January 17, 2012 Issue
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Mental Health Care on Death Row is Improving Thanks to a CU Denver Alum

Mental Health Care on Death Row is Improving Thanks to a CU Denver Alum

Clinical psychologists focus on helping to improve the lives of their patients, and the work done by Dr. Daniel Rosnik, Psy. D. is fundamentally no different than that done by other psychologists – except that most of his patients are on death row.

Rosnik graduated from CLAS with his BA in Psychology in 1989, and he remembers his experiences at CU Denver as formative and extremely positive. He did research with Dr. Joy Berrenberg, "She's an amazing psychologist and an amazing teacher," Dr. Rosnik says. "That made a big difference as far as my applying to grad school." He says he got great support from the entire faculty, and credits them with encouraging him to proceed with his education.

Rosnik went on to study at George Washington University, before earning his doctorate at Spaulding University, and doing post-doctoral work at the University of Rochester. Throughout his graduate studies he worked part-time with three different correctional departments and gained experience with incarcerated populations. He moved to California in 2006 when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) hired him to work at San Quentin. Notoriety for San Quentin in popular culture comes from its associations with Johnny Cash and the famous names who have been imprisoned there, but within the California penal system its distinction lies in being the home of death row. All male prisoners condemned to death in the state of California are sent to San Quentin, and currently that population stands at about seven hundred.

When he started working at San Quentin in 2006 Dr. Rosnik had a mixed caseload of prisoners, some in the general population and some on death row, but he soon began focusing on those prisoners who had received death sentences. He was promoted to Senior Psychologist Supervisor in 2007, and in 2010 developed a program called Specialized Care for the Condemned. Supervising a team of seven clinicians, Dr. Rosnik takes on the unique mental health challenges for those sentenced to capital punishment.

The program is based on an Assertive Community Treatment model, used by psychologists outside the prison system as well. "Providers are based in the community that they are treating. For example, if you have Assertive Community Treatment in Denver you might have a clinic right in the middle of five-points, and a lot of the work would be out on the streets where the patients are. What that translates to here is that my clinical teams are based in the housing unit for the condemned, and most of the treatment goes on right there in the unit." As a result, participation in mental health services has increased across the board, Dr. Rosnik reports.

In an economy where every dollar is fought for, especially those in the State of California's budget, Dr. Rosnik's program has had to prove its worth. Generally mental health programs within prison systems focus on reducing recidivism for those who will return to life outside prison walls, while Dr. Rosnik's program aims to help those who will never return to society. Sometimes left out of that discussion is the fact that the average stay on California's death row is over twenty years, and that the last execution carried out in California was six years ago. "You have guys dying of old age much more frequently on death row in California than because they are being executed," Dr. Rosnik reports, "So it's really important that we are providing treatment for these guys because they are going to live out their years here."

Mental health care within the California penal system as a whole has been under increased scrutiny since the landmark 1995 case of Coleman v. Wilson. In that case the Supreme Court found that the entire mental health system operated by the CDCR was unconstitutional and deliberately indifferent to the needs of mentally ill inmates. Dedicated professionals like Dr. Rosnik have been brought in to change that, "We are working within this court ordered mandate, trying to provide the best kind of treatment. The prison population, statistically, really closely approximates what you find in the population outside of prisons," says Dr. Rosnik. "About twenty to twenty five percent are getting some kind of treatment, including medication, at any given time. Same on death row: only a small percent are very psychotic, and need the highest level of care. We treat anxiety and depression, and what we do, as best as we can, is provide each individual patient with what he needs, based on his individual symptoms."

Despite challenges, Dr. Rosnik finds his career rewarding, and credits the extraordinary faculty in Psychology at CU Denver for putting him on his path. "I plan on staying in the Bay Area; it's a great place to be, very progressive, a lot of great and exciting things happening here, and in corrections." He says his passion for helping those on death row will continue to involve, "trying to be part of the solution, whatever that is. There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

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