Role differences between psychologists who work in Corrections and those who work in Forensic Health Services

Glen Kilgour
Principal Adviser Special Treatment Unit Development, Department of Corrections

Nicola Tiller
Senior Adviser, Office of the Chief Psychologist, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:

Glen Kilgour trained as a clinical psychologist at Waikato University, graduating in the early 1990s. He has worked in the department since 1995 in a variety of roles, including principal psychologist. His interests include reducing violence, programme evaluation, group therapy, young offenders, leadership, and staff development.

Nicola Tiller has been practising as a clinical psychologist since 2000 and has worked in roles for the Department of Corrections and Forensic Mental Health Service, as well as other positions within the broader mental health area.


Department of Corrections staff may encounter psychologists in their day-to-day work, but may sometimes be unaware of the variety of roles that these psychologists have. This article briefly outlines the roles that psychologists have when working with offenders in New Zealand and contrasts the different roles of correctional and forensic psychologists.

Department of Corrections psychologists

A core part of the role of psychologists in the Department of Corrections is the provision of psychological assessment and advice on high risk offenders to the courts, New Zealand Parole Board (NZPB), prisons and probation services. Recent updates in legislation on Extended Supervision Orders (ESO) and Public Protection Orders (PPO) for high and very high risk sexual and violent offenders (respectively) also require specialist psychological assessment. Each statutory body is in a position to make significant decisions over the custody and management of these offenders and, therefore, psychologists have a high duty of care to provide robust and best-practice risk assessments and recommendations for offender management.

Psychologists also have a significant role in the treatment of people on custodial and community-based sentences to assist them in managing and reducing their offence-related needs. This involves assessing treatment needs and potential responsivity barriers to treatment, and developing treatment plans with these offenders. Treatment may occur individually, particularly in community settings, or in one of seven psychology-led Special Treatment Units (STU) around the country (six in prisons and one in the community). These units run specialist group treatment for high risk sexual and violent offenders and are proven to reduce both risk of reconviction and risk of re-imprisonment.

Psychologists are responsible for the development and review of treatment programmes for the high-risk offender population in New Zealand. This includes programmes developed for the STUs, personality disordered offenders, young offenders, female offenders, men who deny their sexual offences, and men with adaptive-functioning needs. Increasingly, psychologists consult with other Corrections staff in the management of personality disordered offenders and offenders with significant mental health needs.

Psychologists provide supervision to supervisors of other para-professional groups in the department who deliver rehabilitation programmes to moderate risk offenders. They also often develop training on specialist topics (e.g. risk assessment, group therapy, mental health awareness, other specialist treatment) for psychologists and other staff (e.g. probation officers, corrections officers, and programme facilitators).

Corrections is somewhat unique compared to other government departments in New Zealand in that it has a strong psychological presence within its National Office structure, represented by the role of Chief Psychologist and her team of ten registered psychologists. This team is necessary given the strong clinical governance required, with legislation formally requiring psychological services (e.g. ESO/PPO, NZPB and court reports). However, the responsibilities of this team also include research, review and evaluation functions (e.g. of specialist programmes), programme development, clinical governance of psychology practice, psychological advice to the field, policy advice to other areas of the department, and support for project management and new initiatives.

Mental Health and Forensic Health Services

The Ministry of Health funds five Regional Forensic Mental Health Services, via District Health Boards (DHBs), to provide mental health assessment and treatment in prisons. The principle for this provision of care is that prisoners with significant mental health issues should not be disadvantaged from receiving appropriate treatment because of their incarceration. Forensic Prison Teams generally consist of psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and psychiatric nurses. All prisoners are screened for potential mental health issues by prison health services when they are received into prison, using the Mental Health Screening Tool (MHST). Those positively identified on the MHST are referred to the local Forensic Prison Team for further assessment. Referrals to the Forensic Prison Team may also be made at any time during a prisoner’s sentence via prison health services. The Forensic Prison Teams primarily provide mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment, which may include medication, psychological therapy, and nursing support. Their role is distinct from departmental psychologists in that the Forensic Prison Team does not focus on offence-related needs. Where the mental health difficulties are so severe or acute that the individual cannot be adequately managed and treated in the prison environment, he or she may be transferred to a secure inpatient forensic unit under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992.

Offenders who are managed by probation and who have mental health difficulties may be eligible for DHB Community Mental Health Services and are not specifically under the care of the Forensic Mental Health Service following release. The Forensic Prison Team is responsible for making necessary referrals to Community Mental Health Services prior to a prisoner’s release to ensure continuity of care.