Alumna Tamara Mischel Finds Her Niche as Associate Warden at Federal Bureau of Prisons

Thursday, October 3, 2019


Image of Federal Correctional Inst.


Her job may not be the typical career trajectory for a psychologist, but PAU alumna Tamara Mischel, Ph.D., wouldn’t have it any other way. Mischel is the Associate Warden at the Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin (FCI Dublin), a prison in Dublin, California that houses over a thousand female inmates. Armed with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, her days consist of solving large-scale problems that determine the course of hundreds of lives - from determining institutional policies that influence how her employees are paid or deciding how to structure clinical psychology treatment plans for incarcerated individuals. She can also be found stopping by the cafeteria during lunch to check in with the women under her care, and even breaking up fights between inmates when she has to. 

Growing up in a military family, she always knew she wanted to be in law enforcement, and Mischel isn’t the type to settle for an uninteresting job. First working with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit-- the very same one of television show infamy that has sparked many a career in psychology and forensics-- she set her sights on the executive level trajectory of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), and hasn’t looked back since.

Mischel credits part of her success with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) to her doctoral training in clinical psychology from what was then known as the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (PGSP), and is now Palo Alto University.

“I got lucky by doing my practicum at the Palo Alto Veteran's Administration Hospital,” Mischel said. She credits her degree from PGSP with the ability to be so well rounded. “With all the supervisors that I’ve worked under and other psychologists I’ve worked with, I’ve received a better overall training than anyone else has.” Her degree and that preparation launched her into the prison system with the tools and ability to choose her own career path, an invaluable aspect of being a woman in a challenging and traditionally male-dominated field like the FBOP.

The Bureau of Prisons houses 177,326 inmates that are convicted of federal crimes, and has a 34% recidivism rate, which is no small feat. Women in Bureau custody account for approximately 7% of the incarcerated population, and are offered many of the same educational and treatment programs that are available to male offenders; however, women in prison differ from their male counterparts in significant ways. For example, women are more likely to experience economic hardship, employment instability, and fewer vocational skills. Since they are more likely than men to have a history of trauma and abuse, which poses additional challenges for reentry, specialized initiatives and programs that are psychology-based and trauma-informed, and address women's gender-based needs, are offered at female facilities.

Decades in the making, The Bureau of Prisons is focused on helping inmates with their reentry, and psychology plays a large role in the workings of the FBOP’s mental health and reentry services offered to male and female offenders. Recidivism, the term for the statistical probability of an offender to commit a secondary crime, at the FBOP is now half the rate of many large state departments of corrections, indicating a positive trend and ability to provide significant improvement in the lives of the incarcerated. FCI Dublin is a low security federal correctional institution with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp, and one of a few FBOP sites that house women.

Mischel has cultivated a reputation around the FBOP as being a “fixer.” She’ll enter a struggling FBOP facility, assess what changes need to be made either with personnel, organizational structure, inmate regulations, or more, and spend about 18 months fixing them. Then, once the problem is solved and new policies are in place, she heads out to the next assignment. She credits her fairly nomadic lifestyle with “being a military brat” and states that she “gets bored easily” with a nonchalance that belies the fact that a day in the correctional system is not your regular, average work day.

Having worked in the FBOP’s system, Mischel is living free of student loan debt and with the assurance that she can retire at any time, but that doesn’t mean she wants to. Her next step is fast approaching, and it's become clear that because of her background, she has her pick of opportunities. Maybe a prison across the country is in desperate need of her fixing, or maybe her experience will take her in the direction of prison reform. No matter where she lands, it's clear that a Ph.D. and a career with the FBOP can take you far.





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