Are Social Workers Helping Inmates Rot in Solitary Confinement?

As I wrote in a article several weeks ago, there are about 25,000 people held in solitary confinement in supermax prison units called SHUs—security housing units—and another 80,000 inmates housed in isolation cells in regular prisons and jails. Many of these individuals are mentally ill. Some are juveniles and/or pretrial detainees. No question they are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment regardless what different courts may decide.

solitaryThe purpose of solitary confinement—if it should be used at all—is to segregate the most dangerous criminals. But even dangerous criminals should not be isolated for extended periods and never indefinitely. Social workers and other mental health practitioners are assigned to these units to provide care for the inmates. Often they wind up feeding them medication and sleeping pills so they will not totally lose their minds. In a warped sense, they are helping them rot in their cells.

This ethical nightmare was brought to my attention recently by Moya Atkinson, a dynamic social worker who is very passionate about this issue. Nearing 80 years old, you would think she would leave this fight to younger advocates. She has organized a task force of social workers committed to significantly restricting the use of solitary confinement and eliminating its use for vulnerable populations such as the mentally ill, juveniles, pregnant women, people with disabilities and pretrial detainees.

After she read my article, we met to discuss the issue and I agreed to join the task force. While my focus was on the cruel and unusual punishment individuals incur because of extended, indefinite and indiscriminate use of solitary confinement, she was equally concerned about ethical dilemmas faced by social workers and other mental health professionals charged with providing care for individuals in solitary confinement.

Ethical dilemmas are familiar to social workers who often find themselves in environments and situations that challenge their code of ethics. But working in solitary confinement is a level of horror that few encounter. Social work in correctional facilities which falls under the umbrella of forensic social work is ripe with these challenges.

What should social workers do when they believe mentally ill inmates are being mistreated in jails or prisons? Who does she or he complain to? Often locked in an environment with violent individuals who are both inmates and guards, how do social workers look out for their personal safety concerns while seeking just treatment for inmates? These are tough questions with no easy answers that the task force will wrestle with.

Task force member Mary E. Buser, whose op-ed piece in the Washington Post about her work with mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement at New York City’s Rikers Island jail provided the impetus that spurred Moya into organizing the task force, wrote about “doling out antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills,” in an effort to keep the psyches of people in solitary from unraveling.

Her job was to determine if those in solitary confinement might reach the point where they would kill themselves. How do you do that as a social worker or mental health practitioner? Her brief time as acting chief of mental health took her into the segregation unit on Rikers Island known as the Bing. It was an experience she will never forget. Yet, social workers must provide services to people in solitary confinement unless the practice is discontinued.

National social work organizations are involved in this effort. Task force member Mel Wilson, manager of the Department of Social Justice and Human Rights for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has been active on this issue for years. He provided testimony during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the use of solitary confinement. Dr. Michel Coconis, chair of the Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration (ACOSA) and a long-time activist against the death penalty, also joined the task force which held its kickoff meeting Wednesday at Columbia University School of Social Work.

Confronting the misuse of solitary confinement will be a challenge as many in the “tough on crime” crowd see solitary confinement as necessary and useful. However, there is mounting opposition to the growing use of solitary confinement in our nation’s jails and prisons. Conservative columnist George Will has equated solitary confinement with torture.

The New York City Department of Corrections recently ended solitary confinement for 16 and 17 year olds. Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee has held two subcommittee hearings on solitary confinement. Two bills have been introduced in the House—H.R. 4618 sponsored by Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA2) would create a commission to study its use, and H.R. 4124 sponsored by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA29) would eliminate the use of solitary confinement in federal juvenile facilities.

Want to Debate the Recommendations Being Made to CSWE?

On March 27th at 9PM EST, Thursday night, I will be moderating a live twitter chat using the hashtag #macrosw to discuss the CSWE public commenting period, and we will also conduct a review of the Social Work Helper petition seeking internship reform. Going into this tweet chat, I am open to supporting any ideas put forward to help innovate as well as prevent hardships for those pursing the social work degree.

TweetchatThe petition I created seeks to remove the mandatory minimum internship requirements for BSW students and Nonclinical MSW students which by no means eliminates the internship as part of your plan of study. However, this appears to be a major sticking point for some folks or its interpreted as an elimination of internships all together. I am guessing the concern is without a minimum mandate of hours students would decide not to do internships.

