Few fields of practice are more suited to the skills of a social worker than that of corrections, a field that is both challenging and rewarding.
The term “corrections” refers to the system response to individuals (women, men, and young persons of both sexes) who have come into conflict with the law and have been convicted of a crime. Individuals convicted of crimes may serve their sentences in correctional institutions or under supervision in the community. In Canada, sentences of two years less a day are administered by the provincial and territorial correctional systems, while sentences of two years or more and long-term supervision orders are administered by the federal correctional system. The correctional system is one component of the larger criminal justice system and is dedicated to improving public safety by helping offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising secure and humane control.
Social workers believe that community safety can be best achieved in a system that places emphasis on individual accountability through personal development and growth, as well as equal emphasis on accountability of the system. Social workers within corrections have to continually balance the needs and interests of the individual in conflict with the law, the mandate and focus of the various correctional agencies and organizations, the perspective of victims, and obligations to the community, with an overriding emphasis on both public and personal safety.
A social work ideal is to value the dignity and intrinsic worth of every individual and to be respectful of diversity, while upholding an individual’s right to self-determination. Maintaining this ideal can prove challenging within the field of corrections, which involves working with individuals who have caused harm. Social workers believe that all individuals have the capacity for self-improvement and that this can be facilitated within correctional systems.
The skills that social workers bring to the field of corrections are increasingly in demand due to the greater focus on the mental and physical health care needs of individuals in conflict with the law. The “person-in-environment” perspective that guides social work interventions, which considers external influences, is unique and invaluable given that other professions in corrections tend to focus primarily on the “individual”.
A social worker’s scope of practice within corrections is highly dynamic and includes intense workloads, management of sensitive information, participation on interdisciplinary teams, and building community partnerships, with opportunities to contribute to the advancement of evidence-based best practices.
Social work positions within corrections encompass a wide range of skills and specialized services, including discharge planning, case management, program delivery, individual/family/group counselling, crisis intervention, negotiation and mediation, teaching, community capacity building, and advocacy (individual and systemic). There is a tendency for social workers within the field of corrections to set priorities for services to sub-populations that require specialized care and consideration, including persons with physical or mental health challenges, developmental disabilities, or other cognitive impairments, seniors, youth, women, Aboriginal peoples, and offenders convicted of sexual or violent offences. Service delivery has to consider the increasingly adversarial, challenging, and litigious nature of the field of corrections. Services are often delivered in autonomous and isolated settings, without access to practice-specific leadership.
Many employment opportunities exist for social workers within corrections, and these include: custodial assignments; residential counsellors; case management, probation, parole, and program officers; clinical positions; research and policy development; staff training and recruitment; employee support networks (for example, Employee Assistance Programs and Critical Incident Stress Management teams); administration and management.
Most social workers employed within corrections have diverse levels of academic training and are not necessarily classified in “social work” positions. While the minimum requirement for employment in a social work position is a Bachelor of Social Work degree, a Master of Social Work degree is considered a strong asset. Registration with a provincial/territorial body is also required to ensure accountability to Standards of Practice and a Code of Ethics.
David Champagne (MSW, RSW) and Veronica Felizardo (MSW, RSW, PhD Cand.)