What Does a Prison Counselor Do?

Counselors provide group and individual therapy sessions.

Counselors provide group and individual therapy sessions.

Becoming a prison counselor isn't for the fainthearted. You work with shell-shocked people who can't believe they were actually convicted as well as unrepentant criminals or those with mental disorders. Prison counselors must have a strong belief in the ability of the American justice system to rehabilitate criminals into productive members of society. Being a prison counselor might not be a bed of roses, but you'll play a vital role in the justice system.

Initial Assessments

As a correctional counselor, you often jump right in before a convicted person reaches jail. Courts use criminal counselors to help determine whether the criminal should go to jail, needs assignment to a mental health facility or can succeed on probation. You spend much of your time in the jail as well, surrounding by some dangerous folks, but you have the chance to make a true difference in someone's life. As part of the initial assessment of new inmates, you check their mental states, intelligence, education levels and vocational abilities. This gives you a baseline on which to evaluate later progress and helps the facility place the prisoner correctly. You can recommend those with mental health issues and developmental delays get more protection in jail, as they often become victims of abuse from other inmates.

Mental Health Assistance

Just because a person committed an unthinkable crime doesn't mean she has a true mental disorder. Part of your job as a prison counselor is to separate the truly dangerous from the simply troubled inmates, who might be suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or antisocial personality disorder, for example. Prepare to spend time one-on-one with criminals in therapy sessions and to work with them in group therapy. Some of these prisoners have never had treatment before, so here's your chance to make a difference and turn the tide in the life of a criminal by educating her about her mental health problems and teaching her how to live productively. You get to set therapy sessions as needed by each prisoner; each one has different needs, and it might be unsafe to release them until they've responded to the therapy.


Prison isn't a fun place, so it's not surprising that some inmates crack under the pressure. Thankfully they have prison counselors to help them through their worst moments. As a correctional counselor, you might get called back to the prison at odd hours to help with emergencies, such as when inmates become suicidal, homicidal, experience panic attacks or major behavioral changes, such as mania in a normally submissive and quiet inmate. You take charge and help diffuse the situations for the short-term, then reevaluate the inmate to make changes to her regular treatment plan if necessary.

Evaluating Progress

While helping inmates survive pressure, you have to shoulder your share, especially when inmates come up for parole or want to improve their prison conditions by working jobs in or out of the facility, for example. You can recommend options such as educational opportunities or vocational training, and your opinion carries a heavy weight with parole boards. If you recommend against parole, you help condemn the inmate to serve more time in jail -- a difficult position to be in. However, it's a necessary one. Releasing a prisoner before she is mentally and emotionally ready is a major factor in recidivism. As an excuse to get out of the prison for a bit, take time to research the prisoner's life prior to incarceration to see if returning to that life would be likely to land the prisoner back in jail; this, combined with your therapy assessments, helps you make the right decisions.

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About the Author

Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the "Marietta Daily Journal" and the "Atlanta Business Chronicle," she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.

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