Kevin Flythe was given a second chance at life. After suffering from a severe stroke while incarcerated, he was released early because of his new medical conditions. Convicted of murder, his family never expected to see him outside of prison for the rest of his life. But after his stroke, a judge granted him an early release based on a recent amendment to Washington D.C. law. After learning about her cousin’s new disability and early release date, Michelle Royster prepared accommodations to support Flythe, who at that point had spent decades in custody. Learning that he would be dropped off by bus at Union Station, she waited anxiously for him to arrive. He never did.
At the time of this writing, Flythe remains missing. As Royster has tirelessly looked for her missing cousin, many systemic failings have become apparent. A recent example of an institutional problem with the legal system, this case proves how much support that formerly incarcerated people need as they reenter society. The criminal justice system can be difficult for those who have to navigate it. This is especially true for marginalized individuals and populations.
To ensure that situations like the disappearance of Flythe never happen again and that both incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people receive the support they need, prison social workers play a pivotal role in serving clients who come from diverse backgrounds. In this guide, we layout what aspiring prison social workers can expect on the job, the goals of this kind of practice, the educational and licensure requirements of the position, and the compensation outcomes that come with the role.
- What Do Prison Social Workers Do?
- The Goal of Social Work in Prisons
- Preparing to Become a Prison Social Worker
- Prison Social Worker: Career Outlook
- Prison Social Worker Salary
- Start Your Career in Prison Social Work
What Do Prison Social Workers Do?
Prison social workers, who are often referred to as criminal justice social workers or corrections social workers because of their advanced understanding of the legal system, primarily work to support incarcerated populations in order to build more equitable, socially just corrections environments. For offenders of both nonviolent and violent crimes, prison social workers carry out a number of tasks and practices to best serve their clients.
Intake Screening and Assessment
When people who are incarcerated are admitted into prisons, it’s important for everyone in the corrections process to become aware of the specific needs that new prisoners have. In this capacity, prison social workers intervene to provide assessment services, which help inform counseling, treatment, and educational plans to help with the rehabilitation process. For offenders who have been convicted of either non-violent or violent crimes, assessment services can additionally ensure that new prisoners receive the support they need in order to promote safety and security.
As incarcerated individuals serve their sentence, prison social workers can provide much-needed direction through hands-on, outcome-based supervision. Through this responsibility, social workers in prison can provide much needed stability and security to an otherwise at-risk incarcerated population. Additionally, through this part of their responsibility set, social workers can communicate with other corrections personnel in order to best serve those who are serving their sentences.
Serving a prison sentence is difficult and often painful, particularly for those who must stay incarcerated for long periods of time. Physically, psychologically, and emotionally, prison can take an incredible toll on those who must serve their sentences. As a result, there are bound to be crises that occur for a variety of reasons. Because many offenders may enter with both diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses, and because a significant amount of violence goes unreported in prison settings, social workers can often be viewed as important mitigators in nonviolent or violent situations. While the safety of the social worker absolutely takes precedence in crisis situations, they can still be helpful counselors and communicators to intervene with equitable, person-centered measures.
As trained and licensed mental health practitioners, correctional social workers can chart what treatment plans will be most effective to serve inmates’ individual needs. By helping to formulate these plans, these kinds of social workers can also help monitor the implementation and progress of the treatment services that will improve clients’ physical and mental health. Additionally, as violence occurs in prison, criminal justice social workers can provide mental health support to inmates going through physical rehabilitation and post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of the hallmark responsibilities for prison social workers is case management, a practice that affords frequent one-on-one check-ins with individual prisoners. Here, prison social workers compile and add onto the psychological, sociological, medical, and criminal / legal histories of their clients. This measure has a number of benefits for all parties involved in the process. Clients can have a much better understanding ultimately of the areas they must address to exit prison and reenter society in a timelier fashion. Clinicians will be able to monitor the progress and challenges that their clients face. And social work practitioners who will serve clients after their sentence is complete will be able to continue treatment and mental health support in the most informed, up-to-date, and effective manner.
