Corrections Social Worker Degrees and Schooling [2024 Guide]

Last Updated: June 23, 2024

What is a Corrections Social Worker?

A corrections social worker, also commonly referred to as a prison or jail social worker, is a mental health professional that works in the correctional field. They may run programs with inmates and ensure prisoners are ready to return to society upon their release from prison.

Since recidivism rates are often high for prisoners, corrections social workers’ expertise is crucial for increasing prisoner’s success in society. Research has demonstrated corrections social workers, when using tailored educational and behavioral techniques, are successful at giving prisoners a second chance in society.

Corrections social workers will often work within a team of correctional professionals both within and outside of a prison, including correctional treatment specialists and correctional officers. They often work with prisoners within the prison system, rather than monitoring released prisoners in society.

What Does a Corrections Social Worker Do?

Corrections social workers have numerous job duties that depend on the prison’s and prisoner’s needs. They often will facilitate educational programs with prisoners that can be administered in groups or one on one.

If possible, the social worker will run more tailored programs to an individual, particularly for individuals who require more direct attention.

Since corrections social workers are trained in the field of mental health, they often will facilitate programs with inmates who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. While they are not therapists, they may create sessions in which prisoners can discuss mental heath issues or drug addictions.

If a therapist is involved in the correctional team, the corrections social worker may work closely with them to provide more hands-on assistance to the prisoner. They may also lead programs that are more active, like engaging in games or improvisational sessions in order to teach lessons and bring positivity to individuals. The skills taught within the sessions are aimed to help prisoners be successful within the prison system, as well as succeed in society.

Related Reading: How to Become a Correctional Counselor

Corrections social workers can be with a prisoner for many years, possibly from their intake to their release. Upon intake, a social worker will often assist with giving prisoners psychological tests in order to assess their mental and physical health. Tests may be given throughout the inmate’s time spent in prison, as well as prior to release in order to track progress.

A corrections social worker may be in contact with individuals outside of the prison system who have ties to the prisoner. For instance, a prisoner with a spouse and children may request visitations in order to rekindle relationships.

In this case, the corrections social worker would be responsible for facilitating meetings between family members, the prison, and prisoner in order to set up visitation meetings.

Corrections social workers need to fill out paperwork on inmates as well. They may keep and update case reports on each individual they interact with, as well as track the programs they lead. Meetings will often be held with other correctional team members in order to track progress of prisoners and develop future programs.

Where Does a Corrections Social Worker Work?

Many corrections social workers are employed within prisons and jails, however they are also found in other areas where individuals have been detained. This may include military jails, immigration detention centers, or juvenile detention centers.

Any of these facilities can be privately or publicly owned, which may impact job requirements as well as funding for inmate programs.

Sometimes corrections social workers are found in less common settings, such as rape crisis centers, police departments, and courts. However, given the varying settings social workers in general find themselves in, there may be social workers hired specifically for these settings.

Why is Corrections Social Work Important?

Within the past several years, the government and prison system has begun to understand that engaging with prisoners, rather than just punishing them, has led to reduced recidivism rates.

Corrections social workers are an important key to this, as they implement important programs for prisoners, as well as track their progress through the justice system. With over 1,600 prisoners released everyday, corrections social workers have a large responsibility to ensure the number who return is at a minimum.

The high rate of incarceration in the United States means a large number of prisoners with mental illnesses and drug addictions are also entering the prison system.

Corrections social workers are often the most knowledgeable on how to help these individuals, and are tasked with developing specialized education and behavioral programs.

Additionally, active corrections social workers are often in a unique position where they can advocate for prisoners, and ask for more time and funding to offer helpful programs. While this is not part of a job description, advocates of rehabilitation and life skill programs for prisoners have been successful in the past.

What are the Requirements to Become a Corrections Social Worker?

Educational Requirements

The educational requirements to become a corrections social worker can be done in a number of different ways. At minimum, a Bachelor’s in Social Work must be obtained, which will take about 4 years.

It should be noted that social work is a diverse field in which social workers may find a career in a wide variety of settings. Because of this, courses should be taken that focus on forensic social work and criminal justice.

A university may or may not offer a specific degree in Forensic Social Work or Criminal Justice Social Work, but one of these should be pursued if offered.

