Prison Counseling Careers

What is a Prison Counselor?

A prison counselor, also called a correctional treatment specialist or corrections counselor provides counseling to prisoners, helping them in their rehabilitation process. A prison counselor may also be responsible for evaluating inmates and preparing reports for Parole Boards.

Counseling in the prison environment begins from the time a prisoner is admitted to the facility to the time an inmate is released. Counselors play an integral role in helping prisoners readjust as they rejoin society. Prison counselors are an important part of the correctional system and the job can be a very rewarding one if you enjoy helping people.

Prison counselors need strong critical thinking skills as well as strong decision making skills and they must also be well organized and be able to communicate effectively.

What Does a Prison Counselor Do?

Prison counselors work very closely with prison staff, offenders as well as the family of offenders. They may also be responsible for helping to explain the policies and procedures of the facility when new offenders arrive. Prison counselors will most likely be involved or responsible for periodic and initial evaluations that are often responsible for program or work assignments or recommendations to correctional staff. They may provide individual or group therapy helping prisoners refocus on what can still be done to correct what has gone wrong.

One of the goals of the criminal justice system extends beyond protecting other members of society to the long term objective of rehabilitating those who have been incarcerated. Their time in prison will have served a useful purpose if it makes them less likely to repeat the same maladaptive behavior upon their return to the community.

Many inmates are not necessarily hardened criminals, but misguided individuals who can still turn their lives around, but not alone. Referrals by the prison counselor to special services like comprehensive drug or alcohol treatment programs and/or educational and vocational training can be an important step in the rehabilitation process. Simply having someone to talk to about what is bothering them can also help. Adjusting to prison life is never easy and, unfortunately, it becomes even harder when new prisoners get involved with the wrong people and start making more bad choices in prison, too.

That is why a thorough assessment by a prison counselor as soon as possible after entering prison is critical. The assessment will help identify any immediately pressing physical issues like substance abuse, as well as troubling mental health symptoms like depression. A psychosocial history is also obtained, which will provide important additional information about the kinds of circumstances in the person’s life that led to the present imprisonment and suggest what course of therapeutic intervention is appropriate. After interviewing the prisoner and collecting the data, prison counselors submit their findings and recommendations to medical staff and psychiatrists so an appropriate course of treatment can begin.

The prison counselor’s responsibilities do not end there. Additional individual and group counseling is offered on issues like anger and stress management. Prison counselors also evaluate progress and make recommendations to the parole board.

What is the Nature of Work for a Prison Counselor?

Being a prison counselor isn’t for everyone. Prison counselors must learn to cope with a demanding, fast-paced and often stressful environment. The nature of the work requires one to be physically fit as well as emotionally resilient as the work can be demanding with even uncooperative or hostile prisoners. Prisoners may become irate, demanding, may have anger or depression issues and even addiction and family issues. Counselors must be able to withstand the rigorous process and difficult and/or challenging working conditions that the prison environment entails.

Caseload will vary depending on the facility but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or BLS the average caseload ranges from 20-100 or more.

Helping prisoners prepare for life after prison is also an important part of the job and prison counselors may also be responsible for helping offenders adjust to life out in the real world.

Is Prison Counseling Right For You?

Becoming a prison counselor is not something to be taken lightly. It takes a special kind of person to meet the rigorous demands this position has. The field can be very rewarding if one can stand up to the challenges of dealing with difficult people often in crisis.

Prison counselors have challenging roles, but they are of integral importance to the prison population. Assisting inmates in the prison system adjust to their life in prison is no small task, and counselors must have a strong backbone in order to mentally cope with the rigorous job.

Prison counselors must be able to fully understand the attitudes, behaviors as well as the habits of prisoners in general while being able to take a step back and make an honest appraisal of the situation and person at hand.  One must be at least 21 years of age, be a U.S citizen and have no criminal record.

What are the Education Requirements to Become a Prison Counselor?

The education requirements to become a prison counselor vary widely from state to state, and between state and federal systems. In some locations, a high school diploma and extensive experience in the human services field is enough to get an entry-level position as a prison counselor with duties that focus on casework, employing interventions with prisoners, and helping parolees transition back into society.

In many prison systems, a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, criminal justice, or a related field is necessary to enter the field of prison counseling. These programs of study prepare individuals for work in the highly specialized prison environment by introducing them to topics related to helping inmates overcome problems through an understanding of human behavior, while also offering insight into criminal theory and research.

Frequently, prison counselors are subject to a battery of tests after completion of their undergraduate studies. Some states require prison counselors to serve a probationary period, usually one year, during which they hone their skills related to working with potentially dangerous individuals. After the probationary period is successfully completed, prison counselors may be required to gain certification through the state in which they live, and they may also be required to pass competency exams. Due to the nature of the work and the environment in which it takes place, prison counselors are almost always subject to psychological and physical examinations before being hired.

Although generally not required for employment, some prison counselors choose to pursue a master’s degree in social work, psychology, criminal justice, or a related field. Doing so allows the counselor to acquire more advanced skills in order to assist his or her clients. A master’s degree is also required in order to be a licensed counselor. Checking with the prison system, state agency, or federal agency you wish to work for regarding their employment requirements is advised.

What Do You Learn in Prison Counseling Training?

During your formal education/training you may acquire following skills:

  • Criminal justice system – Providing an overview of the criminal justice system, how it works and what is involved in each process. This allows counselors to better understand the challenges faced by their clients at particular times and the pathway they are likely to follow through the system so they can help them prepare.
  • Criminal theory – The basic theories about criminal behavior and what the underlying causes often are.
  • Psychology – Basic psychology courses to provide an insight into the theories and principles that may be useful to help progression of clients through rehabilitation. Students may also take courses in social psychology to better understand how social interactions shape human responses.
  • Human behavior – To get a grounding of why people behave as they do, how challenging behaviors are best dealt with and what motivates long-term change.
  • Counseling skills – A solid grounding in counseling skills to help build relationships with clients and guide them through the treatment pathways.
  • Self-defense – Often taught as a useful add-on, to help deal with the physical threat of working within the prison environment
  • Psychological evaluation methods – A prison counselor may be called upon to give an opinion as to the threat of reoffending of an individual or about the ongoing risks they pose. They need a good basic knowledge of psychological evaluation methods to be able to do this well.
  • Issues of specific relevance – Courses specific to topics such as substance abuse, sexual abuse or anger management so that the counselor is aware of potential underlying issues and how to deal with them specifically.

How Much Does a Prison Counselor Make?

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t analyze specific salary statistics for prison counselors alone, it does count probation officers as well as correctional treatment specialists reporting in May 2014 an average salary of $53,360. Correction treatment specialists in California earn the highest annual mean wage at $78,060 with Connecticut following close behind at $76,420.

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