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Social workers try to teach inmates alternatives

May 07, 1997

By JENNYLYNN BROWN

Staff Writer

Getting inmates to change the way they think and to control the way they act is one of the challenges facing social workers assigned to prisons.

Dorothy Strawsburg, 52, regional supervisor of the Hagerstown prison complex south of Hagerstown, said social workers usually adopt the mission of their agency, and for those employed by the Maryland Division of Corrections, that mission is to promote public safety.

"Our ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism," said Gloria Arnold, 53, Social Worker IV at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown.

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"We help them to identify value systems and belief systems," said Connie Robin Seacrist, 35, Social Worker III at the Maryland Correctional Training Center.

Strawsburg, Arnold and Seacrist are licensed, certified social workers-clinical. Ten social workers are employed at the three-prison complex south of Hagerstown.

Meetings with social workers are voluntary, and inmates usually request individual counseling in writing.

Using decision-making models, inmates learn to monitor their feelings, thoughts and behaviors so that they don't make choices based solely on emotions, Seacrist said.

Arnold said that social workers try to help prisoners change their attitudes about their intended victims.

"Some of them see people as objects rather than people with rights - people with feelings," she said.

Arnold also works at the Group and Individual Treatment Services on Oak Ridge Drive.

Geriatric offenders and young offenders are two special groups social workers counsel.

At age 60, inmates get their first annual geriatric assessment - an interview, a physical and screenings for depression and Alzheimer's disease.

Older inmates may be housed closer to officers' stations. Some older offenders isolate themselves because of physical illness or feelings of intimidation, Arnold said.

"They feel more at risk. They feel a distinction between them and the younger inmates," she said.

Highly motivated older inmates can become positive role models, she said.

"They can help others deal with the anxiety of being incarcerated and take active roles in tutoring, religious groups and self-support groups," Arnold said.

Seacrist works with those who were under 18 when they entered the system, were convicted as adults and are sentenced to serve 10 years or less.

"It's kind of a priority to get them into school and vocational shops a little quicker than others," she said. "A lot do want to get their GED and training.

"Many want a job and have no skills or direction. They need assistance with career exploration."

Seacrist said the young prisoners' concerns are family problems, adjusting to being in prison, and their health - the same concerns as those of other inmates.

The Hagerstown complex includes the Roxbury Correctional Institution, MCTC and MCI.

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