However, if students can’t be trusted to come to the best conclusion on completing an internship under counsel from their advisor, how can we entrust them as social workers to problem solve someone else’s life with no stake in the outcome?

If the social work degree does not innovate and relax the rigidness of the internship requirement, I am concerned enrollment will decline, and the social work degree will primarily only attract students who want to do therapy. Students wanting a macro/policy degree will seek degrees in other disciplines such as the MPA, MPH, or MBA due to their degree having a higher market value than the MSW, both campus and online options, as well as alternatives for experienced and working practitioners. How many students are social work programs losing already when potential students begin comparing degrees when deciding to pursue higher education?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am willing to put forth my best ideas in hopes of sparking communication and inspiring others to add to the conversation. I know that many of us already have our degree, and whatever policies being implemented by the CSWE have no effect on us. However, I believe we should give this public commenting period some thought and effort to see what we can change for future generations of social workers.

Currently, CSWE does not prevent institutions from making exceptions to the internship requirement based on the needs of the student. However, this decision is in the hand of the institution, and policies vary from institution to institution which mean students don’t have access to the same options. We advocate to get  autonomy for our clients, so why can’t we advocate to get some autonomy for ourselves in tailoring a plan of study to fit our own needs?

The #Macrosw chat is a collaboration made up of community practice organizations and individual macro social workers.  The collaboration consists of ACOSA @acosaorg by(Rachel West @polisw), Network for Social Work Management, Deona Hooper (Founder of Social Work Helper @deonahooper), Karen Zgoda (PhD Candidate at Boston College), The University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Each member of the collaboration will take turns moderating the #MacroSW chats. The #MacroSW twitter chats occur on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month.

I will be moderating Thursday night’s chat using @deonahooper. Please tweet any questions or responses directed to the moderator to @deonahooper and include the #macrosw in all of your tweets.

Living Macro in a Micro World: Students Fighting for Macro Practice

The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration

The Macro Social Work Student Network (MSWSN) garnered 80 registrants from around the country for its June 14th event, “MACRO in a Micro World! What the 2012 ‘Rothman Report’ Means for Social Change Hopefulness,” at the Silberman School of Social Work of CUNY-Hunter College. Co-sponsored by the Association of Community Organizing and Social Administration (ACOSA), MSWSN, Silberman, the SUNY-Albany School of Social Welfare, and the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, the event featured a sobering presentation by Dr. Loretta Pyles and Dr. Scott Harding. Students then led open space exercises and parceled out ideas about pressing macropractice issues.

The relatively diminutive stature of macro practice social work in the Academy and beyond is petrifying. Dr. Jack Rothman’s 2012 report illustrates macro practitioners, professors, and students caught in a scholastic and professional purgatory where some work is valued, but much of it is shunned. What is to be done about this professional epidemic? Part of the answer is that social work students must step up and demand in their schools be more equitable between the macro and micro disciplines.

Nine Silberman first-year students in the Community Organizing, Planning, and Development (COP&D) method organized the event, which was the continuation of work started in the fall of 2011. (Recent Silberman graduate Allison Weingarten wrote in the preceding The ACOSA Update! about the Network’s history – see volume 25, winter/spring, 2013.)

What began as required coursework transformed into something much larger. “It seemed like the logical next step,” said Silberman student Ilana Wexler. “We found it important to take it to the next level and meet other students to connect and grow with.” Under the mentorship of Dr. Terry Mizrahi, the Network was rebranded with a distinct mission of connecting students tangibly to explore an integral macro issue.

At the event, Dr. Pyles and Dr. Harding highlighted some of the Rothman Report’s grim findings stunting the growth of macro practice: Many faculties in social work schools lack interest in or oppose macro courses and programs; macro courses are neglected or marginalized; students are not encouraged to choose a macro program or are deflected to clinical practice; and, the Council on Social Work Education standards focus on micro competencies. This, unfortunately, is but a fraction of the findings.

