Is a Correctional Social Worker Career Right for You?

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Hands holding onto prison bars.

Clinical social work is a vital element of practice in correctional settings. Behavioral and mental disorders are common among inmate populations. The 2018 study “Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners” analyzed data from a variety of reports. Researchers found that post-traumatic stress disorder was evident in from 0.1% to 27% of male prisoners, and 12% to 38% of female prisoners. Clinical capabilities and social work are vital in meeting the mental health needs of this population group.

Graduate studies can prepare individuals to work in corrections and help inmates rehabilitate their lives and become productive members of society. As the U.S. criminal justice system faces numerous challenges, professionals in corrections are uniquely positioned to offer the specialized expertise needed to support rehabilitation and create safe environments within prisons and jails.

With clinical expertise increasingly needed in corrections, pursuing an advanced degree, such as a online masters social work degree, can be a key step toward licensure and becoming a correctional social worker.

What Are Core Responsibilities of a Correctional Social Worker?

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

  • Provide counseling to help individuals proceed through the rehabilitation process
  • Provide key clinical counseling for those with behavioral disorders or facing mental health challenges
  • Perform psychiatric social work, particularly focusing on work with those who are mentally, physically, or developmentally disabled
  • Assess cases and provide summaries of cases to support diagnosis and treatment plan development
  • Collaborate with an interdisciplinary treatment team
  • Advocate for inmate rights in consultation with correctional institution administrators
  • Take action on behalf of the individuals they work with
  • Contribute to the safety of individuals and property in the correctional setting
  • 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. While many job roles 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.

Individuals can work to become probation officers and counsel prisoners who are leaving corrections facilities and trying to return to normal life. On the other hand, individuals can 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, one’s long-term goals and passions as a social worker should be considered to determine the best career pathway.

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.

A Social Worker’s Role in Corrections

Social workers have long been involved in the corrections system, performing roles in areas such as family support and care, counseling, and prisoner advocacy. Social work experts could find roles within multiple tiers of the corrections industry, ranging from probation officers helping individuals adjust to life outside of prison to administrators guiding policy and advocating for vulnerable parties across the industry.

According to the National Association of Social Workers, the current state of the U.S. criminal justice system makes social workers particularly important in the corrections sector. Shifts in policy around drug law, funding for mental health programs, and similar issues have left many prisons facing an influx of inmates and a considerable rise in prisoners with mental health conditions. In many cases, individuals with mental health disorders who don’t get care can end up in prison, turning correctional facilities into ad hoc treatment centers that are not adequately staffed for such a role.

Substance abuse and mental health conditions are common among inmates, and many methods used in the correctional industry can exacerbate those issues. In particular, using seclusion and restraint as a form of punishment can cause mental health conditions to escalate.

These circumstances highlight just how much professionals can do when operating as correctional social workers. Pursuing a Master of Social Work will expose students to courses and practical experience related to counseling, advocacy, mental health assessment, and the underlying societal and physiological circumstances that contribute to mental health conditions.

Bringing this knowledge into roles in corrections gives professionals an opportunity to work with prisoners and enhance the rehabilitation process. An MSW degree can provide big-picture knowledge and administrative skills that can be invaluable for leaders in corrections who are focused on advocacy. These skills include: strong verbal and written communication skills, empathy and compassion, interpersonal skills, organization skills and being detail-oriented, problem-solving skills, and emotional intelligence.

Correctional Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

The social work field presents professionals with a wide range of opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 13% job growth in the sector from 2019 through 2029, a pace that is much faster than average. The median annual salary for social workers was $50,470 as of May 2019. 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% of all social workers are employed by local government bodies, not including education and hospital settings. Another 13% of social workers are employed by state government organizations, again excluding hospitals and educational settings. Working as a correctional social worker would fall into these categories.

Furthermore, the BLS reports that the median annual salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, which are common positions for correctional social workers, was $54,290 in May 2019. The number of jobs for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists is projected to grow by 4% between 2019 and 2029.

Pursue a Master of Social Work

A Master of Social Work degree puts the emphasis on the big-picture societal and mental health concerns that impact an individual in the corrections system. An MSW can also serve as a step to becoming licensed or certified — a process that can prove instrumental within the corrections industry. Earning the degree can help professionals bring something valuable to the corrections industry if they have a passion to help people.

If you want to advocate for prisoner rights and provide counseling, social work may be the right career for you. The Regis College online Masters of Social Work program focuses on clinical studies as its point of emphasis, making it a natural fit if you are seeking licensure or certification. Discover more about how pursuing an MSW degree can help you become a correctional social worker.

Recommended Readings

Important Social Worker Skills

How the MSW Prepares You for Clinical Social Work

6 Reasons to Become a Psychiatric Social Worker


Epidemiologic Reviews, “Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Prisoners”

Exploring Your Mind, “The Social Worker in Correctional Facilities”

National Association of Social Workers, Social Justice

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers