Correctional Social Work: A Look on the Inside

At the very core of social work is the principle that every human being has inherent dignity and worth, and that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, creed or social class should be treated in a caring, respectful manner and have access to basic human needs and services.1 That includes the 2.4 million men and women who are incarcerated in the U.S.2

Making a career out of social work in prisons and the correctional system at-large is challenging — one that is critical to the pursuit of prisoner rehabilitation, prison reform and reduced incarceration rates. Professionals with a master’s in social work have the opportunity to play an important role in all aspects of correctional policy and operations, including entry and re-release into society, monitoring prison practices and conditions, family services, mental health and substance abuse counseling, probation management, job and life skills training, and implementing educational programs.

Part of helping prisoners rehabilitate and prepare to re-enter society means working closely with them (and often their family members) to develop “action plans” based on their needs and future goals. Social workers may conduct assessments during the intake process to determine a prisoner’s mental health and help identify substance abuse disorders. Through group and/or one-on-one rehabilitation activities, prison social workers take an active role in helping shape an inmate’s life both in and outside of incarceration.

Helping them maintain family ties is a critical part of the rehabilitation process and can contribute to preventing recidivism and intergenerational crime.3 Inmates with children may require a social worker to advocate on their behalf, and on behalf of their children when it comes to visitation. Parenting programs and marriage education programs play big roles in helping inmates get ready to resume their spousal and parenting responsibilities when their sentences are over. Social workers are key advocates of prison programs like these. Beyond the prison walls, social workers may help families of incarcerated individuals find local community resources to help them through financial and emotional hardships.

In terms of work environment, jails (run by local jurisdictions such as cities or counties) and prisons (run by states or federal government) are the two most prevalent correctional facilities. However, persons convicted of committing a crime may also be housed in juvenile-detention facilities, military prisons, immigration-detention and civil-commitment centers (used to house mentally ill inmates). Social workers can also support the correctional system through employment with courts, serving as expert witnesses or collaborating with attorneys on relevant cases.

Through meaningful rehabilitation and improved prison practices, the social work corrections community aims to reduce the chances of recidivism and help offenders become contributing members of society.

1National Association of Social Workers, “Code of Ethics.” http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp

2The Washington Post, “11 Facts About America’s Prison Population,” August 13, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/13/wonkbook-11-facts-about-americas-prison-population

3Vera Institute of Justice, “The Family and Recidivism,” September/October 2012. http://www.vera.org/files/the-family-and-recidivism.pdf