Forensic Psychology Internships

March 9, 2021
Internships | Ramsey County

Prison gate with wires at the topAre you looking for a less traditional internship with a diverse set of clients? If so, try taking your psychology training to prison.

Students say the setting offers experience with an underserved population ranging in age, ethnicity and social class. However, interns also face work with clients who are qualitatively different from nonoffenders.

"It can be a very challenging environment, but it can also be very rewarding, " says Michael Hagan, PhD, chief psychologist and training director at the Ethan Allen School, a juvenile corrections facility. "I see no more effective way of helping victims of crime than to treat the perpetrator of the crime and make it so they don't victimize people in the future."

Indeed, students are often drawn to the chance to make a positive difference in inmates' lives, Hagan says. Not to mention, internships in corrections tend to offer students stipends as high as $40, 000 at most federal facilities-considerably more than what they'd earn in traditional clinical settings.

As such, more students seem to be looking for corrections internships-and job opportunities-in the growing specialty area of forensics, says Maureen Burris, PhD, a forensic psychologist and training director at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

But, what is it like to be a psychology intern in a correctional facility? gradPSYCH highlights three APA-accredited programs to find out.


When fifth-year doctoral student Adam Zagelbaum first began graduate school at Ball State University, he never imagined he'd complete his internship at a juvenile detention center. However, his interest in working with troubled children and adolescents outweighed his doubts, and he helped such youth at the Ethan Allen School Clinical Services Unit of the Wisconsin Division of Juvenile Corrections.

Zagelbaum, who finished his internship in August, was one of five interns who work with the facility's 320 male offenders, who are between the ages of 10 and 25 and have perpetrated a violent crime or failed a treatment program. While the core of the internship is at Ethan Allen School, interns also do rotations one day a week for six months at Southern Oaks Girls School, another juvenile center.

Interns screen and treat youth at the facilities for psychological disturbances, such as conduct and anxiety disorders. They also work with new arrivals who experience adjustment issues, like stress or homesickness.

"The rewards of seeing [the youth] mature right before your eyes are huge, " says Zagelbaum about his work there. The measure of success might be as small as a teen completing a homework assignment, Zagelbaum says, but "around here, many of these are kids not accustomed to that type of success."

Providing such psychological services to the children and teenagers requires interns to be both savvy and confident, Hagan says.

"Interns have to balance a healthy skepticism toward individuals with significant deficits while at the same time believe they are treatable, " he says.

While Zagelbaum admits that he at first doubted whether the youth would be receptive to treatment, he found the teens were open to working with psychologists to make changes in their lives.

"They are in an unfamiliar setting where they feel pressure, " he explains. "They find relief that there is someone out there who cares about their adjustment and cares about them as a person."

Working with children and adolescents who are in need of such counseling is what drew fellow intern Melissa Caldwell, PhD, who completed her doctoral degree in May 2003 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Even though Caldwell had already completed a non-APA accredited internship during her final two years of her graduate program, she still wanted to do an internship with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

"I come from a very research-oriented program where most students go into academe, " Caldwell says. "I love research and teaching, but I'm really passionate about this work [in corrections] and being able to work with an underserved population."

Although not all interns choose to work in corrections after they graduate, Hagan says the experience is valuable either way. The internship helps to build interns' confidence in their abilities to work with different populations, he adds.

"If you can work with a kid who has conduct problems and is depressed, you can also work with a kid who is just depressed, " he says.


Doctoral student Lynette Small wanted an internship that allowed her to work with a diverse range of adults, such as inmates from different cultures and social classes.

At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, she does exactly that, treating inmates at a federal jail for such issues as anxiety and adjustment disorders as well as conducting court-ordered psychological evaluations for inmates awaiting trial. At the detention center, Small is one of three psychology interns who conduct psychological screenings and assessments for 1, 000 male and female inmates awaiting sentencing or already serving a sentence.

"Working with this population is so fascinating to me because inmates have such a varied background and history and a wide variety of mental health issues, " says Small, a clinical psychology student at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology who completes her doctoral program and internship this month. For example, while she mostly provides short-term therapy to inmates, Small has one long-term case for the entire year: She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy to a client to address anger management issues.

Small also is undergoing the internship program's three rotations:

  • Forensics-interns complete federal court-ordered mental health evaluations, such as determining whether an inmate is competent to stand trial.
  • General population-interns address such issues as adjustment, substance abuse and suicide prevention by conducting group therapy sessions and crisis management.
  • Mental health-interns assess and treat inmates with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

To add to the diversity of the training experience, interns also spend one day a week working off-site at a noncorrectional setting, such as a community mental health center or a psychiatric inpatient facility, says Burris, the training director for psychology interns at the facility.

"[Interns] learn to negotiate in a multilevel system, and they develop skills in working with people from different cultures, religious backgrounds and develop more tolerance for looking at the world, " Burris says.

For example, Small says interns have to learn how to negotiate working with other professionals whose perspectives on addressing inmate needs may be different. But, Small says, psychologists can counter this by helping inmates turn around their lives for the better so when they are released, they don't repeat past mistakes.


Being able to shift gears quickly is important for Susan Knight, PhD, a recent graduate of the University of Louisville who completed her internship in August. As one of seven psychology interns at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Butner, NC, she faced a variety of clinical situations each day in her work at the complex, which offers services to more than 3, 000 adult inmates in a medical center and medium-, low- and minimum-security prisons.

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Forensic Neuropsychology: Essential Information to Know
Forensic Neuropsychology: Essential Information to Know