Is a Career as a Correctional Social Worker Right for You?

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Hands holding onto prison bars.


The social work industry presents professionals with a wide range of opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 16 percent job growth in the sector from 2016 through 2026, a pace that is much faster than average. The median salary for social workers currently stands at $47,980 per year. These figures point to a positive job market in the social work field, and opportunities in corrections could prove plentiful.

In tracking social work job characteristics, the BLS found that approximately 14 percent of all social workers are employed by state government bodies, not including education and hospital settings. Another 13 percent of social workers are employed by local government organizations, again excluding hospitals and educational settings. Correctional settings would fall into these categories. Furthermore, the BLS found that the median salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, which are common positions for some correctional social work jobs, is $51,410.

With solid job opportunities on the horizon, it’s important to consider what correctional social work looks like in practice.

Exploring core responsibilities of correctional social workers

A social worker practicing in corrections settings can end up in a variety of roles. In this field, a social worker may:

  • Perform counseling to help individuals proceed through the rehabilitation process
  • Provide key clinical counseling for those with behavioral disorders or facing mental health challenges
  • Advocate for inmate rights in consultation with correctional institution administrators
  • Research grants and external services that could promote health and safety in a correctional environment

This is just a snapshot of the type of work correctional social workers may perform, and opportunities exist across a variety of roles. You could work to become a probation officer and counsel those who are leaving a corrections facility and trying to return to normal life. Conversely, you could pursue clinical counseling and focus on ensuring inmates with mental health disorders have access to treatment and a proper support system as they go through the corrections system. With a variety of options available, it’s important to consider your long-term goals and passions as a social worker to determine the best career pathway for you.

Pursuing a Master in Social Work degree can be beneficial in this process. Many correctional social work positions, particularly those involved in counseling, supervising, management, or policy creation, will require or prefer an MSW.

Digging into the correctional social work role

While there are many job roles that can be a fit for social workers in corrections, some of the core responsibilities of advocating for and working closely with inmates or those returning to society remain the same across specific positions. With this in mind, here’s a closer look at a couple of correctional social work roles based on a real-world job ad and program description.

Clinical social worker (health/correctional facility) – safety: This ad, listed by California Correctional Health Care Services, describes a position that focuses heavily on clinical social work as its core competency. Social workers in this position can expect a relatively high pay compared to the general social work field, with monthly salary ranging from $6,755 to $8,592 for licensed social workers. The minimum qualifications include a master’s degree. Applicants are also expected to either be licensed or capable of obtaining licensure within four years. Key responsibilities include:

  • Performing psychiatric social work, particularly focusing on work with those who are mentally, physically, or developmentally disabled. Social workers may also be asked to take action on behalf of individuals they work with.
  • Assessing cases and providing summaries of cases to support diagnosis and treatment plan development
  • Collaborating with an interdisciplinary treatment team
  • Contributing to the safety of individuals and property in the correctional setting

This information comes from a continuous filing for correctional clinical social workers, so some of the specific details may vary depending on the work setting ― probation center, juvenile detention center, correctional facility, etc. However, the general responsibilities point to demand for heavily clinical work roles in the corrections field.

Re-entry services social worker: Another area where social workers are employed in the corrections field is helping individuals re-enter society. The Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Maryland has established a re-entry team to support this process. The team’s goal is to promote crime control and provide an inclusive perspective on justice by helping those who were incarcerated return to normal life in a community. This team covers operational areas such as substance abuse treatment and workforce development. Access to education and similar services for both former inmates and their families are also involved.

This program is an interdisciplinary unit, but one of the specific job roles mandated as part of the team is a social worker. The re-entry team incorporates a licensed clinical social worker alongside case managers, a human service benefit specialist, a team manager, and other related roles to achieve its goals.

Taking steps toward a correctional social work job

Clinical social work is a vital element of practice in correctional settings. Behavioral and mental disorders are common among inmate populations. The study “Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners” analyzed data from a variety of reports to find that post-traumatic stress disorder is evident in between less than 1 percent and up to 27 percent of male inmates, and 12 percent to 38 percent of female prisoners. Clinical capabilities are vital in meeting the needs of this population group.

With clinical expertise increasingly needed in corrections, pursuing an MSW is critical. The MSW is often a key step toward licensure, and the online MSW at Regis College can help you along the way. It’s always important to understand the licensure requirements for the state where you want to work before choosing a program. Contact us today to learn more about what we offer in our MSW program and how our opportunities fit with your goals.


Recommended Readings:

What You Need to Know About Social Work Licensing

Learn more about a career as a social work supervisor



Occupational Outlook Handbook: Social Workers by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Social Workers: Work Environment by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Occupational Outlook Handbook: Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Re-entry Services by Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation

Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners by the Epidemiol Review