Prison Social Worker

There are many factors that lead to incarceration. Many prisoners have been sentenced because they have made poor choices, shown a lack of personal responsibility, and victimized those in their communities. But that explanation is far from complete: many of the men and women who are incarcerated have been imprisoned because our society has failed them in some way. Many have suffered extensive trauma as children in abusive and unstable home environments; many others have been dropped in one foster center after another. Others live in areas where the police and authorities who patrol communities target certain populations because of their race or economic status. Many prisoners were never given an equal chance at the opportunities that most citizens enjoy. A prison social worker has the opportunity to help people start to live the life they want to live.

Prison Social Worker Job Description

Social workers play an important role to prisoners while they are confined in prison, but also as they near the end of their sentences and are preparing to return to the community. A social worker’s function during a person’s time in prison can be divided into two main areas: rehabilitation and discharge planning.


Ideally, the purpose of confinement is not simply to separate people who have been convicted of crimes from the communities they came from, but to give those who have committed crimes an opportunity to develop habits and belief systems that will make their lives in the community more fulfilling. The prison social workers employed in the field of prisoner rehabilitation utilize many tools, such as a individual counseling sessions, group work, family counseling, job training lessons, and general life skills practice to help prisoners function in a way that is more constructive than the habits that have led them to incarceration.


One-on-one therapy can be a very effective tool for a person who is serving a prison sentence, and the benefit of one-on-one support that is offered through counseling can be a powerful and reformative experience. A prison social worker offering clinical intervention can help the inmate explore difficult experiences endured during childhood, the relationships in his or her life that are beneficial and those that are problematic, and the factors that led to the person’s imprisonment. Finally, they can discuss what steps he or she can take in building a better life, both in the prison and in the community. Many prisoners report that the therapeutic relationship they developed while in prison helped them approach their lives in new ways, and was a major factor in bettering their circumstances.

Group Work

When prison social workers use the term “group work,” they are referring to group therapy sessions, where four or five to ten people meet to discuss the issues they face in their lives. Group therapy can have a significant and positive effect on people’s lives, because it allows participants to:

  • gain support from people in a similar that is similar to the one that they face
  • gain information and tap into the knowledge that other group members have
  • develop relationships and develop an understanding of how they relate to others, and the recurring problems that they have relating with others
  • imitate behaviors that they see working for others
  • and develop the belief that they are capable of living positive and fulfilling lives.

Group therapy is particularly beneficial because many of the problems that led to a group member’s incarceration can be confronted in group therapy. Very often, prisoners who have addictions to drugs or alcohol, or recurring sexual practices that victimize others, or personality disorders that make it difficult to interact with others, learn a great deal in a group therapy setting.

A prison social worker in a correctional facility will organize and run group therapy sessions for prisoners, and help guide inmates through the self-realization and self-growth that comes from group therapy sessions.

Family Counseling

When a family member enters the prison system, the incarceration can have a dramatic effect on the family system. Normal family functioning may be severely impaired, and the relationships of family members—both between the incarcerated family member and his/her spouse, and the incarcerated family member and his/her children—may be altered. A new family dynamic is also created between the parent who is still in the community and his/her children, now that his/her spouse is in prison.

A prison social worker will meet with the family to address their concerns, and utilize family counseling techniques to help the family discuss the hardships and opportunities that are a part of their new situation. The prison social worker may also teach parenting skills to help the inmate and his or her spouse to provide a positive environment for the children while the family is divided. The couple might also be referred to a marriage counseling Orange County specialist.

The prison social worker may also arrange for services to help the family deal with hardships that the incarceration may create. When a family goes from having two incomes to one income, they may be in need of financial assistance. Their housing situation may also be affected, and a prison social worker may help the find family find accommodations until the incarcerated family member is returned to the community. Every family situation is unique, and a social worker will look to find the necessary services a family requires.

Jobs Training and Life Skills

Many of the men and women who are incarcerated have never been given an opportunity to develop the job skills necessary to find and maintain employment. A social worker in a prison has the opportunity to help prisoners attain professional skills, and prepare for life back in the community. The social worker can help the prisoner attain their General Educational Development diploma (which is equal to a high school diploma), or receive job training skills in fields such as carpentry, plumbing, construction, or food preparation. Job training and life skills are an important factor in making an inmate feel ready to return to their homes and build a better life in their communities, and a prison social worker has an incredible opportunity to help an inmate create a better life for him- or herself.

Discharge Planning

Prisoners Re-entering the Community. The transition from life in confinement back into the community can be difficult for many prisoners. Many find that they have no one to stay with, no funds to find food or shelter, and no community supports to help them as they start again. Studies have found that one in five prisoners re-entering the community will become homeless, and other studies have shown that recidivism—a term that refers to a person’s tendency to repeat the same crimes that put them in prison in the first place—is very common among men and women who have been incarcerated.

For a prisoner, a social worker’s intervention can be the difference between a new life and a return to prison. A social worker will help prisoners prepare for their lives outside of confinement, and use their connections in the community to arrange for services that will lend the inmate support once s/he is released, such as referral services to local Orange County treatment centers. The social worker may find resources in the community that help the inmate find:

  • group home residence, if they inmate does not have shelter to return to
  • job training or classes, to further the inmate’s education
  • addictions treatment, if they prisoner had substance abuse issues before or during imprisonment
  • counseling and clinical services
  • to provide support and guidance
  • child care, if the inmate has children who need supervision while s/he looks for work
  • and-or transportation services, if the inmate has found a job through a prison program but does not have the means to get to work.

A prison social worker with extensive knowledge of local services can be very helpful to a prisoner who is re-entering civilian life, because they can arrange resources that enrich the person’s life and help him or her contribute to the community.

Prisoners Who Have Been in Confinement for Extended Periods of Time. Many men and women are detained for short periods of time, and find the world much the same when they re-enter it. However, there are some inmates who have been incarcerated for many years, and find the culture very different from when they left it. A prisoner may find that in order to get a job, knowledge of the internet is required, but s/he may have gone to prison before the internet was even invented. They may also find that services that were provided for them in prison, such as healthcare and medication management, are difficult to arrange outside of confinement.

It is the prison social worker’s job to literally re-introduce the prisoner to his or her culture, and detail all the aspects of life that the prisoner returning to the community will need to know. Many prisoners, especially those who are older, have great anxiety regarding their return to the community, and have no idea what to expect. A prison social worker serves as a guide to help the person build a new and rewarding life.

Places of Employment and Degrees Required

Prison social workers are employed in different areas of the legal system, including prisons, courts, and police departments. They may also work in victim services programs, rape crisis centers, and other correctional facilities.

Case management positions are usually available for applicants with a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), and clinical and advanced positions are available for applicants with a master’s in social work (MSW). A licensed clinical social worker may have a private practice as an Orange County therapist.

Final Thoughts

Some people go to prison, and they’re simply counting the days until they get out. But for some, prison is a chance to start again. To turn over a new leaf and begin a better life. But that is hard, hard work, and it difficult to do alone. A prison social worker can be the one to provide the skills and the support to person looking to build a better life.

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