Criminal justice social workers—also prison social workers, or correctional social workers as they are sometimes called—are social workers whose clients are, have been, or may soon be incarcerated.
Social workers in criminal justice settings have three fundamental ethical and professional obligations: to ameliorate the mental health needs of their clients, to return individuals to the community who will be productive, and serve the interests of public safety.
Prisons are a challenging place to work and social workers have had to fight in order to win a measure of influence in this complicated environment. Until the 1970s, incarceration rates in American prisons were relatively stable. Over the last few decades, incarceration rates have climbed and the United States subsequently has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report, an estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years, 79% were rearrested within 6 years, and 83% were rearrested within 9 years.
With this high prison churn, social workers play a key role in reducing recidivism and supporting prisoners as they work to transition back into civil society.
Criminal justice social work includes the following responsibilities:
- Providing mental health and substance abuse counseling;
- Finding alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation programs for low-level offenders;
- Helping formerly incarcerated individuals negotiate successful reentry into society;
- Working with clients to change patterns of criminal behavior;
- Advocating for clients within the criminal justice system;
- Advocating for policies that address both clients’ interests and need for public safety;
- Working with communities to eliminate the root causes of criminality.
According to a NASW report External link , social workers are currently making progress in the fight for a more central role in criminal justice policy-making and the delivery of services.
At present, the daily tasks a prison social worker might undertake include psychosocial assessments of clients, finding resources to help meet their needs, working with people impacted by a person’s incarceration (such as family members), assessing for abuse and neglect, or co-ordinating the temporary or long-term adoption of an inmate’s children.
Those working within the field often report that they enjoy championing members of society who have been marginalized or dismissed, and facilitating their rehabilitation and re-entry into civil society.
Compensation for Prison Social Workers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), prison social workers (referred to by the BLS as correctional treatment specialists), earn an average annual salary of $53,020, as of April 2019. The salary can range from $34,630 to $94,770, depending on education and experience.