OT, Behind Bars

How Three Students Brought Their OT Skills to a Juvenile Detention Center

October 03, 2016

Occupational therapy (OT) students Tom Conway, Ronak Gohel, and Olivia Myszkowski spent this past summer behind bars…working at the Nassau County Juvenile Detention Center in Westbury, New York.

The Nassau County Juvenile Detention Center houses approximately 32 juvenile offenders at any given time. The facility is meant to be a short-term facility for adolescents, who stay in the facility only until the conclusion of their deposition; depending on the verdict, they either return to their communities, are placed on probation, or are sent to agencies that provide long-term care.  

In 2015, Laura Befumo, Assistant Director of the Juvenile Detention Center; and Virginia Crippen, Touro’s OT Academic Fieldwork Coordinator in Manhattan joined forces to develop and implement an OT-based student intern program at the center--a first of its kind. Since then, Level I and Level II OT students from the Manhattan and Bay Shore campuses have provided services and interventions to inmates.

This summer, Tom, Ronak, and Olivia ran group sessions with the youths several times a day on topics like anger management, coping skills, career preparation, college preparation, life skills, self-awareness, and teamwork.

For example, the students facilitated a pizza-making activity, in which the residents baked dough from scratch while the OT students taught them about meal preparation safety and personal hygiene. To learn about the importance of teamwork, the residents were charged to create a Mars Pathfinder-like device to protect an egg after a 9-foot drop. They planned a mock trip together to the 2017 Super Bowl to learn about money management and budgeting.

Tom, Ronak, and Olivia also led group conversations on topics like consequences of actions and coping skills. “We would talk about how every action an individual does has a ripple effect on themselves, their families and communities,” said Tom, who ran the anger management and self-awareness groups. “We also made a coping skills wheel after teaching them about various ways of dealing with hardship and stress.” During free time, the OT students played sports games with the residents to “strengthen the therapist-resident relationship.”  

To encourage their academic development, the OT students also led career-building workshops, which included helping the adolescents write their resumes and assisting them with Regents preparation. “We also played a game to teach them about the college application process—we’d have them unscramble different application steps, and then try to organize them on a timeline.”

In addition to running therapy groups, the OT students initiated a larger project: a restoration of the facility’s library and garden, both of which had been neglected throughout the years. Under the guidance of the facility’s assistant director and SHS OT Academic Fieldwork Coordinator, Prof. Crippen, the students overhauled the garden and restored the library—and even included the residents in the restoration process.

“After seeing the potential in the empty library bookcases and overgrown garden for present and future residents, we decided to take it on,” said Ronak Gohel. He, Olivia and Tom, together with the residents, weeded out the garden, planting peppers, carrots, strawberries, flowers, and more. They cleaned up the library, dusting off the bookshelves and adding and organizing the books. "The idea behind it was that we wanted the residents to participate in a productive and meaningful occupation where they’d end up seeing the fruits of their labor. Our OT group sessions were only able to impact the residents we worked with, so we were proud that the library and garden would be able to have a long-term impact… by being available to present and future residents.”

After the residents and students finished the two projects, the facility promised to maintain and use the settings for group sessions in the future.

Overall, said the students, the experience was valuable. “It was interesting seeing the growth of each resident from the moment they came in to the moment they left,” said Olivia. “Seeing them engage in our groups and the other activities provided by the facility, such as school, yoga, tennis, art, pet therapy, mentoring, church, and COTA – the Council of Thought and Action, a group of formerly incarcerated people who came to speak to the residents to encourage them to become better citizens— reinforced to me the importance of occupation within one’s life.”

“One of the residents really loved ping-pong, so in between group sessions he always asked us for a match. We often used ping-pong as an incentive if we had a particularly challenging group, because it was always something the residents looked forward to.... especially if the group had some new residents. If it was their first day, they’d usually sit far apart from the group and not interact, probably because they were still in shock that they were there. We’d say, let’s get through this, and we can play afterwards.”

“This one resident, who loved ping-pong, really looked like he had come a long way. Especially towards the end of our time there, he kept saying ‘I’m gonna change myself, I’m done with this, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ He wanted to stop whatever it was that landed him here.”

(To maintain a bias-free attitude, the OT students, as it happened, weren’t allowed to know the background of each resident. “I think it was helpful because we didn’t create false images of the kids. We got to know them as people, not as a part of the crime they were part of.”)

“This unique fieldwork setting challenged the OT students by testing their ability to adapt to an ever-changing residential base,” said Prof. Crippen. “Despite the fast turnover, the occupational therapy students were able to build a relationship with every resident through meaningful and purposeful activities. We hope that the library and garden environments will enrich the residents’ learning and create a setting that will help encourage them to succeed.”

As per the American Occupational Therapy requirement, level II fieldwork provides students with the opportunity to apply their education and take on the responsibilities of an occupational therapist under the supervision of a licensed occupational therapist.