Considering a Career as an MSW in the Correctional System? Recognized Authorities Offer Insights

Created by careersinpsychology

One of the employment options available to students pursuing a career in social work is securing a position within the local, state, or federal correctional facility systems. Albeit, the job is not for everyone; but for those who are well-suited for the career, the work is rewarding. To get a better understanding of what it might be like to be employed as an MSW in some facet of correctional rehabilitation, we spoke with two nationally recognized authorities in the field; Carolyn Esparza, MSW and Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW. Both experts have dedicated their lives to working within prison settings in addition to promoting and facilitating social change in both their communities and the world at large.

Carolyn EsparzaCarolyn Esparza, received her MSW from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. With over 30 years experience working with prisoners and their families, she recently shared her expertise via penning the book, The Unvarnished Truth About the Prison Family Journey. A passionate advocate for children, she founded a non-profit organization, “Community Solutions of El Paso” which successfully assisted 7,000 children of prisoners in El Paso within its first 6 years.


Chad Dion LassiterChad Dion Lassiter, MSW, is one of the co-founders and the current President of “Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc.” at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. Chad received his MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and was recognized in 2005 by the Philadelphia Tribune as being one of the most influential African Americans in their report “10 People Under 40 to Watch In 2005.”


Question 1:  What intrigued you about working in a prison setting?

Esparza:  Attempting to understand why people with evident serious mental health/addiction issues and clearly diagnosed mental illnesses were being incarcerated rather than being provided effective treatment.

Lassiter:  There is so much hope that lives behind those walls and so much potential that needs to be brought to the surface. Moreover, I have always been attracted to themes of redemption. Prisons have some of the greatest minds that are locked up but not locked out. They are not locked out because many are Prisoners of Hope and we must work to show the larger society that people can be redeemed.

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Question 2:  What are the unusual professional challenges?

Esparza:  Finding that those charged with enforcing justice are many times as or more criminally corrupt than those who are incarcerated.

Lassiter:  Making sure that we do not stereotype like the larger society has done. Additionally, dealing with the prison population can bring upon varying unsuspected challenges. I have found CO's to be as challenging as inmates if not more. There tends to be a culture of cool pose and unprofessionalism among many CO's. They tend to see the inmates as subhuman, and this frustrates the intellectual and activist in me.

Question 3: What are the unique personal challenges?

Esparza:  Maintaining personal integrity in an extremely corrupt system; determining that exposing the corruption was necessary despite the risk of losing the job.

Lassiter:  Knowing that someone who is on death row will never see the outside of the brick and mortar of many of these dungeons. Furthermore, the sense of despair and hopelessness that many inmates display in spite of the counseling, mentoring and liberation efforts that are attempted with regards to programmatic initiatives.

Question 4: Did you bond with inmates?

Esparza:  It is impossible to do effective counseling without bonding with your clients. The important thing is assuring bonding remains within ethical guidelines; although those with criminal justice rather than mental health backgrounds find ANY bonding to be inappropriate.

Lassiter:  There is always a bonding aspect when working with those that are incarcerated or even with the families and children of the incarcerated outside of the prison Industrial Complex. The Black Men at Penn had a mentoring program for children of the incarcerated, and we were able to match mentors with these children, and it proved effective for the three year period that we did it. However, as a therapist I am fully aware of the beginning phase, middle phase, and ending phase of a therapeutic relationship. Thus, when counseling comes to a close so does that bonding aspect. Nevertheless, as a human being I often times think of certain inmates.

Question 5: What was the most rewarding experience you have ever had?

Esparza:  With a 30 + year history and the advent of social media, the greatest reward has been being contacted by former clients who are now successful in their own lives.

Lassiter:  Seeing inmates return back to their respective communities and to a sense of normalcy and then come back to the prison and provide their narratives to younger inmates about the pitfalls of mistakes. In addition to this, I had a well-known and famous client as an inmate who really got it and has since turned his life around though he was only incarcerated for three months.

Question 6: What advice would you give someone wanting to become a Social Worker within the prison system?

Esparza:  Clearly know your own motivation for seeking a career in criminal justice, even as a clinician. If you have a genuine desire to improve the quality of life for offenders and their loved ones, you will be richly rewarded. If the power intrigues you, you will become miserable.

Lassiter:  My advice would be for them to see the full humanity of the imprisoned person. I would also recommend that they take some classes on diversity and sign up for some anti-racism training because they will be dealing with lots of structural inequality and there are many with the Prison Industrial Complex who see inmates, specifically black and brown inmates, as modern day chattel or what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. I would also inform them that prison reform and advocacy of the mistreatment of inmates is a great start for anyone who is passionate about social justice. Prison work is extremely rewarding.

In conclusion...

One of the most exciting aspects of choosing the career of a Social Worker is that you can contribute and glean extremely contrasting skills and expertise than your colleagues. As you can see from the answers given by our experts, persons having the same education can vary in how and what they perceive professionally, yet agree on poignant social justice conditions.

We’ll finish with a question for you-- the expert of your life: Is it time for you to consider taking your place amongst the MSWs affecting vital change within the country’s correctional systems? If today is the day to take action, make sure to visit our correctional social worker careers page. .

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