During the open space exercises, small groups of students grappled with key macro questions. Andrew Schoeneman of Virginia Commonwealth led a discussion on how licensing is skewed towards micro practice. Tiffany Hall of Adelphi posed the challenge of getting macro education in micro-centric schools. Silberman student Mary Caparas’ group explored how macro and micro practices can be used symbiotically.

Of these student led break-outs, Meg Baier of Silberman beamed, “They provided the ideal environment to have substantive conversations. Having students and practitioners from around the country in one room created a beyond valuable experience.” Jorge Vargas of Rhode Island College added, “It was great to meet other social workers in the macro field and get a chance to engage in thought-provoking conversation.” Danelle Wagner of Shippensburg (PA) traveled from the Keystone State at 3:30am to attend “a great event that was real social work!”

As the day wrapped up amid food and drink, Nora Moran, one of the Silberman organizers, said the event was “a big step for MSWSN. It is important work that will help shape the future of social work education.” What must follow however, is another step and another and another… If the future of macro education is to change then the gauntlet goes beyond ACOSA or macro faculty. The change must come from the students. It is incumbent upon us to take greater ownership over our chosen method, employ the principle of advocacy with which we have been imbued, and command the opportunity macro social work – and the people we will empower – deserves. “Indeed,” affirmed Dr. Harding, “it represents the missing link to realize the goals of the Rothman Report.”

To learn more and to get involved, please reach the Network at Read and Download the Rothman Report below:

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ACOSA Journal of Community Practice: Organizing, Planning, Development & Change

by Deona Hooper, MSW

The latest edition of the Association of Community Organizing and Social Administration (ACOSA) Journal of Community Practice was recently published. The journal presented articles that focused on macro practice and systems change in a variety of areas such as  psychiatric housing, diversity challenges in staffing community health centers, and strategic prevention frame work to name a few. However, one particular article that resonated with me was “Reaching Out to the Hard to Reach: Lessons Learned from a Statewide Outreach initiative by authors Kathleen S. Gorman, Allison M. Smith, Maria E. Cimini, Katherine M. Halloran, and Anna G. Lubiner.

Here is an excerpt from the journal article:

Despite high levels of need, many federal assistance programs are underutilized, with differential participation rates among demographic subpopulations. Outreach efforts seek to address challenges facing potentially eligible program recipients. This article examines a statewide initiative to address barriers to participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), focusing on the elderly and people with disabilities, eligible immigrants, and low-income working households. We describe a dynamic approach that relies on community partnerships and utilizes media messaging, information dissemination, and direct client assistance to reach our target populations. The data illustrate how continuous evaluation allows for systematic adaptation of strategies, highlighting lessons learned for future outreach efforts.  ~Download Journal Article

Unfortunately, this article like many other journal articles in the social sciences are not easily accessible because they often reside behind a pay wall in order for users to gain access. This prevents many practitioners, who may not be attached to an educational institution, from gaining access to best practices and evidence based knowledge. Most importantly, it prevents the authors and researchers who dedicate their time to creating such authoritative works from taking advantage of new technologies to further enhance recognition as experts in their respective areas. Currently, copyright assertions by the publisher prevents me from sharing the article with you. However, ACOSA members are giving free access to all journal articles, and I must say their membership fees are very modest in comparison to most professional associations.

smjcpAccording to ACOSA’s website:

The Journal of Community Practice articulates contemporary issues, providing direction on how to think about social problems, developing approaches to dealing with them, and outlining ways to implement these concepts in classrooms and practice settings. As a forum for authors and a resource for readers, the Journal of Community Practice makes an invaluable contribution to community practice its conceptualization, applications, and practice. As the only journal focusing on community practice, it covers research, theory, practice, and curriculum strategies for the full range of work with communities and organizations.

The Editors seek submission of articles from academics and practitioners who are engaged in community practice. The Journal of Community Practice occasionally publishes a feature article and Notes from Practice or Notes from Teaching to supply readers with up-to-date resources.

