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Alumni in Action: Laura Abrams (MSW '92/PhD '00)

Laura Abrams

Laura Abrams (MSW '92, PhD '00) takes an intimate look at the juvenile corrections system in her book Compasionate Confinement

Berkeley Social Welfare alumna Laura Abrams (MSW ’92, PHD ’00) currently serves as an associate professor and doctoral program chair of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. She has a long-standing interest in incarcerated youth and identity formations and transitions among young adults with histories of incarceration. Her research interests are reflected in her latest publication, Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C. The book, co-authored by Professor Ben Anderson-Nathe, is based on more than one year of field work conducted at a boys’ residential facility.

Dr. Abrams recently shared some of the key findings of her new book, as well as the evolution of her research interests and some of the most important aspects of her graduate education, with the School of Social Welfare.

Your new book, Compassionate Confinement: A Year in the Life of Unit C, was recently published. Please describe some of the findings you have documented in your study of the juvenile corrections system.
This book, which is a culmination of 10 years of thinking about this setting, situates the stories of young men, residential staff and the institution itself in the larger context of political debates about the value of juvenile corrections in changing the course of young men’s lives.

On the one hand, conservative critics often argue that the system is too “soft” on juveniles, thus contributing to high recidivism rates. On the other hand, youth advocates have suggested that the system has become too “adult-like,” and that we need to forge a model of juvenile corrections that is more nurturing and therapeutic.

Our book argues that neither position is correct. Rather, the way that (involuntary) treatment is delivered in the context of a punitive correctional facility, even with the best of intentions, has some paradoxical outcomes. A prime example of this paradox — youth who believe themselves as the best “manipulator” feel that they get better at their manipulation skills while they are in the facility. 

Yet this does not mean that we suggest these facilities can’t be helpful. My co-author, Ben Anderson-Nathe, and I find that some of the treatment practices were quite helpful for some of the youth — mostly when the young person is ready to change, and when youth are allowed to “open up” to the staff without fear of reprisal — in sum, when truly therapeutic exchanges are allowed to occur. We do not believe that the correctional staff should double as lay “therapists,” and this practice actually can have a harmful effect on the youth and makes the staff confused about their roles and boundaries as well.

As you know, restorative justice is a concept that is gaining traction the social work field, especially among social justice-oriented practitioners and educators. Considering your expertise and research areas, could you please share your thoughts on the restorative justice model?
This is not an area I have widely studied, but the evidence I am aware of suggests very positive benefits for both victims and offenders who are engaged in restorative justice programs.

The difficult part of implementing restorative justice is selling this idea for the general public, who may see restorative justice as not harsh or punitive enough.

How and when did your interest in incarcerated youth/young adults develop?
When I took my first post-college position working in a residential home for delinquent young women, I began to question the value of institutions that try to correct youth’s behaviors through involuntary treatment. I did not focus on residential treatment in graduate school and instead looked more into schools and alternative schools as they formed the context in which young people develop and forge their identities.

Then when I was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, I stumbled upon the opportunity to study a residential correctional facility for young men. My practice experience and scholarship seemed to come full circle at that point as I spent the next few years doing research in the “Unit C” as well as several other correctional settings to follow.

I see this work as an opportunity to study so many interrelated issues. If we don’t help these young people, they are very likely to stay involved in crime as young adults, when the stakes are much higher.

What first interested you in the academic study of social welfare?
Throughout my early career as a residential treatment care worker (pre-MSW) and then a school social worker (post-MSW), I was interested in the interactions between young people and the social and educational institutions that they interfaced with. I decided to go into scholarship because I was deeply concerned that our institutions are failing our young people. I felt that research and teaching was a way of making a broader impact.

What do you find most rewarding in your roles as associate professor and doctoral program chair of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs?
I am very much rewarded by mentoring doctoral students and in chairing our doctoral program. I enjoy seeing people develop their interests and talents as they move toward their own academic careers. I also really like teaching my first-year MSW students in our human behavior/diversity class. I always learn a lot from the students who are in the front lines of social work, and it keeps me up to date with current issues in the field.

You earned both your MSW and doctoral degrees at the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare. Why did you choose to pursue your graduate work at Berkeley?
I was drawn to UC Berkeley because of the reputation of the faculty and University and also the great location. I always felt proud walking into beautiful Haviland Hall. I chose to come back to Berkeley after three years in the field to work under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, who was a wonderful mentor for me.

What aspects of your education at the School of Social Welfare do you feel have been the most helpful in preparing you for your career? 
My education at UC Berkeley helped grounded me in all aspects of social welfare, including practice, policy, theory and research. My 282 (advanced research) class in the MSW program with Professor Snowden actually sparked my interest in social science research — so I thank him for that.

I was fortunate to then TA that class while I was the in PhD program for two years. Teaching MSW students how to conceptualize and carry out research helped very much to prepare me for my career in teaching and scholarship. In addition, Professor Gibbs provided me many research opportunities and always provided support for my ideas. She encouraged me to stick with my passions, which I still try to do to this day.

What advice do you have for Berkeley Social Welfare MSW and PhD students?
I would say to take the time in graduate school to learn as much as you can. Once you are in the field working or in the academy, time is scarce. Take advantage of classes all over the campus and cherish the time in graduate school!