How to Become a Prison Social Worker (Step One: Forget What You Saw on ‘Orange Is the New Black’)

How to Become a Prison Social Worker (Step One: Forget What You Saw on ‘Orange Is the New Black’)
On TV, we often see the failures of the courts and legal system. But prison social workers have the opportunity to use compassion, ethics, and communication to make a difference in people's lives. Image from Unsplash
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Melissa Kaye September 17, 2019

Prison social workers are committed and caring professionals who serve a marginalized and vilified population. They could probably even fix Sam Healy.

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Those who’ve never met a prison social worker—and if you’ve never been to prison, the opportunities probably haven’t been numerous—can be forgiven if their preconceptions aren’t all positive. Chances are their impressions were formed by Orange Is the New Black and its troubled social worker, Sam Healy. Sam means well, but his demons lead to—well, let’s just say his approach is unconventional and counterintuitive. And, frequently, terrifying.

Sam is certainly not the public face most prison social workers would choose. And, fortunately, he’s not typical of the profession. That’s not to say this character is without value. As one social worker on observed, Healy is such a great example of how not to do the job that he should be studied in social work programs. A sort of prison social work Goofus, if you will.

The Gallants of this profession, in contrast, are mental health professionals driven to help societal outcasts rehabilitate and improve. For those compelled to help people—particularly those who are incarcerated—prison social work can be a calling, not just a way to earn a paycheck.

What exactly do these specialized social workers do, and what kind of education do you need to become one? This article will cover:

  • What a prison social worker does
  • The pros and cons of becoming a prison social worker
  • How much can you expect to earn as a prison social worker?
  • The educational commitment to become a prison social worker
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a prison social worker

What a prison social worker does

Social workers help clients in a range of environments, from schools to the military to community organizations. Nearly all of the sixteen practice areas of social work involve the pursuit of social justice. Prison social work certainly does: the belief that treatment and rehabilitation better serve prisoners and society than mere punishment is central to prison social work practice. Most prison social workers would also concur that the inequities of our criminal justice system disproportionately harm the underprivileged and minorities.

The core responsibilities of prison social workers (sometimes referred to as criminal justice social workers, correctional social workers, or forensic social workers) lie in interacting with prisoners, their families, and correctional administrators. Their work aims to prevent recidivism by helping prisoners get back on their feet and turn their lives around. This may entail:

  • Facilitating programs with prisoners to help them successfully re-enter society
  • Running educational programs, one-on-one or in groups
  • Tracking the progress of programs
  • Creating counseling sessions centered on mental illness and substance abuse
  • Using improvisation or games as part of counseling
  • Arranging meetings between the prisoner and family members
  • Advocating for inmate rights with correctional administrators

Prison social workers work in a wide range of settings, including:

  • State and federal correctional facilities
  • Military jails
  • Immigration detention centers
  • Juvenile detention centers
  • Court systems
  • Faith-based agencies
  • Nonprofit agencies and health care providers for ex-offenders or reentrants

This job will take you to some tough places and put you face-to-face with some intimidating individuals. But as Carolyn Esparza, MSW, who has more than 30 years of prison social work experience, told Careers in Psychology, that just makes the victories sweeter. “The greatest reward has been being contacted by former clients who are now successful in their own lives,” she said.


“I’m ready for a degree!”

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The pros and cons of becoming a prison social worker

One of the pros of the work, as Esparza pointed out, is seeing former prisoners successfully reintegrate into society. As a prison social worker, you can help individuals improve their lives and the lives of their families. And, by reducing recidivism, you’ll also have a positive impact on society at large.

You may also come to __ see prisoners in a new light. As Lisa Kays, a women’s prison social worker, told Social Work Career: “While I don’t approve of or like many of the things that my clients have done, I do like them as people, and find that when I see them through the lens of the totality of their experience, that it’s very hard to not appreciate and respect the fabric of their stories and how they ended up making some of the choices they did,” she said.

Among the cons (no pun intended): stress. Prisoners can be aggressive or moody, so the work can be tiring. Prisons are typically loud and chaotic places. The workload is usually heavy. Also, Esparza points out, the justice system is bureaucratic and slow, and can at times seem arbitrary and unfair. She identifies “maintaining personal integrity” within the system as one of her biggest challenges.

The ability to leave work at work (you should have a fulfilling life outside of work!) and the ability to maintain boundaries, as well as a calm demeanor, are crucial traits for a prison social worker.

How much can you expect to earn as a prison social worker?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for social workers is $49,470 per year. Also according to the BLS, correctional social workers’ median income is $44,960. Ziprecruiter paints a more encouraging picture: according to the job posting website, the national average income for prison social workers is $57,517, with some earning over $100,000 annually.

Job opportunities should be abundant. The BLS projects that there will be a 12 percent increase in employment of corrections social workers, counselors, and other community and social service specialists by 2028.

Educational commitment to become a prison social worker

Prison social work job requirements vary from state to state (and the federal prison system has yet another set of requirements), but in most locations employers will expect, if not require, an undergraduate degree in social work, psychology, or criminal justice. You should make sure your undergraduate transcript reflects an interest in corrections work by showing coursework in:

  • Ethics
  • Criminal justice
  • Forensic social work
  • Human behavior
  • Psychology
  • Public policy
  • Substance misuse

Workshops on diversity are also helpful; most universities offer them. Also, take advantage of internships or fieldwork in the area to gain hands-on, real-life experience.

According to US News & World Report, the top four social work programs in the country are:

You do not need a degree from a top-four institution to work as a prison social worker, of course. Any Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited institution should suffice. As you shop for the right school, look for one located near a correctional facility. You’ll be glad you did when it comes time to do your fieldwork.

Depending on what state you live in, you may well need a master’s degree to practice social work,particularly if you want to treat clients with mental health disorders. There are online options at schools like Fordham University and Baylor University as well as plenty of residential programs. If you work and/or have a family, online may offer appealing conveniences, including local placement for your fieldwork.

Look at the coursework and mission statement of these institutions to see if they align with your interest in the criminal justice field. For example, the vision statement of University of Pennsylvania‘s Social Policy & Practice school includes: “The passionate pursuit of social innovation, impact, and justice.” Tulane University‘s School of Social Work offers a concentration in forensic social work, meaning that its program includes classes covering mental health and criminal justice systems.

Certifications, such as the one in forensic social work offered by the National Organization of Forensic Social Work, will bolster your résumé and make you a more appealing job candidate, but they are currently not required.

Licensing Requirements

Licensing requirements vary by state, with individuals receiving the title of either a licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW) or Master Social Worker (LMSW). Licensure requires a prescribed number of hours of supervised work, which can typically be completed during graduate study. Some states require candidates to take a four-hour, 170-item multiple-choice exam given by the Association of Social Work Boards. Keep in mind that as a social worker, your education will be ongoing. Many states require all social workers to participate in continuing education courses to maintain their social work licensure.

On TV shows like Orange is the New Black or Law and Order, we often see the failures of the courts and legal system. But prison social workers have the opportunity to use compassion, ethics, and communication to make a difference in people’s lives. They can create the success stories we so seldom see depicted on screen.

If you’re still not sure if this job for you, getting the education and licensing needed for the job would still open doors for you in many settings. There are many different practice areas in social work, each serving populations in need.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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