This unique interdisciplinary journal covers a range of research methods, including:

  • Case studies
  • Curriculum development
  • Historical studies
  • Participatory research
  • Policy analysis
  • Program evaluation
  • Qualitative and quantitative methods
  • Theory and model development and testing

For more information on ACOSA and the Journal of Community Practice, view their website at

Why the Rothman Commission was Created to Save Macro Practice Social Work

Francis Perkins with FDR

Social work has traditionally been a profession that has embraced the principles of social justice, social action, and equality with individuals functioning as change agents fighting oppression and inequality in order to improve outcomes for their communities. Social Workers such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Whitney Young, Congressmen Ron Dellums and Ed Towns as well as Senator Barbara A. Mikulski to name a few used their social work background to influence social policy and legislation. Organizations such as ACOSA (Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration) was created to promote the development of community organizing and macro thinking in social administrations which would later commission Dr. Jack Rothman to evaluate the current state of macro practice courses being taught in social work education. The Rothman report was completed in October 2012 and will be discussed in greater detail later in the article.

However, under today’s standard none of the individuals listed above would be entitled to call themselves a social worker under today’s standard because they do not meet the standard of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Clinical Social Workers focus on micro practice in which therapeutic treatments deal only with how an individual can develop mentally, cognitively, or behaviorally. However, macro community practices are focused on influencing the social policies that creates oppression and inequality. Macro practice social workers are change agents committed to making social change while the other is managing individual change.

For instance, Social Worker Frances Perkins was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and she was also the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet by President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom she helped craft New Deal legislation. During her tenure as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, as well as the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act.   She was a major force in establishing the Social Security Act, Unemployment benefits,  and public assistance for the neediest Americans.

Perkins fought to reduce workplace accidents and helped create laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she was responsible for establishing the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard forty-hour workweek. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service. Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers. Sadly, Frances Perkins with all her achievements as a change agent with graduate degrees in political science, sociology and economics would not have been considered a social worker today.

Since 1988, ACOSA has served as the official representative of social workers in a broad array of community/macro practice professions.  These include “Community organizers, activists, nonprofit administrators, community builders, policy practitioners, students and educators.  These conversations led ACOSA to commission a study to explore the concerns of its members regarding the status of community/macro practice in social work.  The report would focus on both identifying the problems with macro practice in schools of social work  while also looking for possible solutions.

The timing of this study and its outcome could not be more relevant with today’s societal issues.  During the survey process, Dr. Jack Rothman determined that many in the profession believed the over focus on clinical social work has devalued community/macro social work.  Participants were concerned about the future of community/macro practice as exhibited by the lack of macro courses for individuals interested politics, administration, public service, and grassroots organizations.  One respondent of the survey Dr. Rothman constructed pointed out that many social work faculty believed that anyone could teach macro classes—no experience or training in the field was needed.

Participants stated that ACOSA should seek to gain visibility with other professional groups and disciplines-­‐-­‐“to interface better so our community-based work is known and social work is not seen as simply casework. ”We need to relate to these groups”, they said, because “we have a common cause in macro areas and there is strength in numbers.” There were concerns that if the community/macro practitioners in social work do not establish themselves as visible players in broader areas of intervention and public policy that other fields will step in and replace us.

One of the recommendations of the Rothman Report was to develop a high-level special commission to look at community/macro social work.  One of the key issues ACOSA members expressed was the level of support received from their schools when addressing the lack of courses in the community/macro area. As a result, participants wanted to engage the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) with respect to macro practice course in social work curricula.  Additionally, participants wanted to raise the visibility of community/macro practice and advocate for a strong place for community/macro practice within social work institutions and with the public.

Since the survey was conducted, a Special Commission with 16 individuals has been formed.  One of their first tasks will be to prioritize the issues raised by participants in the survey.  They will begin to work on growing faculty with experience in community/macro practice, as well as to work with CSWE to develop curricula in response to the need for students interested in a community/macro concentration.

Also, ACOSA has developed core competencies for community/macro practitioners, and they are looking at developing research studies that reach beyond the individual application of social work principles.  The association will begin to work with organizations that are incorporating social, cultural, economic, political and environmental influences that advance social justice solutions as well as develop change agents that empower individuals at systemic levels.  Moreover, they have also begun to develop collaborative relationships with legislatures, community members, non-profit groups, and organizations that address the needs of communities on a macro scale.

For organizations and individuals interested in community practice and the work ACOSA is doing, you can contact its current Chair, Mark Homan at   (

You can also view the full report below:

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