Become a Corrections Social Worker

By Staff Writer
Last Updated: September 25, 2020

The rehabilitation process' success depends on dedicated corrections social workers. These professionals help incarcerated individuals and recently released offenders on parole or probation.

Correctional treatment specialists work at city and county jails, state and federal correctional facilities, court systems, and nonprofit organizations. Many advance their profession on a larger scale by advocating for public policy changes that expand or improve public services for their clients.

Prospective prison social workers must hold at least a bachelor's degree in social work and undergo a rigorous screening process. Prison counselor salaries depend on a variety of factors, including experience level and workplace policies. However, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earn a median annual salary of $54,290.

Read on to learn why some corrections social workers make more than other social workers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do social workers do in prisons?

    Corrections social workers perform a variety of functions in the criminal justice system. They may work with juveniles or adults, one-on-one or in group counseling sessions. Other duties include creating rehabilitation and release plans and evaluating the mental fitness of inmates, probationers, and parolees. They also help clients find jobs, housing, and treatment.

  • What education is required to be a correctional treatment specialist?

    Prospective corrections social workers must hold a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field, such as psychology. However, state and federal governments maintain different requirements, and some employers prefer candidates with a master's degree. In addition to earning a degree, candidates may need to complete up to one year of training and pass a certification exam.

  • How long does it take to become a corrections social worker?

    Full-time students spend around four years earning a bachelor's degree in social work, while part-time students often take twice as long to graduate. Earning a master's degree requires another two years of study. The licensure process typically includes a supervised work component and may last for 1-3 years, depending on the license.

  • Is a corrections social worker a mandated reporter?

    Yes. States often classify professionals who work with children or the elderly as mandated reporters. These include teachers, police officers, and social workers. Mandated reporters are required to report any suspected abuse to authorities.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Corrections Social Worker

Corrections social workers primarily create rehabilitation plans to avoid recidivism and help their clients become productive community members. This process may involve interviewing a client's family, friends, and probation officers. To do so, correctional social workers coordinate programs that help recently released inmates develop career skills and arrange mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Case management is also an important part of the job. Caseloads vary by jurisdiction, and large prison and jail populations may place additional pressure on corrections social workers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 2.2 million people in federal prisons and jails across the United States.

While sometimes stressful, serving as a corrections social worker offers many personal rewards.

Top Paying Industries for Corrections Social Workers

A corrections social worker's employer determines their daily duties, caseloads, and salary. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the top paying industries include state and local government agencies, elementary and secondary schools, facilities support services, and residential care facilities.

Prison social worker jobs at the local government level pay an annual mean wage of $62,160. The second highest paying industry (state government agencies) pays corrections social workers an annual mean wage to $59,160.

Top Paying States for Corrections Social Workers

Compensation for correctional treatment specialists differs considerably between states. There are many reasons for the differences in pay between states, such as California versus Massachusetts, including larger prison populations and bigger budgets.

California, New Jersey, New York, Iowa, and Massachusetts are the five highest paying states for this occupation, according to BLS data. California corrections social workers enjoy a mean annual salary of $91,760, while Massachusetts corrections social workers earn a mean salary of $68,460 each year.

States offering the highest pay do not always employ the most corrections social workers. The five states with the most corrections social workers are California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. California employs about 13,390 corrections social workers.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Corrections Social Workers

Like industries and states, cities vary in what they pay corrections social workers. When compared to rural areas, corrections social workers make more in metropolitan areas. The three metropolitan areas with the highest prison counselor salaries are San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento.

Corrections social workers in San Jose earn a mean salary of $129,490 a year, or $62.25 an hour. Professionals living in the eastern Sierra-Mother Lode area of California, the nation's highest paying nonmetropolitan area, earn an annual mean wage of $96,260, or $46.28 an hour.

California is also home to the country's highest concentration of corrections social workers. The Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim metropolitan areas employ 5,170 corrections social workers.

Salary and Job Growth for Corrections Social Workers

Employment openings for corrections social workers should reflect the estimated national average for all jobs. According to the BLS, jobs for all correctional treatment specialists and probation officers are projected to increase by 4% from 2019-29, with employers adding around 3,400 jobs to the market. However, positions for counselors, social workers, and other individuals employed in social services should increase by 14% from 2019-29.

Job growth rates depend on state and federal funding allocation for prisons and jails. However, stressful work environments and large caseloads often lead to high employee turnaround, which may present more employment opportunities for those entering the field.

Prison social workers who also speak Spanish may enjoy an advantage on the job market. An advanced degree can also set candidates apart from their competition. Read more about social work degrees on this page.

How to Become a Corrections Social Worker

The path to becoming a corrections social worker begins at college. Employers require a minimum of a bachelor's degree to work as a correctional specialist. Corrections social workers earn their degree in social work, criminal justice, or psychology.

A bachelor's in social work presents the opportunity to specialize in a particular area, such as justice and corrections, mental health, substance abuse, or child welfare. Some specialty courses prepare students to work with juveniles or manage substance abuse treatment cases.

Candidates may also take classes like research and evaluation, social welfare and policy, and human rights and justice. Programs typically culminate with fieldwork, in which students gain practical skills in different work settings. Upward mobility in the profession may require additional education, such as a master's degree in social work.

For more about what to expect from a bachelor's-level social work program, check out this guide.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Prison social workers may need a license, depending on their workplace and role. Many employers simply want applicants with adequate career and educational experience, while others prefer candidates who hold a graduate degree or have completed some graduate-level coursework.

After completing a bachelor's or master's degree, corrections social workers can earn professional credentials by taking the licensed baccalaureate social worker or licensed master social worker exams.