Therapeutic Incarceration

A dozen times in the past few weeks I have found myself speaking about therapeutic incarceration. It has nothing to do with jails or prisons. It is about how some homeless and housing service providers treat their clients. I didn’t coin the term (see The Therapeutic Incarceration of Homeless Families Naomi Gerstel, Cynthia J. Bogard, J. Jeff McConnell and Michael Schwartz Social Service Review Vol. 70, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 543-572) though I wish I had. And it sounds like something I would say.

When I use the term, I am talking about those non-profit (and sometimes government) programs that go out of their way to hold onto the households that they serve. They smother them with service plans more oriented on trying to heal or fix people that trying to house and support them regardless of their imperfections. They keep them in life skills programming, for example, refusing to talk about housing options until they have demonstrated success in the program. Or they have them stay in a compliance-based a transitional housing model. Or they keep providing case management services to them years from when they first encountered them, unfortunately (naively?), thinking that their supports are necessary to keep them housed.

News flash – and it can suck to hear – that ain’t what the job is supposed to be.

When it is more about our desire to hold onto people then it is wrong.

When we think we can intervene to prevent any mistakes from happening, then it is wrong. (Aren’t mistakes a learning opportunity? Don’t we all make them?)

When a case manager doesn’t want someone to “graduate” (I hate that term, but I don’t have a better one, so it will do for now) from their program, what does that say about their orientation towards helping people achieve greater independence over time? (We shouldn’t be paying for “friends for life” programs.)

When anybody suggests that allowing people to fully make their own decisions is a set up for failure, it is wrong.

When dependent awareness is worn as a badge of courage rather than focusing attention on how we can get people to a place where they are fully integrated with other community services and can be interdependent, it is wrong.

I can hear some critics now. What about the young mom without parenting skills? What about the youth that has run away from home? What about the person with mental illness? What about the person who has experienced repeated institutionalization in hospital, mental health facility and/or prison?

A mistake is just another way of doing things. Sure, it comes with consequences. But we have all made mistakes, right? Isn’t that an essential aspect of free will?

Are you going to be in the young mom’s life until her child is 18? No. Provide a good foundation and let her make mistakes.

Are you going to stay in the youth’s life until their synaptic firing and wiring is advanced enough that they make decisions like a full-fledged adult? No. And, by the way, grown-ups make poor decisions too.

Do we really think every person with mental illness requires a substitute decision maker? Have you never heard of the concept of recovery? Oh, and allow me to introduce you to lingo we people with a mental illness use in our circles – nothing about us without us.

And I could go on.

If anybody suggests that a client surrenders their free will in order to engage with a homeless and housing service program, then it is time to take away all of their funding and focus our investment on those programs and services that would rather see homeless individuals and families empowered. Keeping homeless individuals and families stuck “in the system” is an indictment on us all. People attached to an organization years later isn’t a sign that the organization is doing a good job – it is, in fact, the exact opposite.

So, let us promote greater independence. Let us support people in re-integrating with community. Let us realize that the true value of our work is in realizing that it is not about us – it is about the people that we serve. Let’s stop imprisoning human potential.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong