How to Become a Corrections Social Worker

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Social workers help vulnerable people and communities cope with and get through challenging times. They may find social services to help those in need or provide therapy as a clinical social worker.

There are jobs for social workers in many industries, including education, government, nonprofits, the legal system, and healthcare.

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Corrections social workers help inmates within the criminal justice system. Individuals interested in the legal system, advocating for those within the system, and helping offenders transition from prison may find a career as a corrections social worker very rewarding.

What is a Corrections Social Worker?

Corrections or criminal justice social workers typically work in county, state, or federal correctional facilities or juvenile detention centers. They may also work with law enforcement agencies or diversion programs that allow defendants to avoid incarceration by completing a program. Many work with correctional officers and other treatment specialists inside and outside correctional facilities.

These social workers may work with inmates in group support situations or one-on-one with individuals. They provide counseling to inmates to increase their chances of living a successful life in society, as well as to address any mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

The latest data from the Department of Justice found that 62% of prisoners released in 2012 were arrested within three years. A corrections social worker can help those reentering society by connecting them with community resources like housing, healthcare, and employment. These social workers may also teach them the life skills that can help them succeed.

Steps to Become a Corrections Social Worker

While state requirements vary, the following represent the most common steps to becoming a corrections social worker.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

At a minimum, a corrections social worker needs a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field. Some social work programs offer specializations in criminal justice.

The program should hold accreditation by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to ensure the degree is recognized by employers and state licensing boards. Accredited programs also require that students get experience in the field.

Those with a bachelor's degree typically work in entry-level positions under the supervision of a social worker with a master's degree. Some states require a master's to gain licensure.

Prospective corrections social workers who earned a bachelor's in another field, such as criminal justice, psychology, and sociology, may qualify for some positions or gain licensure by earning a master of social work.

Step 2: Obtain Work Experience

Social work programs accredited by the CSWE include hands-on experience. This may come in the form of practica and internships. A practicum enables students to observe social workers and typically incorporates theory and practice. Some schools incorporate fieldwork throughout the program.

An internship offers direct full-time or part-time experience, with students applying what they learned in the classroom under a social worker's supervision. Typically, programs help students find fieldwork that aligns with their interest area. These internships may occur in criminal justice or legal settings.

With this experience and degree, students may qualify for non-clinical social work positions and licensure in some states after passing an exam.

Step 3: Earn a Master's Degree

Employers and states may require a master of social work degree to work as a corrections social worker. Those interested in providing therapy need a master's degree in social work to gain licensure as a clinical social worker.

These social workers focus on rehabilitation by providing counseling, therapy for drug or alcohol misuse, and life-skills training. This position also requires 2-3 years of supervised clinical work experience.

Most graduate programs in social work enable students to specialize in their interest area, gaining critical knowledge that allows them to better support their clients. A master's degree in social work also offers increased job opportunities and earning potential.

A survey conducted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in 2017 found that those with a master of social work degree made, on average, about $13,000 more than social workers with a bachelor's degree.

Step 4: Gain Licensure

Social work licensing requirements vary by state. Each state's social work regulatory board determines the level of education required and the scope of practice. While some states allow social workers to work in a limited capacity without a license, others require all social workers to hold a license. All states require clinical social workers who work without supervision to gain licensure.

Licensing requirements include having a certain education level and passing a national exam. Some states also require passing state-specific exams.

The Association of Social Work Boards offers five exams for varying levels of education and practice. Because criminal justice social workers tend to provide treatment for substance misuse or mental health conditions, many become licensed clinical social workers.

Step 5: Continuing Education

Social workers must complete continuing education hours to maintain their license. The number of hours varies by state and license type and must be met before the license expires. In most states, licenses expire after two years.

Social workers also benefit from continuing their professional development and staying abreast of the latest techniques and models for supporting their clients.

Corrections Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

Social workers' salaries vary based on the position, employer, experience, and education level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that all types of social workers earned a median annual salary of $50,390 in May 2021, with the top 10% earning more than $82,840.

Those working at the federal executive branch level made the most in 2021, with an average annual wage of $83,020. Social workers employed by the local government earned an average salary of $62,450. The BLS also projects social work jobs to grow by 12% from 2020-2030, amounting to an average of 78,300 new jobs each year.

FAQs on Becoming a Corrections Social Worker

What is the role of social workers in correctional settings?

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One of the primary roles of social workers in correctional settings is helping inmates become contributing members of society. They also work to reduce the chances that inmates return to incarceration after serving their sentence. They may do this by providing treatments and interventions for those with substance misuse or mental health conditions.

Social workers also help inmates transition back into society by connecting them with community resources, such as housing, employment, healthcare, and rehabilitation programs. They may assist their families and advocate for offenders' rights and the protection of minors.

What's it like to be a prison social worker?

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Prison social workers' responsibilities vary depending on their position and education level. In many prisons, they focus on inmate rehabilitation. They may perform psychological assessments and determine if mental health conditions or addiction contributed to their incarceration. Licensed clinical social workers often provide therapy for individuals or support groups.

These professionals may experience some challenges in a prison environment. These include a lack of standardization and restraints associated with the system. In addition, according to the National Institutes of Health, about 65% of the people in prison have substance misuse disorders. Another 20% were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol when they committed their crime.

Do social workers work with prisoners?

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Yes. Social workers in the criminal justice system often work directly with prisoners. They may assess new arrivals, prepare treatment and support plans, and help inmates develop life skills to make better choices in the future. Therapy may also include helping them face and overcome their addictions.

In this environment, clients know and interact with each other daily, which can offer challenges and benefits. Corrections social workers may also work with a team of criminal justice professionals. This may include correctional officers and correctional treatment specialists. They may also work with an inmate's family, facilitating meetings and advocating for their children and spouses.

Resources for Corrections Social Workers

The NASW is the largest membership organization for professional social workers. It provides resources and tools to help these professionals advance their careers, support their clients, and connect with peers. It also offers several professional social work credentials.

This national task force focuses on solitary confinement issues in the criminal justice system.

The NOFSW is an organization that advances social justice through the collaboration of social services and the legal system.

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