not cells), because I thought he might hit me, or try to escape. Also, I was a little reluctant to give him the book, because I feared he might tear it up.

 I handled the situation by going to Jesse's room, and explaining, through the glass window, that I was going to open the door to give him the book he wanted, but that he should appreciate I was doing him a favor, and not attack me or try to run outside.  Also, I said that he should not tear up the book, as that would result in both him and others not receiving this kind of favor any more.  He said, "OK," but I did not know if I could believe him. Fortunately, nothing bad occurred.  He went back into his room with the book, and I locked his room back up. Later, the book was returned to the library in good shape.

 Like most of our other prisoners, Jesse was difficult to teach at the prison school. I regularly consulted with the teachers there, and found that he--like the others--did not seem to be able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. Thus, learning had to be done in small increments.  However, using this individualized approach, Jesse seemed to make some progress in basic areas such as reading and mathematics. These are very important skills to have, to get along in American society.  Probably, through individual and group psychotherapy, and through the prison school, some progress was made in getting Jesse to have a little less impulsivity and to learn some basic skills. However, before much could be achieved, or before we could see him as a failure who would not achieve much in our program, he was transferred to another prison, a nontreatment facility. Apparently, someone thought that a brief time in a treatment program would help him.  My thought is that he needed much more treatment, and not just being in a regular prison setting, where his anti-social ways will get reinforced by the other prisoners.


 As aggressive as Jesse was, Ron was passive. He said little, and related little to the other prisoners. He mostly spent time with a rather intelligent 16-year old child molester, who was despised by the other prisoners because of his offense. On psychological tests, Ron showed signs of schizophrenia. He had committed many burglaries, which caused him to be committed to the California Youth Authority prison system. He said he wanted to go to prison to get away from his mother. His mother would constantly seduce his male friends and have sexual intercourse with them. Perhaps she, too, was schizophrenic.  Anyway, in a desperate attempt to flee that situation, he decided that the only thing he knew how to do was get himself arrested and sent to prison.  There should have been interventions earlier with him, to show him other options in his life.

 Ron caused no trouble in psychotherapy or in school.  However, like Jesse, he was not a fast learner. Perhaps his mental illness got in the way of learning. Ron tried harder than Jesse, though, and also made progress in improving his reading and mathematics skills. In psychotherapy, he would often sit silent, but would try to answer questions posed to him. He did not actively resist therapy the way Jesse did, but he was not a great therapy client, either.  From my experiences, people with severe mental illness--such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic-depression)--find it very hard to do well in psychotherapy, because they cannot think as rationally or as quickly as the process demands.

 Ron was still in the program when I left. You hardly noticed him because he was so quiet and withdrawn. He seemed to be making progress, but it will take a skillful placement to find somewhere that he can prosper, when he leaves the prison.

A wide array of psychotherapy is offered to prisoners in this treatment program. All get both individual and group psychotherapy. This psychotherapy follows the style of the person who runs the individual or group psychotherapy session, but tends toward the behavioral or cognitive behavioral, with lots of emphasis on admitting what once did ("admitting one’s commitment offense" as they call it at the prison), and figuring out why one did it, and how it can be avoided in the future. Prisoners also receive life planning group psychotherapy, which helps them plan how to live when they get out, e. g., how to apply for, get, and hold a job, etc.

Then, there is additional psychotherapy for special needs, e. g., sex offender treatment for sex offenders or drug psychotherapy for those with substance abuse problems. Of our two Native Americans discussed here, Jesse received drug psychotherapy because of his preprison heavy use, and problems with, alcohol and cocaine. It was in my drug psychotherapy group that Jesse acted out by giving me the finger, and throwing a ball near the window.

