Dr.-Russell.jpgGracious is the word that springs to mind when you talk about Dr. Tamara Russell. 

This summer, Dr. Russell, a Teamsters 117 member who oversees a group of mental health clinicians at the Washington State Penitentiary, received an award from the American Psychological Association for her outstanding and innovating work at the facility. 

But instead of claiming even an ounce of credit for the award, Dr. Russell praises her staff for their dedication, creativity, and commitment.

“My staff is excellent,” she said. “We have an amazing team, which has made this kind of thing possible.”

Dr. Russell and her staff run a variety of programs in the prison aimed at decreasing violence on the inside and reducing recidivism.

They offer 12-step therapy, grief and loss therapy, job training, stress and anxiety therapy, and even a course on how to survive prison.

“We’ve taken a model of culturally appropriate, pro-social activities that, through the coordination of our therapists, is making a difference. Offenders are staying on their medication; we’re decreasing negative behavior inside, and we’re preparing them for the outside,” she said.


Given budget constraints, Dr. Russell and her team have to be inventive. They’ve developed a mental health library by collecting donations and going to yard sales. They’ve used recycled soda bottles as vases for flowers they’ve sent to local nursing homes. Dr. Russell has even collected seeds from her own garden for her team’s horticulture program. In all, she estimates that the cost of her programming is $3,000 a year.

“The results definitely outweigh cost,” she says.

“We used to be one of the least safe areas at WSP. There were a lot of assaults and fights, but now this is one of the safest places to work. Violence has significantly reduced. At some point, many of these offenders are going to be out in our communities. If we are successful, society as a whole is going to be a lot better off.”