Faculty Spotlight: Psychologist Mary Looman uses Research to Lead Change in the Criminal Justice System

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Mary Looman
Photo: Mary Looman

While earning her PhD in clinical psychology, Mary Looman was working for the Department of Human Services in Oklahoma, helping at-risk children and families. Looman had previously worked with juvenile offenders, and when she started learning about the criminogenic cycle in school, she had a profound insight about these populations. “I had this idea that prison was its own culture, not just in correctional facilities, but in at-risk communities as well,” she says. From that realization came her award-winning book, A Country Called Prison, which she co-authored with her friend and colleague, John Carl. It was the culmination of Looman’s decades of experience working directly with offenders as a psychologist within the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The purpose of the book, Looman argues, is to educate people that prison is like another country within our borders, with its own distinct culture. “The people in this country have their own money, their own barter system, their own laws, traditions, customs, and dress,” she explains. “People leave prison and try to go back to work in America, but they aren’t able to. They leave prison without a driver’s license, the inability to vote or obtain help from government social service agencies,” all things that would help them to reintegrate into society. She and Carl refer to them as “legal aliens”—born in America but without knowledge and understanding of the American culture.

What is your sense of the overall trajectory of criminal justice in the last 50 years?

I began working in the criminal justice system in 1971. In the 70s, people went to prison because they had committed a very serious crime, something that really harmed society. People who committed relatively minor crimes, such as simple theft, were put on probation and rehabilitated. In the 70s, the huge Baby Boom population was in their early adulthood making typical early adulthood mistakes. While the percentage of crime compared to the population stayed the same, politicians initiated the “War on Drugs” and “Get Tough on Crime” policies. The homeless population suddenly became a big issue, too, as mental health hospitals closed—and there were many veterans from the Vietnam era that were not getting proper care for post-traumatic stress disorder.

From 1985 through 2010, the idea was, “Let’s arrest everyone just because they’re doing drugs or are homeless. Let’s fill up the prisons so we need to build more prisons.” Prisons multiplied like rabbits. Prisons became human warehouses and law enforcement agencies began doing social work trying to manage the increasing population of mentally ill in the community. So, then there are jobs, both in corrections and in businesses supplying products and services to the correctional industry. Now there’s a trillion-dollar budget across the US and the crime rate has not changed much.

But there is a shift beginning. States are beginning to decriminalize many drug laws and community agencies are working together to find ways to help people to avoid sending them to prison, such as drug courts, alternative sentencing programs, improvements in mental health services and services for at-risk families and neighborhoods. Law enforcement agency websites are becoming more and more transparent and there is more concern about rehabilitation and pre-release training in corrections.

As a psychologist working in corrections, how have you been able to make a positive impact with your work?

In the 1970s, early in my career, I worked in one of five juvenile detention facilities in Kansas. I noticed that about a third of the teenagers, mostly girls, had not committed crimes that would have gotten an adult detained in jail. These were called statutory crimes, such as truancy, running away from home, promiscuity. They were housed with teenagers who had committed adult felony crimes (robbery, rape, assault, murder). I completed a six-month research project that identified that when many of the teens with statutory crimes were released after several months in detention, they returned several months later having committed a more serious crime, often with someone they had met at the detention facility. Along with the director of another detention center, we started the Kansas Juvenile Detention Association. I began talking with state legislatures and one agreed to write a new bill to delete statutory crimes and to start restorative justice and alternative programs, including family service programs. I presented my research findings and observations to the full legislative body and the bill passed immediately. Kansas became the first state to initiate social service and justice polices for children and families that would prevent many children and teens from entering the system. 

Tell us about your work in developing services for people with mental health issues.

In 2003, the Chief of Mental Health Services for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections asked me to create a 100-bed unit at a medium security male prison for inmates with serious mental illnesses who would be discharging within a year. The main purpose of the mental health unit was to prepare the men for successful discharge by providing mental health treatment, rehabilitation programs in self-care, independent living and job skills. The two most important policy changes I initiated was the creation of an officer psych-tech position, in which officers received extensive training in psychiatric treatment processes and humane care of patients. I also created a social work position, who worked with the community where the inmate-patient would live. At the time of discharge, the person would have a support system including, a place to live, enrollment in social services (such as food stamps), and appointments with the mental health clinic.

The social worker and I soon discovered that there were very few places ex-prisoners with mental illness could receive the support that would prevent recidivism. So, we began searching for evidenced-based research that would solve the problems we were encountering. I found several state legislatures that were willing to initiate legislation to improve community services. It is a ripple effect of positive change that continues today in Oklahoma, which became the state with the highest per-capita prison population after closing its two psychiatric hospitals in 1999.

What are common misperceptions about criminal justice?

Most citizens in America believe that everyone who is arrested has committed a crime that endangers society. They are unaware that 40 to 60 percent of those arrested are homeless due to mental illness or addiction, cognitively disabled, illegal immigrants or [those who] have committed a non-violent crime, such as vagrancy or loitering.

Most citizens believe that everyone in prison have received a fair trial by a jury of their peers. However, nearly all individuals charged with a crime, plea-bargain their case to avoid sitting in jail for two years. Many times, defense attorneys negotiate that if a person pleads guilty, they will receive probation or only serve a few months in prison. Unfortunately, the person now has a felony record which often prevents them from obtaining a college education, a job, and access to many social services.

What do you want students to take from your course, CJ 510: Criminal Justice Leadership?

I want students to become champions of criminal justice reform by realizing that all people deserve respect and to be treated with dignity regardless of their behavior. I want students to realize that there are better and less expensive ways to care for people with unacceptable, non-violent social behavior than putting them in prison. I want students to find ways to count successes (rehabilitated, contributing members of society) not failures (recidivism) because you get more of whatever you count.

What advice do you have for criminal justice leaders who want to initiate change?

As criminal justice leaders attempt to initiate change, they are going to come up against the fact that we don’t have the money—or at least that is what financial decision-makers will say. It’s actually cheaper to keep someone out of prison and in rehabilitation. You can treat someone four times in a drug abuse center for every year in prison—and individuals in alternative programs and specialized courts are able to participate and contribute to the American culture and way of life.

The criminal justice leaders of today will need to understand the principles of change management and transformative leadership. They need to be able to see the connection their agency plays in the larger community picture and to rally all stakeholders to work together for change.

Professor Mary Looman teaches CJ 510: Criminal Justice Leadership.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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