Becoming a Prison Counselor: Job Description & Salary Information

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A prison counselor's median annual salary is around $49,000. Is it worth the training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a prison counselor is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Prison Counselor Career

Also known as correctional counselors, case managers or correctional treatment specialists, prison counselors work with law offenders to develop an effective rehabilitation plan. Read the pros and cons of becoming a prison counselor to decide if this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Prison Counselor Career
Above-average earnings (median annual salary of about $49,000 in 2014)*
Degrees in multiple fields of study are applicable to the field (social work, criminal justice, psychology, etc.)*
Variety of duties and responsibilities (counseling offenders, developing rehab plans, coordinating programs with other agencies, etc.)*
Can be rewarding to help law offenders improve their lives*

Cons of a Prison Counselor Career
Strict eligibility requirements regarding age, health and criminal history*
May require additional job training and trainee probationary period (for government employment)*
Potential exposure to danger/violence (working with inmates in prison system)*
High-stress job (working with difficult offenders and their families, heavy workloads, long hours, travel)*

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Info You Should Know

Job Description

Prison counselors provide counseling services to inmates. Their goal is to help offenders stay on the right track once they complete their sentences or are released on parole. Prison counselors administer psychological testing and coordinate training/education services for inmates upon their release. They may also help offenders and their families find housing, jobs and additional counseling. Collaborating with parole officers and others in the criminal justice system, they develop parole plans for inmates and outline conditions for release. Maintaining detailed case reports is vital because these are used to determine whether an inmate should be released by parole boards. Proper documentation is also essential to track offenders' progress in their rehabilitation plan.

Working with criminals, particularly violent ones, isn't something everyone can handle. The prison atmosphere, constant deadlines and the challenge of working with offenders who don't stick to the rehab plan can be significantly challenging to prison counselors, causing a stressful and potentially dangerous work environment.

Salary and Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes prison counselors in the broader group of probation officers and correctional treatment specialists. In 2014, these professionals earned a median annual salary of approximately $49,000. The vast majority of counselors work in state and local government.

From 2012-2022, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists were not expected to see a growth in employment rates. However, counselors, social workers and other community and social service specialists are expected to see a faster-than-average growth of 19% for that same decade. Opportunities may be driven by the high number of retirees and the hesitance for people to enter this high-stress field.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

The education requirements for prison counselors can vary widely. In some cases, extensive work experience in counseling and a high school diploma could be sufficient. However, a college degree is often preferred and could be mandatory for some positions. Additionally, some jobs could require a master's degree if you lack any experience in the field. Completing a formal education program in criminal justice, social work, counseling or the social sciences can provide a knowledgebase that is useful in this line of work.

Regardless of what education path you take, completing an additional training program is not an uncommon requirement. The majority of prison counselors must participate in a government-sponsored training program, which may require passing an examination upon completion. A probationary period as a trainee, which can last up to a year, may be necessary before you can obtain a permanent position. Still, the education and training expectations can vary quite a bit based on the employer. Be sure to check with your state to find out what requirements are applicable to correctional counselors in your area.

Additional Requirements and Skills

Beyond training, there are certain status requirements that affect your eligibility for government positions in this field. In most cases, you must be at least 21 years old and have no felony convictions. Additionally, the federal Bureau of Prisons only hires counselors under age 37, in accordance with federal law. Most counselors are subject to drug testing and must have a valid driving license as well. Physical and psychological health is also important. Strength, endurance, hearing ability and vision ability - along with emotional self-control - all come into play in this occupation. Employers may discuss and assess all of these health issues with prison counselor candidates. Other important skills include:

  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • Critical analysis and decision-making skills
  • Multi-tasking and organizational skills
  • Interpersonal skills (vital for working with a diverse and difficult population)

What Real Employers Look For

Whether through formal training or work experience, employers tend to want to hire a counselor who understands the unique conditions of the prison environment. Experience is a common requirement, and some form of postsecondary education may be preferred. Below are some job postings that were open during May 2012.

