Can I Work With Inmates With a Psychology Degree?

By Kelsey Fox
December 2021 

People who are interested in psychology are fascinated by the human brain and its behavior. And for better or worse, some of the most fascinating behavior can be found in those incarcerated in the United States prison system. 

If you are interested in criminal psychology and helping those incarcerated to recover and improve their lives, then you may be wondering if having a psychology degree would allow you to have a career doing just that. 

In this article, we take a closer look at prison jobs for those with a psychology degree. We also enumerate the steps required to obtain a career working with inmates, and discuss all that prison psychologists do.  

can I work in a prison with a psychology degree

What Does a Prison Psychologist Do? 

Prison psychologists, an offshoot of clinical psychologists, are vital to society. It is their job to help rehabilitate those in prison and jail — that is, both the common criminal and the criminally insane. They treat murderers, sexual predators, violent offenders, white-collar criminals, and anyone in between. 

Because they work with such a wide variety of criminals, prison psychologists must have extensive working knowledge of the human brain. They must also be extremely organized, and be brave enough to hear about disturbing crimes and face verbal abuse from criminals. 

Prison psychologists have a long list of tasks and responsibilities.

Organize Therapy Groups and Independent Sessions 

The majority of a prison psychologist’s time is spent managing the violent impulses of prison residents. They do this by organizing therapy sessions. Some inmates benefit from one-on-one sessions with the psychologist, while others are able to attend group therapy sessions. 

Administer Tests to Prepare for a Trial

Prison psychologists often play crucial roles in trials. Sometimes this role includes helping to prepare files and reports for the attorneys to present in court. A prison psychologist may also be asked to testify on the stand, and to answer questions based on either their patient or their knowledge of a particular illness or behavior.

Most commonly, it is the prison psychologist who administers the slew of tests that are given to all new inmates. These tests might include personality tests, IQ tests, thematic tests, and more.   

Manage Suicidal Inmates 

Many criminals suffer from delusions, hallucinations, schizophrenia, and other psychotic disorders. A prison psychologist must help a patient to manage these disorders while incarcerated. Should an inmate attempt suicide or begin to express suicidal thoughts, the prison psychologist will organize special sessions to assist that patient.  

Help to Reduce Recidivism and Improve Quality of Life

Recidivism is defined as the tendency for someone released from prison to commit another crime. There are dozens of theories as to why recidivism is so common, but prison psychologists do their best to break the cycle. Much of what occurs in an inmate’s therapy session has to do with helping them to understand what they did to end up in prison, and what they can do differently in the future. 

Another way prison psychologists help to reduce recidivism is to help improve inmates’ quality of life. Sometimes this includes encouraging an inmate to earn their high school diploma or a college degree whilst incarcerated. Other times it is helping an inmate to recognize those people or places that should be avoided in order to live well upon their release.   

Help to Battle Addiction 

Many inmates find themselves prosecuted on charges as a result of substance abuse disorders. Incarceration might be due to the possession of a substance, or a crime that happened as a result of using a substance. Regardless, prisons often have separate wings for those inmates dealing with issues of substance abuse. 

This makes it easy for inmate counselors to use traditional strategies for battling substance abuse disorders to individuals in prison who have a diagnosable problem with drugs or alcohol.   

Treat Long-Term Mental Illness

Another reason a striking number of individuals wind up in the prison system is long-term mental illness causing suffering in some way. Diagnoses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia, Severe Depression, and Personality Disorders can incite the behaviors that lead to incarceration in extreme circumstances. 

Correctional psychologists use therapeutic techniques to counsel inmates, provide them with the emotional tools necessary to deal with symptoms of their illness, and ensure they are properly medicated and dosed. 

Related Reading: Can Psychologists Help Psychopaths?

How Can I Become a Prison Psychologist?  

As with nearly all careers related to clinical psychology, the educational requirements for a prison psychologist vary from state to state. In most states, a prison psychologist will need to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Other qualifications may also be necessary. 

Below are the most common steps to becoming a prison psychologist. However, if you are considering prison psychology as a career, then it is important to check the requirements for your specific state in order to see how your path may vary. 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree 

Most prison psychologists began their educational career with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. If it is offered by your college or university, you can also consider a bachelor’s degree in criminal psychology. 

Studying psychology in your undergraduate years is an important step in determining whether or not you are interested enough in psychology to dedicate your entire career to it. 

If you are interested in becoming a correctional counselor, then a B.S. in Psychology or related often meets the minimum requirement to be hired. However, if you are interested in the role of prison psychologist or another career working with inmates, then you will want to continue your education.   

2. Take the GRE, if Required

Once you decide you are ready to earn your graduate degree, you will need to find out if the GRE is required. 

The Graduate Record Examination is a standardized test that measures your ability to think critically and abstractly in the areas of vocabulary, writing, and mathematics. Most, though not all, universities and graduate degree programs require a GRE score as part of the application process. 

You will want to submit your highest possible GRE score to any grad program in which you are interested, so some advanced planning is required. Current rules state that you can take the GRE up to five times within a 12-month period. 

3. Earn a Master’s Degree

In order to be eligible for a career as a prison psychologist, you will need to earn a master’s degree in criminal psychology. When you earn a master’s degree, not only will you acquire the additional knowledge required to work with inmates, you will also demonstrate your commitment to criminal psychology as a specialization.   

