Barry McNamara  |   Published May 01, 2017

Practicing psychology in prison

Nelson ’06 tells conference attendees of her journey from Monmouth to Leavenworth
  • Christie Nelson ’06, center, is flanked by two of her Monmouth College faculty mentors, Anne Mamary and Joan Wertz.
During a PowerPoint presentation to students at a psychology conference held April 29 at Monmouth College, one of Christie Nelson’s slides was titled, “Yes, there are scary moments.”

And Nelson has experienced her share of “scary moments” while working in the federal prison system for almost a decade.

The 2006 Monmouth graduate recounted for a packed room of more than 100 faculty and students from 11 colleges and universities what it’s like to work as a psychologist in the federal prison system. Nelson gave the keynote talk at ILLOWA’s 44th Annual Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference, the longest-running undergraduate psychology research conference in the United States.

Her talk was titled “From Fighting Scots to Federal Prison: My Journey from College to Incarceration.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she told the students at the start of her talk. “I don’t have a teardrop tattoo under my eye.”

A drug abuse program coordinator at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, Nelson’s duties include supervising drug treatment specialists through live, group and individual supervision. She is also responsible for conducting detailed review of cases to determine if an inmate is eligible to participate in drug programming.

As Nelson told the students, scary moments come with the territory of practicing her beloved psychology in a prison setting.

“The common question I hear is, ‘Why do you want to work in a prison?’” she said. “First, working in that setting allows me the ability to help an underserved population make positive changes in their lives and the world. Second, working in that environment added an additional layer of challenge to the already puzzling field of psychology. It is immensely humbling to think of how impressed the 18-year-old version of me would be with who I am now, personally and professionally.”

Nelson’s career has included work at federal prisons in five states, from New Hampshire to California

“I’ve seen some pretty bad things,” she said. “They don’t necessarily stop being bad guys just because they’re in prison. … I realize there’s a likelihood that I won’t come home one day, but I believe it’s my calling. For better or worse, there has never been a boring day at work.”

Nelson has also had to review, in horrific detail, other pretty bad things, such as when a schizophrenic young man brutally murdered his aunt – the person he loved most in the world. The man thought his aunt had been replaced by an identical robot.

“I spent hours with this guy,” Nelson told an overflow crowd of enthralled conference attendees. “He believed he was in a real life Truman Show, and that none of what had happened was real.”

Nelson experienced that case during her tenure at the maximum security Atascadero State Hospital in California, where she was the youngest-ever psychologist on staff. Her assignment in that case was to determine if the prisoner could claim innocence by reason of insanity. That was indeed the result, but Nelson and others who worked on the case also had to wrestle with a dilemma: Did they keep the prisoner in a state where he thought he killed a robot, or gradually expose him to the jarring truth as his mental clarity improved?

“It’s pretty cray to work there,” Nelson told the students of her time at Atascadero.

Nelson’s work has also involved hostage negotiation, including keeping a keen eye and ear on the “hooks and barbs” of what draws hostage-takers into more productive exchanges and what subjects not to broach. She did that work at the McCreary federal prison in Pine Knot, Ky., but she left because “I didn’t feel I was helping people become better human beings.”

After helping start a new federal prison in Berlin, N.H., she decided after three years to “come home” to the Midwest and “put down roots.” She told the students that the Leavenworth facility, where she began working in 2016, is one of the oldest U.S. prisons and has housed inmates such as Whitey Bulger, “Machine Gun” Kelly and James Earl Ray.

The work she’s doing now is similar to what she anticipated doing when she enrolled at Monmouth.

“Going into matriculation day, I wanted to be a therapist working in drug and alcohol treatment,” she said. “It wasn’t until my undergraduate internship at Henry C. Hill Correctional Facility (in Galesburg, Ill.) during my sophomore year that the working-in-a-prison element was added.”

Although many college students change their career course, Nelson said the hold psychology had on her was simply too strong for her to consider other career paths.

“I stayed the course,” she said. “Since high school, I was simply amazed with the beautiful mixture of science and art that psychology provided. It was a field in which there were no definitive answers in regards to how human behavior may look in a given situation, and I loved the challenge that offered.”

She told the students at the ILLOWA conference that the best thing she did at Monmouth was “find mentors and ask them a million questions. … Forensic psychology was an emerging field at the time, and my professors didn’t have a lot of information about it, but they encouraged me to seek out other mentors.”

After graduating, Nelson earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology from Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Mo. During her Forest interview, she recalls one of the faculty members had some advice for his colleagues.

“Provide her a more accelerated program, because she’s so well-prepared,” he said.

“To say Monmouth properly equipped me for my professional development would be an understatement,” said Nelson, who minored in philosophy. “My current work demands the ability to respond quickly and precisely. While my psychology courses provided me with an understanding of the theoretical principles that guide human behavior, the liberal arts framework gave me additional tools to think critically in stressful situations and to apply logic and reasoning to ethical dilemmas. I am also grateful for Monmouth’s focus on enhancing professional writing and public speaking. I use those methods of communication on a daily basis.”
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