The courses offered within the Bachelor’s program may include classes on human behavior and psychology, social welfare programs, and ethics courses. Specific courses on the criminal justice system and substance abuse/addiction should be taken if offered.

Although a program may not require field experience, students should pursue internships under a licensed social worker that practices in the criminal justice system in order to gain experience.

The vast majority of corrections social workers choose to receive a Master’s degree in social work in order to be more qualified to enter the criminal justice system.

Additionally, a state may require a Master’s degree be obtained prior to licensure. Again, a specific program on corrections social work is rare or non-existent, so a focus in forensic or criminal justice social work should be obtained. These two-year programs may focus on cultural issues, ethics, psychology, and criminal justice courses.

Consultations with an advisor should be made, so courses and fieldwork can be taken which will best prepare an individual to work in the criminal justice system. Many Master’s of Social Work programs are offered online, which often require field experience to be obtained as part of the program.

Any fieldwork undergone within the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees should be pursued within the prison system if possible. Because a prison is a highly stressful environment, many prisons will not hire workers without some sort of prior experience within the prison system.

Licensing Requirements

Depending on the state, licensure can occur after a Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree has been obtained, which all social workers must acquire. Licensing through the state will give the individual the title of either a Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) or Master Social Worker (LMSW).

The specific licensing process is state-specific, and often requires a certain number of hours to be obtained which a licensed social worker will oversee. For example, Arizona requires 3,200 hours of supervised work while Illinois requires 3,000 hours.

Most states, but not all, require individuals to take an exam developed by the Association of Social Work Boards. The exam takes 4 hours, costs $230 and consists of 170 multiple-choice questions.

What Does It Take to Become a Corrections Social Worker?

  • Calm Demeanor: Working with the prison population can be frustrating and tiring, particularly if prisoners are aggressive or do not make progress. Remaining calm when events get out of control is important in order to maintain an appropriate relationship with the prisoners.
  • Communication Skills: A number of job duties, including running programs and communicating with fellow staff will require the corrections social worker to have appropriate communication skills. Prisoners need to be able to understand what lessons they are learning and which goals they are working towards. Being able to communicate problems as well as progress of the prisoners to co-workers is important for tracking prisoners through the system.
  • Leave Work at Work: Being a corrections social worker can be a very stressful job, which requires work to stay at work. Having a healthy life outside of the work environment may help to improve personal mental heath and reduce the chance of burnout, which ultimately helps the prisoners improve.
  • Ability to Set Boundaries: It is critical for corrections social workers to set and maintain boundaries with the prisoners. This is important from a personal as well as ethical standpoint. While the social worker is there to help the prisoner, there are limits on the type of help that can be given as well as when it should be given.

How Much Does a Corrections Social Worker Make?

As of January 2024 according to ZipRecruiter, corrections social workers earn between $36,000 and $150,000, averaging about $76,276 per year.

Earning a Master’s degree, having several years of experience, and demonstrating consistent work ethic may improve the salary for a corrections social worker. Regarding location, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are the highest paying states for social workers in general.

What is the Job Outlook for Corrections Social Worker?

The job outlook for social workers in general is positive. In the next 10 years, expected job growth is expected to reach 9%, compared to 7% for all careers as a whole.

Specifically, social workers that work with individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues can expect a growth of 19% in the next decade. However, correctional treatment specialists are expected to show only a 3% increase in job growth.

The actual job growth is dependent on funding to prisons as well as success of current programs. Since correctional social workers have demonstrated positive impacts to those in the justice system, job growth can be anticipated.

Additionally, burnout is common in the criminal justice system, so replacement of workers will likely continue.

What Professions are Similar to Corrections Social Worker?

Social Workers: While corrections social workers are a member of this group, the majority work in fields outside the prison system. Social workers work with vulnerable populations, community members, families, and children to assist in acquiring community resources, provide psychotherapy aid, and respond to abusive situations.

Correctional Treatment Specialists: These correctional professionals engage in job duties similar to corrections social workers, but often with less direct work with prisoners. They are often responsible for developing and maintaining case studies for prisoners as well as developing plans for corrections social workers to implement. They may assist with corrections social workers with intake tests and plans for prisoners.

Social and Human Service Assistants: Duties may vary widely depending on the client. Social work assistants help community members regain independence, fill out aid paperwork, and assist in daily activities. They may also assist elderly individuals within their own home or aid social workers with clients who are in need of assistance.

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