Most prisons offer no psychotherapy to their prisoners. As a treatment program, we had a relatively unusual orientation of offering lots of psychotherapy. Of course, psychotherapy is difficult with prisoners, as their extreme antisocial orientation, and their impulsive and nonreflective ways of being, make them difficult therapy candidates. Most probably get little out of psychotherapy, but a small percentage is perhaps changed. For all those who are changed into being more prosocial, there will be fewer victims. Thus, even a small amount of success in psychotherapy—getting antisocial people to become honest citizens instead of continuing as criminals—is a major benefit to society.

Here I will explain certain diagnostic classification, that is discussed in this paper. I go by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV-TR, which refers to the 4th edition, text revision, of the official manual of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). This is the official legal source for diagnosis of mental disorders in the United States.

Jesse is a conduct disorder, who will, when he becomes 18 years old, probably be diagnosed as an antisocial personality disorder. Ron may well be schizophrenic. Each of these diagnostic terms will be explained.

"Conduct disorder" comes under the heading "Disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood, or adolescence." It involves repetitive violations of the rights of others, or violation of age-appropriate societal norms or rules (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). There are four main groupings for these behaviors:

The onset can be in childhood or adolescence, although there is also the category of "Unspecified Onset" if the age of onset is unknown.

"Antisocial personality disorder" fits under the category of "Personality Disorders" and involves a pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others. One cannot be diagnosed as an antisocial personality disorder until one is 18 years old, since youths are constantly changing in their personality. Other words that have been used for this diagnosis are "psychopath," "sociopath," and "dissocial personality." Antisocial personalities are noted for being deceitful and manipulative, and are often good at getting others to like them, at least initially. They lack empathy for others, and are callous and cynical. They can do the most extreme things with little or no remorse or conscience. They often show an inflated sense of self, and also lack sufficient concern about their current or future problems. The disorder exists in about 3% of males and 1% of females. The person with this disorder often has a lifelong pattern of serious criminal conduct, seeming never to profit from experience or punishment. They are extremely difficult to treat, and some feel there is no sense in doing psychotherapy with them, as it is believed that they will just pretend to go along with the therapist, but will not change.

"Schizophrenia" is classified under "Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders." There are many subtypes of schizophrenia, but in general the disorder shows delusions (thoughts that are at great variance with reality) or hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or tasting, etc., things that are not there). Some believe that the major symptom of schizophrenia is thought disorder, in which the person cannot think clearly. Thus, the schizophrenic is greatly handicapped in functioning in everyday life, as they have trouble realistically perceiving what is occurring. Also, they often have flat or inappropriate affect, in which they show no feelings or perhaps laugh at things that are not funny.

In all of the above diagnoses, the problem must exist to a certain extent and for a certain period of time before one can be correctly diagnosed. This protects against putting someone in a diagnostic category if they just have one or a few examples of a disorder, but do not show it on a regular, consistent basis.

It should be kept in mind that "mental disorder" or "mental illness" is different than "insanity," which is a legal term, not a psychological or psychiatric term. Insanity usually means that the person did not know the difference between right and wrong, or otherwise could not conform their conduct to do proper behavior. While many "insane" people have a mental disorder, simply having a mental disorder does not make one insane or excuse one, legally, for one’s behavior. Since so many criminals have antisocial personality disorder or some aspects of it, it would be very dangerous to excuse people from legal responsibility on the grounds that they were antisocial personalities.

 Both Jesse and Ron were American Indians I treated in a prison treatment program. Both received education in the prison school. Both seemed to make some progress both in psychotherapy and in education. But, they could not have been more different in personality.  Jesse is probably a conduct disorder, and might well be diagnosed as an anti-social personality (what used to be called psychopath or sociopath) when he reaches age 18 and is eligible for that diagnosis.  He is potentially very violent, and may well hurt people in the future. Ron on the other hand is passive and quiet, and hurts mostly himself. He was in a family situation he could not deal with, and saw going to prison as his best answer.

 I hope these two brief case histories show that people are unique, even if we call them "American Indians," "Native Americans," "Prisoners," "Criminals," or whatever. To help such people, and for the benefit of society, we have to take unique approaches to dealing with the various individuals we encounter.


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