Though coursework will vary from university to university, some common classes for a master’s degree in criminal psychology include:

  • Psychology and the Law
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Advanced Counseling 
  • Social Psychology
  • Sociopathy
  • Abnormal Psychology 

No matter what degree you are working on, it is important to earn it from an accredited university. But in the case of your master’s degree, you will want to ensure your degree program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), specifically. 

Related Reading: Top 29 Master’s in Clinical Psychology Online Degree Programs

4. Earn a Ph.D. (and Licensure)

In most states, prison psychologists will need to earn a doctoral degree from an APA-accredited university. Examples of such degrees include a Ph.D or a PsyD in either criminal psychology or forensic psychology. 

Typically, doctoral programs will prepare you for your evaluation for licensure – another requirement to satisfy before you can be hired as a prison psychologist. 

The degree’s curriculum will cover everything needed to successfully become a licensed clinical psychologist in the state in which the university is located. Therefore, you will either want to attend a Ph.D. or PsyD program in the state in which you live and intend to work, or carefully study your state’s requirements in order to ensure another state’s university will satisfy them.   

Internships and/or Research

As many as two internships will be required for a career as a prison psychologist. These internships will usually be built into your graduate programs, though you are also free to arrange your own internships for summers or gap years. 

However you arrange your internship opportunities, they should involve working closely with the prison population. Many criminal psychology students choose to take part in a federal internship, during which they may have opportunities to perform assessments of inmates in order to determine if they are capable of standing trial.

Required Skills

When it comes to working within the criminal justice system, the role of prison psychologist is one of the most trying. It requires certain skills and traits in order to both find success and maintain personal well-being. 

Personality traits that employers often look for in would-be prison psychologists include:

  • an ability to work well in high-stress environments
  • compassion and a strong belief that human beings can change for the better
  • an understanding of boundaries 
  • “thick skin” and emotional resilience

Skills that employers often look for in would-be prison psychologists include:

  • excellent communication 
  • administrative skills such as organization, the ability to multitask, and time management 
  • quick thinking and the ability to adapt to change 
working with inmates psychology

Other Psychology Jobs in the Correctional System

Similar careers to prison psychologist include:

Counseling Psychologist

Counseling psychologists focus on helping patients learn to alleviate stress, handle triggers, and generally improve personal function and healthcare. They work with all ages in settings such as prisons schools, mental health facilities, and hospitals. 

In a prison, a counseling psychologist works with inmates on issues like anger and impulsivity. They help inmates learn coping skills to help them alleviate stress and function better. The hope is that through their work with counseling psychologists, inmates will become less likely to continue harmful behaviors and criminal activities. 

To become a counseling psychologist, you will need a Ph.D. or PsyD.     

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists are also called correctional psychologists. It is their job to apply psychological theories in various settings associated with criminal justice (i.e. police stations, courtrooms, and correctional facilities). 

The job description includes helping lawyers with jury selection, working with law enforcement to develop a criminal profile, or conducting general research. In a prison, a forensic psychologist might consult with inmates in order to design and implement various treatment plans. 

In most states, you will need both a doctorate and a specialized license in order to practice forensic psychology.  

Related Reading: 30 Great Websites for Forensic Psychologists

Correctional Counselor

A correctional counselor builds off of the work a prison psychologist does, and helps an inmate come up with a plan for when they are released from prison. Specifically, correctional counselors help inmates identify potential obstacles and challenges. Such challenges can be anything from addictions and relationships with those who are addicted, to finding employment, to learning a new element of American culture (new technology or phenomena, for example). 

As various challenges are acknowledged, a correctional counselor can help an inmate with information for things like job assistance programs, substance abuse recovery programs, and more. 

The minimum educational requirement for a career as a correctional counselor is a bachelor’s degree, but most employers will also require a master’s degree in counseling, social work, or similar.    

People Also Ask 

Do prisons hire psychologists?
Yes. Prisons and other correctional facilities routinely hire psychologists for jobs such as prison psychologist, correctional counselor, counseling psychologist, and forensic psychologist. Some correctional officers, parole officers, and probation officers also have backgrounds in psychology.  

What is the difference between a forensic psychologist and a correctional psychologist?
Both “forensic psychologist” and “correctional psychologist” describe the same job. Forensic psychologists can work in a variety of facilities, including police stations, courtrooms, prisons, and more. In a prison setting, correctional psychologist is the more common title. 

How much do prison psychologists make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, the average salary for prison psychologists and other clinical psychologists is $79,820 per year. 


If you are both fascinated by human behavior and driven by a strong belief that we can and do change, then a career as a prison psychologist may be right up your alley. Prison psychologists are clinical psychologists that work in correctional settings such as detention centers and asylums. 

Though their job description is similar to that of forensic psychologists and counseling psychologists, prison psychologists are most commonly responsible for helping to rehabilitate inmates. Specific tasks include recommending training programs, organizing therapy sessions, and testifying in court regarding an inmate’s mental disorders or overall competency. 

Becoming a prison psychologist typically requires a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology, forensic psychology, or criminal psychology. Depending on the state in which you intend to work, specialized licensure may also be required.