Selma DeJesus-Zayas (PhD '89, MA '87)knows her job is her calling. She is the chief of Psychology Services at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, Florida, a medium to high security prison. As a Christian and a professional psychologist, she has dedicated her career to understanding and healing some of society's most dangerous and troubled individuals.
"Unfortunately, very little rehabilitation occurs within the penal system," she says. Yet, through her work, DeJesus and her team challenge inmates' perceptions of themselves and the world. "Watching inmates change is quite gratifying," she continues. "I look for small victories, like a change in their interaction with staff or other inmates."
DeJesus is involved in numerous activities that enhance her role as a psychologist. In addition to supervising her team and monitoring the quality of programs her department offers, she is also an instructor for SSL--Spanish as a Second Language. In this capacity, she trains unilingual professionals employed by the Bureau of Prisons to work with a Spanish-speaking population. She is also a member of the Crisis Support Team at both the local and regional levels. "In the event of a riot, hostage situation, or a hurricane, I coordinate meeting the needs of staff and families seeking assistance," she explains. She insures that they are alerted, briefed, and counseled every step of the way. DeJesus is also trained in weapons fire for potentially serious situations that might arise in the prison.
Shortly after leaving Fuller, DeJesus, the first female Hispanic to graduate from the School of Psychology, was hired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to conduct psychological evaluations (competency, insanity, and dangerousness) for the courts. DeJesus distinguished herself quickly, spending nine years evaluating inmates and testifying in federal court--explaining, in layman's terms, the inmate's mental condition relative to their criminal behavior. She then took on her current position, which enables her to prod inmates toward growth and rehabilitation.
Although the majority of DeJesus' work is administrative, she typically selects the most troublesome inmates—those who are dangerous or a management problem--and becomes involved in their cases, to alleviate the strain on her staff.
When asked how the gospel comes into play in her work, DeJesus has a ready answer. "In times of despair, psychology does not ease the pain. When an inmate's parent or child dies, and the inmate is unable to attend the funeral because they are incarcerated, they often reach the point of existential despair," she explains. "To discuss their pressing issues, I have to first stop being a psychologist and work to bring peace to their soul. This can only be achieved by sharing the gospel."
From her experience working with inmates, DeJesus has found that "the only way to introduce and justify reality is by resorting to the Bible," she says. "It is not unusual to have to explain to the inmates that we have different views of the world--and mine comes from the Bible. I then demonstrate the difference between living in a world run according to their views and those from the Bible's. No matter the degree of their sociopathy, they ultimately realize the nightmare we would live in if their mores were to replace those of the Bible."
DeJesus and her staff try to instill a nugget in their inmates—the possibility of leading a different kind of life in the community, one that is productive and based on honesty. To accomplish this goal, her department offers programs that address issues such as errors in criminal thinking, values, sexuality (where the roles of men and women are discussed along with sexually deviant behaviors), and other subjects that confront the inmates' views of the world and themselves. Inmates are challenged by questions such as: Who are you? What is your contribution to society? How are you preparing yourself for re-entry into society?
Inmates are assessed in nine areas deemed important for a successful re-entry to society and strongly encouraged to enroll in programs that will enhance their skills. DeJesus and her team also recommend that the inmates obtain vocational training, receive their GED or ESL, and become involved in spiritually oriented activities. To encourage a sense of community and to learn how to "give back," the inmates participate in volunteer programs by becoming tutors, adopting-a-child through a religious organization, and raising funds for cancer survivors.
For those inmates who have negative views of psychology ("it's only for nuts"), DeJesus' staff transmits self-help programming around the clock through a prison-wide radio system.
DeJesus and her staff believe it is vital for the inmates' growth to become involved in the constructive programs her department offers. If such programs were unavailable, the inmates would only learn from one another to become more skilled and sophisticated felons, she asserts.
"The penal system is often a breeding ground for criminal thinking rather than for positive change," DeJesus says, adding, "This is where Christians are needed the most to make an impact on individual lives. The more believers you have in prison, inmates and staff alike, the better off the institution. By participating in our programs, inmates can take back to the community pro-social skills they did not have upon arrest. After all, many are returning to society to become our neighbors, so it is important that they learn the right lessons in prison."