In 2021, nearly 1.8 million people were incarcerated in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice — and social workers often play a role in supporting them before, during and after their sentence. In fact, incarcerated individuals have a constitutional right to mental health care, including mental health services that social work professionals provide.
The corrections system offers various career opportunities for Master of Social Work (MSW) graduates, whether they’re interested in working with people facing incarceration, working with people in jail or prison, or working with people reentering society. Social workers may also assist individuals affected by offenders’ actions, providing services such as finding shelter for those subjected to domestic abuse or facilitating care for families of crime victims.
An MSW degree can help professionals advance in a career helping people involved in the corrections system.
Careers in Corrections
MSW graduates who pursue roles in corrections are working to protect the rights of people who society too often dismisses, providing support and helping them to rebuild their lives. They typically are employed in jails, prisons and the courts or by community-based organizations and health care agencies. The following are five careers in corrections for MSW graduates:
1. Mitigation Specialist
Mitigation specialists work with legal defense teams, especially in capital cases, to investigate the life experiences of individuals facing charges. They determine any social and psychological factors that attorneys should present to judges and juries as mitigating factors behind individuals’ actions. Mitigation specialists also help connect individuals facing charges with services they need, such as drug abuse prevention or social service programs. The duties of mitigation specialists include the following:
- Spending time with the defendant and with witnesses to uncover mitigating evidence
- Identifying witnesses who can testify in court about the mitigating experiences of individuals facing charges
- Compiling reports that outline the implications that circumstances such as abuse, disability or neglect can have on a defendant’s actions
- Providing testimony in court regarding the mitigating experiences
2. Police Social Worker
Police social workers offer counseling and crisis response assistance as requested by police officers. They sometimes accompany first responders, acting as negotiators or counselors, and can also consult with members of the police force and their families. These professionals may be part of a police department or a social service agency that works with law enforcement. The duties of police social workers include the following:
- Counseling crime victims as well as those facing issues such as loss of a loved one
- Developing programs to assist at-risk youth in the community
- Training police officers on issues such as domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse and stress management
3. Prison Social Worker
Another career in corrections, prison social workers work in correctional facilities to provide a link between individuals incarcerated in those facilities and the outside world. These professionals are responsible for assisting people with mental health and substance abuse concerns while they’re prisoners, setting the stage for future reentry into their communities. The duties of prison social workers include the following:
- Assessing inmates’ mental health
- Providing counseling and support to individuals and groups
- Conducting therapy sessions that focus on life skills
- Maintaining records regarding prisoners’ care
- Communicating with other corrections personnel about care progress
4. Transitional Case Manager
Transitional case managers work with prisoners who are nearing release. They help to ensure that these individuals — especially those who are believed to be at highest risk of reoffending — have the skills and treatment they need as they transition back to living in the community, in an effort to help them avoid rearrest. The duties of transitional case managers include the following:
- Working with prisoners to identify skills that they can develop for gainful employment
- Connecting those who are nearing release with social services in the community
- Developing evidence-based programs to address specific types of needs that individuals have in transitioning from incarceration
5. Victim Advocate
Victims of crime need to understand their legal rights and the steps in the criminal process, and they often face trauma as they recount the details of the crime for law enforcement. Victim advocates keep crime victims informed, help them navigate criminal proceedings and assist them as they cope with any trauma they experience. The duties of victim advocates include the following:
- Counseling victims and witnesses
- Transporting and accompanying victims for court proceedings
- Facilitating the filing of protective orders
- Assisting victims as they seek restitution
- Coordinating efforts with social services ranging from domestic violence shelters to child care facilities
Required Job Skills
Careers in corrections for MSW graduates require knowledge about the practices and philosophy of social work. However, they can also require balancing the needs of individuals accused of committing crimes, individuals who are incarcerated and individuals who are victims of crime with the need to ensure public safety. Advanced training, such as MSW programs, along with criminal justice-related courses, can provide the understanding of the issues needed for these careers.
Skills for Careers in Corrections
Along with an understanding of social work principles, social workers who want to pursue roles in the corrections field should have familiarity with the criminal justice system and correction facility operations. Additional skills for these careers include the following:
- Choosing the right words is critical in assisting those who are in the criminal justice system and in addressing the concerns of crime victims. Bilingual skills are helpful for working with diverse populations.
- Social workers working in corrections must show understanding in working with individuals in the corrections system and those who assist them.
- Problem-solving. The ability to solve problems is critical in weighing the impact of options for assisting those in the corrections system with the needs of the community.
- Social work roles in corrections typically require detailed reports and records that often must be available on short notice.
- Work in corrections involves assisting people in difficult situations that often require patience, empathy and compassion.
Education for Careers in Corrections
A master’s degree is often preferred or required for social work careers in corrections. MSW programs typically focus on areas such as working with individuals and groups, social justice, and therapeutic assistance.
For clinical social worker positions in the field, such as those that call for diagnosing and treating mental health issues, an MSW and state licensing are required. Licensing calls for earning an MSW and meeting exam and experience requirements. Specific licensing criteria vary by state.
Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that salaries for social work careers are above the average for all jobs that the agency tracks. For social work careers working with populations and fields that include corrections-related roles, median salaries also ranked above the average for all jobs.
The agency projects job growth that’s faster than average between 2020 and 2030 for many social work careers — especially those working in correctional treatment, those working with children and families, and those addressing mental health and substance abuse issues.
Social Work and Corrections Salaries
While factors such as location, education and experience can affect salary, social workers overall had a median annual salary of $51,760 in May 2020, according to the BLS. The median annual salary for all jobs that the BLS tracks was $41,950.
The top 10% of social workers earned $85,820 or more. According to BLS median annual salary data, roles that incorporate social work careers in corrections include the following:
- Mental health and substance abuse social workers: $48,720
- Social workers who work with children, families and schools: $48,430
- Social workers employed by state governments: $49,860
- Counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists in correctional treatment: $47,500
- Law enforcement workers: $59,340
Social Work and Corrections Job Outlook
The BLS projects that social work jobs overall will grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, averaging 78,300 openings each year. Social work careers focused on mental health and substance abuse will grow by 15%, and those dealing with correctional treatment will grow by 14%. For social workers working with children, families and schools, the BLS projects 13% growth.
The average projected growth for all jobs that the BLS tracks is 8%.
The BLS projects 7% growth for police and detective roles overall and 2% growth for law enforcement workers, with growth tied in part to funding available for these positions. However, with treatment in correctional facilities increasingly seen as effective in reducing recidivism, social workers who work to address the mental health, addiction and job skill needs of prisoners are expected to be in high demand, the BLS notes.
The agency also cites a great need for social work professionals to help children and families with child abuse prevention and find alternative homes for children who can’t live with their families. It also projects job growth due to retirement and career changes.
Make a Difference With an MSW Career in Corrections
Individuals interested in a career assisting those facing incarceration or in a correctional facility — or the people their actions affect — should consider earning an MSW. The degree can provide advanced education in social welfare policy, interventions and treatment, and working with individuals and groups to advance a social work career in corrections.
The online MSW program at the University of Nevada, Reno focuses on topics aimed at preparing social workers to assist people from diverse backgrounds, while also offering students the convenience and flexibility of online education. Discover how the online MSW program can help you embark on a rewarding career.