The Invisible Epidemic: Educating Social Work Students towards Holistic Practice in a Period of Mass Incarceration

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Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
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Criminal Justice
Social Work
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Social Work
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported in 2011 that more than 2 million Americans are incarcerated. The report also indicates that 1 in 32 Americans are under some form of criminal justice supervision (parole, probation or prison), with statistics prognosticating that more than half will return to prison once released. Most of the individuals incarcerated are disproportionately poor people of color. Many have christened the period from the 1970’s to present as “Mass Incarceration” (Alexander, 2010). Social Justice is often described as the “organizing value” or catalyst that drives the profession of social work. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2008) Code of Ethics as well as the curriculum policy statement of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) mandate that social workers and schools of social work education target their efforts towards economic and social justice inclusive of at-risk populations, paying particular attention to issues of diversity and oppression. Yet it is startling that critical discourse in schools of social work pertaining to mass incarceration, is marginal, or in some cases completely absent (Cnaan, Draine, Fraizer, & Sinha, 2008; Davis, 1978; Pray, 1949; Reamer, 2004; Roberts, 1997; Scheyett, Pettus-Davis, McCarter & Brigham, 2012; Wormer, Roberts, Springer & Brownell, 2008). Through a thorough examination of the history of the U.S. criminal justice system and an analysis of both the historical and contemporary relationship of criminal justice and social work, this dissertation introduces a two-semester MSW curriculum. The curriculum infuses social work education with issues relating to mass incarceration and it’s various intersections with social work practice. The first semester illuminates the historical evolution of the criminal justice system in the United States and the current state of incarceration, including punitive policies such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, Truth in Sentencing and 3 strike legislations. The second semester highlights systemic and personal challenges to practicing within, and around the criminal justice system. The second semester pays particular attention to evidence based clinical practice theories and interventions. The curriculum utilizes the Council of Social Work Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards to create an amalgamation of clinical and macro competencies. The output is the introduction of a criminal justice infused macro history, and a micro clinical practice course to the social work pedagogy in an attempt towards holistic practice and advocacy more in line with the profession’s organizing value of social justice.

Ram Cnaan, Ph.D
Joretha Bourjolly, Ph.D
Carl Mazza, DSW
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Dedications: While so many people are deserving of a dedication for helping me to achieve this milestone, this dissertation is in honor of my great-grandmother Edna Naomi Watt. She lived to be a hundred years old, but always had the awareness to appreciate how special each day was. I appreciate all the wisdom you bestowed on me, even if it took longer than it should, I am finally awake and listening!
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