Parole and Release Planning
Recidivism is one of the biggest risks that formerly incarcerated populations face when returning to life outside of prison. Because of the unfortunate yet very real stigma surrounding ex-convicts in the hiring process, it can be incredibly difficult for former prisoners to secure employment after their release. Because prison social workers are aware of this reality, it’s vitally important that inmates receive both employment and housing support before they are released. When social workers are able to provide planning resources for life outside of prison, formerly incarcerated people are given the best chance to reenter society more smoothly and, more importantly, to avoid reoffending. As prisoners are released, they will often have to meet with their assigned parole officers who provide check-ins to ensure that formerly incarcerated people are effectively and safely integrating back into society. Prison social workers, in this capacity, can help mediate between the two parties to ensure that former prisoners can achieve the best possible outcomes in their reentry.
The Goal of Social Work in Prisons
Prison social workers carry objectives that are unique to the field and to the people they strive to serve. Some of the primary objectives for social work practitioners who support incarcerated populations include helping to curb recidivism, advocate for prisoner welfare in the time of mass incarceration, and offer mental health support to at-risk prisoners.
A good deal of scholarship has been dedicated to how prison social workers must play an important role in recognizing and negotiating how marginalizing the state of mass incarceration has become. According to the National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press, “the explosion in the prison population experienced since the 1980s, along with the federal court actions described above, has created an ever-expanding need for the unique set of professional skills that social workers bring to correctional institutions.” Because these populations are already underserved before they are incarcerated, it’s vital that social workers are able to intervene during civil or criminal justice proceedings.
Additionally, outside of the advocacy work that prison social workers perform, one of the central goals for these kinds of practitioners is to ensure that formerly incarcerated people gain the support they need to live their lives out of prisons. The conditions that former prisoners face are challenging. As Christina Reardon for Social Work Today writes, “unfortunately, formerly incarcerated individuals often get arrested again. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 found that two-thirds were arrested within three years of release and three-quarters were arrested within five years.” When social workers are able to provide much-needed support to at-risk groups, formerly incarcerated individuals have a significantly better chance of staying out of prison and living free, fulfilling lives.
Preparing to Become a Prison Social Worker
Everyone who becomes a licensed social worker will have a different path that leads them to practice. Across education, licensing, practicum, and internship requirements, different kinds of social workers must take different measures to serve the population of their choosing.
For practically every social worker position, organizations and correctional facilities will require that candidates have completed a degree. In today’s job market, three degree paths stand out as the most common and most pursued among prison social workers.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Prison Social Work
At the same time that most corrections social worker positions will require that incoming practitioners have at least a Master’s degree in the field, some entry level positions will accept candidates who have only completed a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). Most BSW programs will require students to complete approximately four years of coursework that will provide a comprehensive introduction into the field generally. Importantly, most students won’t choose a specialization or focus their study at this stage of the academic process; instead, the BSW will touch on topics that will give students a greater understanding of the roles and responsibilities of social workers across contexts.
Aspiring social workers in these programs learn more directly how they will serve diverse populations that have specific needs. New modes of completing a BSW are emerging across colleges and universities across the country. Online BSWs, which are structured primarily in asynchronous capacities, are excellent avenues for returning students and non-traditional learners. Because the online classroom can afford more freedom and space to learners looking to balance work and life commitments, online BSWs are attractive options to working professionals.
For people interested in getting a BSW to pursue a career in prison social work, it’s important to note that most positions will only accept applicants who have completed their education from an institution that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This recognition can be important for both future employers and for those aiming to get a Master’s degree in the field.
Master’s Degrees in Prison Social Work
The Master’s of Social Work (MSW) is typically regarded as the baseline credential to gain a job as a prison social worker. With more specific seminar-style courses and with a greater opportunity to gain specialized knowledge in a branch of social work practice, the MSW is usually regarded as the steppingstone into the career of choice for the budding social worker. Students in the MSW are given the opportunity to concentrate their understanding toward one capacity. For those aiming to become prison social workers, this typically means taking courses on topics that explore the criminal justice system and clinical psychology.
