Social work in prisons: ‘it’s not what you think’

In the first instalment of a new series about social work in unusual settings, we explore the rewards and risks of working in a prison

Photo: motortion/AdobeStock

“I really take a lot of pleasure in seeing people go from being in a very distressed position, not being able to cope, not managing, not thinking things are worthwhile, giving up, to seeing them progress to where they are – thriving, if you like, which is a strange thing in this place,” says Glynis Marsh, a practice educator who works at a prison for male sex offenders.

“They’ve overcome some of the difficulties and are really trying to make something of their lives, which is very rewarding.”

Having worked for a children’s charity and child and adolescent mental health services in the past, Marsh is part of the integrated mental health team at the prison, which is in the south of England.

“A prison is a microcosm of society – in prison you do have a predominantly higher proportion of people with more severe needs and high risk,” she says. “If you look at social work values and principles, it is about promoting human rights, promoting respect, dignity, wellbeing, making sure that you advocate.”

According to government figures from June 2022, there were just under 90,000 prisoners in the UK. Different prisons hold people depending on the severity of their offending, categorised by letters A to D.

A category A prison is a high-security facility for prisoners who commit the most serious of crimes, and category D (or D Cat) institutions are open prisons for those who are the lowest risk to the public. There are women-only prisons and young offender institutions that also employ social workers.

Personal safety

A very valid concern for social workers considering working in prisons is personal safety.

“The beauty here is prisoners ask to have the work,” says Marsh. “Only the prisoners who want help will be seen by social workers and those who display dangerous behaviours and tendencies, or want to reoffend, won’t be.”

Where Marsh works, staff carry personal alarms and tracking devices at all times and there are green panic buttons in each room. Staff go through safety training and are even taught breakaway procedures.

Prisoners who are identified as high risk are not seen alone and social workers will visit them with colleagues or with a prison officer present.

The staff rooms are usually situated away from the prison ward to ensure complete segregation and privacy.

Marsh advises social workers new to working in prisons to have clear boundaries with the prisoners they see.

“Never give any personal information away as it might be used against you by the prisoner,” she warns. “Certain prisoners can be manipulative rather than violent, so they can try and groom you.”

Social workers must abide by a code of duty whereby they must report any inappropriate behaviour they have seen by prisoners or staff.

Skills and qualifications

There are multiple teams in prisons that social workers could work in, such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, learning disabilities or forensic psychology.

Students working towards their social work qualification can do their placement in a prison but the process of selecting students is a thorough one. A long vetting process takes place and only students who are deemed ready for practice and have relevant interest and experience are chosen. Marsh admits is it is challenging work and not suited to everyone.

“I do have a lot of conversations with the university before we take students about their confidence and resilience, because it’s no good coming here if you’re vulnerable and you’re not sure of yourself,” she says. “So, the students are a bit more ready for practice even though they’re still a student.

“We might have students that have done previous work experience as a care worker or as a hospital care assistant with mental health patients, or they might bring something from life experience. I had a student who had someone in the family with a psychotic illness, which helped.”

The NICE stepped-care model is used in this particular prison to help allocate staff to those prisoners with personality disorders and mental health problems based on their level of need. Students will be at step one – for prisoners with the lowest level of need – and a social worker on their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) at step two and so on. Only senior practitioners will work with prisoners with severe mental health problems, such as schizophrenia and bipolar.

Brushing up on knowledge of childhood development, attachment and personality disorders can help in understanding behaviours among prisoners, while knowledge and experience of therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be useful.

“You work with people who have a lot of bits missing from their childhood,” explains Marsh. “We look at sexual development, moral development and development of empathy. Often, they’ve been in care as children and unfortunately end up in the prison system.

“We will assess what their needs are, we’ll assess risk, strengths and what can they achieve and what support they need – we will have that holistic overview.”

Strong assessment and intervention skills are essential for those working with prisoners. A good understanding of legislation is also important as many different laws need to be taken into consideration, including the Human Rights Act 1998, Mental Health Act 1983 and Criminal Justice Act 2003.

“We go in at a time of crisis if there’s self-harming or they’re totally depressed and have lost hope and they don’t want to stay alive,” she adds. “We talk it through, they work through what’s led to this, what the triggers are, how they feel. For social workers coming into this field it’s good to read up on things like that and about understanding depression.”

Job options

A vital part of working in prisons is the multidisciplinary structure, which brings together several different teams. As a social worker, you will encounter many other professionals, such as doctors, nurses, psychologists, police officers and probation officers.

Employment in prisons can be through private or public sector organisations such as NHS trusts, and pay will vary according to the employer.

Social workers working for a local authority adults’ services department may also work with prisoners who are due be released, to help them settle back into the community, or those on probation.

Jobs within prisons can be hard to find, so a proactive approach may be required.

“Prisons have yet to discover the wealth of knowledge, skills and abilities that social workers can bring,” says Marsh. “If there isn’t yet a scheme in the local prison where a social worker or student wants to go, it is a question of developing those placements and job opportunities and finding out what the services are and approaching them.”

Case study

Debbie Oakes did her social work student placement at a sex offender prison.

“It was really daunting being placed at the prison but once I was there I never felt scared,” she says. “I never had to press the green button, I never used my whistle, and I never pulled my alarm.

“It’s not what you think. They were all really nice, to me anyway, they understood I was a student on a placement, and accepted that I wasn’t a fully qualified practitioner.”

Was it hard to be non-judgmental so early on in her social work career?

“You don’t want to read their history as it creates bias. You wouldn’t want to create that bias before you go in. You treat them with the respect that you would treat your friends and family with. Many prisoners are grateful for accepting them for who they are.”

Oakes worked with a particularly nervous prisoner, who had generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He agreed to psychological intervention in the form of CBT sessions, delivered by Oakes.

“Each time I went to see him he had to do homework that I’d given him which he had done and engaged with really well and was very honest about, and he came to me when he was struggling. By the sixth session he was like a completely different man. He was managing better and instead of worrying 24/7 he was worrying much less.

“I was highly supported by the CBT therapist. Before and after each session I’d build a plan with her. I didn’t think I would be giving therapy, nor that it would work, but it did. Seeing the change in him every time I saw him was really rewarding.”

‘Social work in prisons’ is the first instalment in a new series about social work outside of local authorities. If you’re a social worker in an unusual setting, and would like to share your experience for an article, please email

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One Response to Social work in prisons: ‘it’s not what you think’

  1. Jo Gray January 27, 2023 at 7:28 pm #

    There are also social work teams in the under 18 YOIs who are employed by the Local Authority that the YOI is in. They have a diverse role and support children who are children in care and with other involvement with children social work services. They support children to transition back into the community and support children in relation to child protection matters. It is a very rewarding role.