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What Is a Prison Social Worker?

September 25, 2020

There are many routes a social worker can take in their career. By working within the criminal justice system, social workers in prison provide a critical resource for inmates, helping address key issues in behavioral health and care management.

These social workers face unique challenges though. Also known as a criminal justice social worker, they work in public and private organizations on the city, county, state and federal level. In the United States, there are no national or standard guidelines for treating the incarcerated, which means standard practices vary greatly.

Another critical challenge for prison social workers is the need to balance their clients’ mental and physical health needs with the larger safety of society. While prison populations continue to grow, recidivism is still a major problem. Prison social workers are responsible for their clients while they are within the prison system and provide help and resources as they navigate life after their release.1

A criminal justice social worker also carries a great deal of responsibility. One of the largest mental healthcare providers in the country is Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Roughly one-third of its inmates have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. A Mother Jones article reported that in 44 states, jails and prisons treat more mentally ill individuals than hospitals.2

The challenges these social workers face often mirror issues in society at large. The same magazine article also notes that many states have cut billions in funding for those with psychiatric issues, impacting many healthcare professionals outside the criminal justice system. At Yeshiva University, we understand that social work can be key in leading change on many issues. Learn more the critical concerns prison social workers address in their careers.

Challenges Prison Social Workers Face

Substance abuse: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85 percent of the prison population in the U.S. struggles with substance abuse or was arrested for drugs or drug use. Receiving treatment, which includes therapy, medication as well as access to career and housing resources, is critical during and after incarceration. In particular, opioid addicts face a significant increase in the risk of an overdose following their release. Therapy and access to the right resources are instrumental to inmates’ success.3

Mental illness: Roughly 37 percent of prison inmates have a background of mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder and PTSD. Improvements have been made over the past three decades, but there are still barriers for those struggling with mental illness to find support. While many advocates call for providing them with treatment instead of placing them in the criminal justice system, for now, social workers in prison offer an important resource to treating their mental health and giving inmates the tools to navigate their lives.4

Solitary confinement: Also known as restrictive housing, segregated housing or special housing units, solitary confinement is used for punitive or disciplinary purposes as well as for safety reasons. Currently a common procedure throughout the country, the practice has been used in the U.S. for roughly a century. However, advocates and mental health professionals have been raising concerns about its long-term impact on inmates’ mental health, as well as the role race and socioeconomics play in who is more likely to be placed in solitary confinement.5

Elderly population: Older inmates face a struggle that’s both similar and different than the aging population at large. Prison social workers can help improve this growing group’s quality of life and care, in addition to helping with issues of regret or feeling forgotten. This support can be about practical concerns regarding parole or hospice care, as well as personal ones such as navigating familial relationships, finding meaning in their lives, mentoring younger inmates or sharing their experiences with others.6

Navigating release: Social workers are an important guide as inmates are released from prison. In addition to being uniquely familiar with the resources and organizations committed to make that transition easier, they can provide help in finding housing or assisted living situations; applying for welfare and government benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or social security; navigating the health insurance marketplace; and finding the right substance abuse or mental health services they need.7

Mass incarceration: Currently, 1 in 4 of the world’s prisoners is in an American prison or jail. As reform efforts continue to grow, social workers are uniquely positioned to address it. Research has found that the United States disproportionately incarcerates people of color, those living in poverty and individuals with behavioral health issues. This perpetuates societal issues for vulnerable and marginalized populations, and its impact can be felt through generations: Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to face behavioral and emotional issues in addition to being incarcerated themselves.8

Transform Your Career and Society

Issues and gaps in the criminal justice system have long been a concern for activists, but social workers are playing a key role in leading that change, addressing the impact on individuals and their communities. At Yeshiva University, our students gain the skills and cultural competency to make a difference through intervention and advocacy work. Learn more about how they earn those through the curriculum in our online Master of Social Work program and our virtual learning environment, The Heights.

1. Retrieved on September 2, 2020 from socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=n8L3HaALWb8%3D&portalid=0
2. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/01/chicagos-jail-is-the-one-of-the-countys-biggest-mental-health-care-providers-heres-a-look-inside
3. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/criminal-justice
4. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from apa.org/monitor/2019/03/mental-heath-inmates
5. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from socialworkblog.org/wp-content/uploads/Solitary-Confinement.pdf
6. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from socialworktoday.com/news/enews_0216_1.shtml
7. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from bop.gov/resources/pdfs/community_rel_planning_guidelines_for_social_work.pdf
8. Retrieved on September 2, 2020, from aaswsw.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/From-Mass-Incarceration-to-Decarceration-3.24.15.pdf