MSWs, both in-person and online, usually take approximately two years to complete. In that time, students engage with immersive coursework that will ultimately prepare them to navigate the legal system to serve and support incarcerated populations. In addition to the coursework that students must complete, practically every program will have a field work / practicum component built into the program. Across approximately 1000 hours to be logged at an organization of the student’s choosing, aspiring social workers will have the chance to gain valuable experience in the field. This will give students a much clearer idea of the day-to-day responsibilities that social workers must navigate and perform.
There are multiple purposes of the practicum component: to give students direct experience in the branch of social work they wish to explore and to prepare them to sit for licensing exams after graduation. Importantly, for graduates of MSWs who wish to become prison social workers, it is best recommended that they gain experience in a correctional facility setting. By working in some capacity in the criminal justice system as a social worker, students will be able to understand first-hand how best to serve incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations.
By getting an MSW, graduates will be able to prove to employers that they have the training, the education, and the credentials to serve their chosen communities.
PhDs in Prison Social Work
PhDs in Social Work are designed to accommodate especially motivated individuals who aim to go into clinical research, academia, and other alternative academic leadership positions. Because PhD programs have much greater requirements and academic expectations, this track is best advised for students who are confident in their path to professionalize in the field of scholarly research. The career outlook for those who graduate with a PhD specializing in prison social work is typically in scholarship, as a university professor, a nonprofit or clinical researcher, or a nonprofit administrator.
PhDs in social work can take different amounts of time based on the institution, the format of the program, and prior academic work completed. Typically, coursework will take students upwards of three years to complete. Once students have completed the necessary coursework involved in the program, they can usually move onto dissertation planning and writing. As the dissertation is the hallmark feature of completing a PhD, students will be able to hone their research and writing skills to such an advanced level that they will be prepared to become leaders in the field.
A critical portion of becoming a prison social worker lies in the licensure component. In order to become a licensed social worker, it’s important to look at state requirements. Different states have different expectations in the licensing examination process, so it’s important for those aiming to receive the credential that they are up-to-date and prepared to sit for the exam. Importantly, most MSWs will feature a sizable portion of the program’s coursework dedicated to the licensure process. This is why most MSWs feature a practicum and/or field work component, which gives hands-on training that’s relevant to and can be used to help pass the licensure exam. Importantly, those who wish to practice as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) will need to have completed an MSW prior to sitting for the exam.
To help prepare future prison social workers with direct, hands-on experiences, many BSWs and MSWs feature internship opportunities that can be used for course credit. In some programs, internships can take the place of practicum / field work requirements, while in others, internships are structured to act as stand-alone components.
Prison Social Worker: Career Outlook
Social workers across the board are growing in demand. As it’s becoming increasingly clear that disenfranchised populations need more support now than ever, organizations, agencies, and governmental firms are recognizing the importance of trained, qualified, and dedicated social workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social worker positions are expected to grow by 12% through 2030.
Through another lens, prison populations are growing exponentially, too. According to the Department of Justice, the current population of incarcerated individuals is a staggering 2.2 million adults, which is “by far the largest in the world.” Other factors of the prison system will influence the continued hiring of prison social workers in the future. As the U.S. Department of Justice has found, “the U.S. prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation’s population: mostly men under age 40, disproportionately minority, and poorly educated.” Additionally, because “prisoners often carry additional deficits of drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical illnesses, and lack of work preparation or experience,” trained mental health and social justice practitioners are required to best serve the needs of this vulnerable population.
Prison Social Worker Salary
The median pay for social workers, again according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $61,190. The national average salary for prison social workers, specifically, is significantly higher, coming in at $83,020. This figure is dependent on a number of variables, though, including location of the facility, experience of the practitioner, and level of education.
Start Your Career in Prison Social Work
The role of social work in correctional services is a critical link between the correctional facility or prison, the ex-offender, their rehabilitation and successful re-entry into the community. Learn more about Criminal Justice Social Work Degree Programs and how it prepares you as a prison social worker.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social Workers, All Other reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.