  • The State of Montana is looking for a correctional counselor to provide counseling, mentoring and instructional services that will help inmates make positive behavior changes. The counselor will also assist with policy and procedure development for the therapy program. The job requires physical ability to respond in emergencies and the ability to handle a high level of stress. The employer prefers to hire a counselor with at least one year of formal education in criminal justice, behavioral science or counseling as well as a year of relevant work experience. Having three years of related work experience without meeting the education requirement may be acceptable.
  • A Virginia correctional facility is searching for a casework counselor. The duties include providing guidance and programming to offenders in order to help them develop pro-social behaviors. At a minimum, the counselor must have a high school diploma and experience working in case management, counseling or rehabilitation. A valid driving license is also required. The employer prefers candidates to have a college degree in social work, counseling, criminal justice or similar field along with experience in adult counseling or corrections. Computer skills and the ability to speak Spanish are also preferable. A drug screening and background investigation will be conducted prior to hiring.
  • A state prison in Georgia is advertising for a temporary counselor to work as part of a mental health team in order to develop and implement social services and consultative services. The position would include administrative and supervisory tasks. The applicant is required to hold a graduate degree and to be a licensed counselor in the state of Georgia. Acceptable titles include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) or Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

How to Stand Out

As seen from the job postings, not all prison counselor positions require formal education degrees. Yet employers do tend to prefer applicants with degrees, so earning a bachelor's degree in one of the discussed fields is probably a smart move. In addition, obtaining a master's degree could help you land an advanced position in the field, according to the BLS.

If you're interested in obtaining state or national licensure as a counselor, you must typically hold a master's degree. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers the National Certified Counselor credential, while various states may offer titles like the LPC, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor or the Licensed Mental Health Counselor. While state requirements may vary, a master's degree, counseling experience and the successful completion of an exam are typically required. A master's degree in social work is commonly required for credentials like LMSW or LCSW. These licenses could be required by some employers.

Other Skills

No matter what path you choose, it would be wise to make sure you have solid computer skills. This occupation requires a substantial amount of recordkeeping and employers may prefer to hire someone who has some level of proficiency in office software programs.

Other Career Options

Probation or Parole Officer

If you're interested in working the rehabilitation of prisoners but you don't want to be a counselor, you might consider becoming a probation or parole officer. Often working in conjunction with correctional counselors, probation and parole officers supervise offenders who were sentenced to probation or those who've been released from prison on parole. In addition to supervising offenders' activities in the community, these officers help them with the rehabilitation process. Probation and parole officers oversee drug testing and also connect offenders with support services. Some officers specialize in working with a certain type of offender, such as those charged with drug offenses.

As expected, this occupation can be a high-stress one that requires training on par with that of correctional counselors. Officers may be required to carry a gun or other type of weapon when on the job. This is especially important when making home visits to check up on released offenders. Yet, like prison counselors, these officers can find their work rewarding as they help offenders achieve productive lives. Because the BLS puts probation and parole officers in the same category as prison counselors, their 2011 median annual wage (about $48,000) and 2010-2020 job growth (18%) are the same.

Substance Abuse Counselor

You may also want to look into a career as a substance abuse counselor. Substance abuse counselors find employment in outpatient centers, residential rehabilitation facilities, family services and hospitals. Their job is to counsel those with alcohol or other drug addictions, which may be done in individual or group sessions. Their goal is to help clients rebuild relationships and, ultimately, become a productive member of the community.

The education requirements for substance abuse counselors vary state to state. Some positions may require only a high school diploma while others require a graduate degree. While a specific degree may not be necessary, many states do require counselors to pass an exam before working in the field. If you plan to have your own practice, you'll have to earn a master's degree, complete 2,000-3,000 clinical experience hours and obtain state licensure. At 27%, the 2010-2020 job growth for these counselors is faster than average. Addictions counselors also earn a good amount less than prison counselors. Their 2011 median yearly wages were around $39,000.

Popular Schools

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Featured Schools

Purdue University Global

  • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
  • Master: Psychology/Addictions
  • Bachelor: Human Services/Child and Family Welfare
  • BS in Psychology in Addictions

Which subject are you interested in?

Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Science in Regulatory Science

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling
  • Bachelor of Science in Psychology - Clinical and Counseling Psychology

What is your highest level of education completed?

Saint Leo University

  • BA: Psychology - Clinical/Counseling

What is your highest level of education completed?

Grand Canyon University

  • Ph.D. in General Psychology - Performance Psychology
  • M.S. in Mental Health and Wellness with Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement
  • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse

What is your highest level of education?

Penn Foster High School

  • HS Diploma

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Colorado State University Global

  • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Criminal Justice Behavior Analysis

What is your highest level of education completed?