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How Much Do Prison Counselors Make?

Prison counselors play an important role in the criminal justice system by providing counseling and support services to inmates. However, many people are unaware of how much these professionals earn for this demanding job. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of prison counselor salaries, factors affecting pay, job duties, educational requirements, and career outlook.

Typical Salary Range for Prison Counselors

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in state, local, and private prisons and jails was $49,220 as of May 2020. The BLS groups prison counselors into this broad category.

The salary range for prison counselors can vary based on factors like:

  • Location: Counselors working in certain high-paying metropolitan areas tend to earn more.
  • Experience level: More experienced counselors usually earn higher salaries.
  • Education: Counselors with advanced degrees often qualify for higher pay.
  • Facility type: Federal prisons tend to pay counselors more than state and local facilities.
  • Security level: Counselors at maximum security prisons may earn slightly higher wages.

Overall, the BLS reports that the lowest 10% of counselors in prisons and jails earned less than $31,810 per year while the top 10% earned more than $69,690 annually. The median salary for prison counselors was $49,220 in 2020.

Average Salary by State

Salaries for prison counselors can vary significantly based on which state they work in. The states with the highest average salaries for prison counselors as of 2020 included:

  • California – $69,090
  • New Jersey – $62,740
  • Connecticut – $60,960
  • New York – $60,300
  • Rhode Island – $59,750
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Meanwhile, counselors in the following states earned relatively lower average salaries:

  • Kentucky – $39,240
  • South Carolina – $39,480
  • Texas – $39,640
  • Louisiana – $39,780
  • Mississippi – $39,950

These state-by-state differences show the impact of factors like cost of living and budget allotments on prison counselor pay scales across the country.

Key Factors Affecting Prison Counselor Salaries

There are several important factors that can determine how much a prison counselor earns each year:

Education and Credentials

Prison counselors typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, or counseling to qualify for entry-level jobs. However, those with master’s degrees tend to qualify for the highest paying counseling roles in federal and state prison systems. Having a license, such as the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential, can also increase salary potential.

Work Setting and Security Level

Counselors working in federal prisons tend to be the highest paid, with average salaries reaching above $60,000. State prisons offer the next highest wages, followed by local jails. Maximum security facilities also tend to pay counselors slightly more compared to lower security institutions.

Experience and Seniority

As prison counselors gain more experience and seniority on the job, their salaries typically increase. Those with 5-10 years of experience in corrections earn median pay above $50,000, while long-tenured counselors with over 20 years on the job have average earnings exceeding $60,000 annually.

Location and Cost of Living

Regions with higher costs of living, like the Northeast and West Coast, offer the highest prison counselor salaries. Additionally, those working in metropolitan areas tend to earn 10-20% higher pay compared to rural regions.

Caseloads and Overtime

Prison counselors handling large caseloads or putting in overtime hours can also qualify for higher wages or overtime pay in recognition of their expanded workloads. However, high caseloads also increase job stress and burnout risks.

What Does a Prison Counselor Do?

Prison counselors have a wide range of important responsibilities within correctional facilities:

Individual and Group Counseling

Providing individual counseling to inmates is typically the core task of a prison counselor. Through regular sessions, counselors offer support, crisis intervention, and mental health therapy. They also run group counseling and educational programs on anger management, life skills, addiction, and more.

Treatment Planning and Coordination

Counselors develop customized treatment plans for inmates based on their needs. They also coordinate care with other professionals like psychologists and social workers.

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Release Planning

To prepare inmates for release, counselors provide discharge planning services to connect them with community resources. This transition support can include referrals to substance abuse treatment centers, job training programs, housing assistance, and healthcare services.

Risk Assessments

Prison counselors may conduct psychological assessments of inmates to evaluate suicide risk, treatment needs, and recidivism risk. These assessments help determine security classifications and programming options.

Reporting and Documentation

Maintaining accurate case files and records for the inmates under their care is another key responsibility. Counselors must document sessions, treatment plans, risk assessments, and other clinical data.

Educational Requirements for Prison Counselors

At minimum, aspiring prison counselors need a bachelor’s degree to gain entry into the field. However, increasing numbers of employers prefer or require a master’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, counseling, or a related field equips candidates with foundational knowledge of mental health assessments, treatment approaches, crisis intervention, and more. Coursework also covers counseling ethics.

Internships or field experience in prisons, addiction treatment centers, or psychiatric settings are extremely helpful when applying for counseling jobs.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree enables counselors to provide clinical therapy, counseling, and risk assessments. Programs like a Master of Arts (MA) in counseling, psychology, or social work take 2-3 years to complete. Specialized programs exist in areas like forensic psychology or addictions counseling.

Pursuing a master’s degree also allows candidates to meet educational requirements for licensing as counselors or social workers in their state.


States require counselors to obtain a license, such as the LPC credential, to practice clinical therapy independently. After earning a qualifying master’s degree, candidates must complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience and pass national and state licensing exams.

Federal prisons may also require counselors to be licensed or certified to provide mental health and addiction treatment.

Career Outlook and Job Growth Trends

According to BLS projections, employment for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is expected to grow 25% between 2020-2030, which is much faster than average. This increase is driven by growing awareness and demand for mental health and addiction treatment services.

Within state prison systems, budgets and funding constraints will influence hiring trends for counselors and other staff. However, the large incarcerated populations and complex mental health needs in prisons will continue to drive demand. Counselors with graduate degrees and specialty expertise tend to have the best job prospects.

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Furthermore, high stress and burnout contribute to turnover, creating a regular need for new counselors. Those willing to work in rural and underserved regions may also find more abundant opportunities. Overall, well-qualified candidates can expect favorable job prospects in prisons and jails nationwide.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Counselor Salaries

How much does a counselor make starting out in a prison?

Entry-level prison counselors can expect to earn between $35,000-$45,000 per year, depending on education and location. With a master’s degree, starting salaries may range from $45,000-$55,000.

Which employers pay prison counselors the highest salaries?

Federal prisons tend to offer the highest salaries, averaging between $60,000-$70,000. State-level departments of corrections also offer strong wages. Private prisons usually pay slightly less than public facilities.

What are the pros and cons of becoming a prison counselor?

Pros include competitive pay, good benefits, meaningful work, and a structured environment. Challenges include safety risks, high stress, large caseloads, bureaucracy, and inmate manipulation. Strong boundaries and self-care are essential to succeed.

Do prison counselors get raises?

Yes, most prison systems provide annual raises up to a certain salary ceiling. Counselors can also earn higher pay by obtaining promotions if they take on supervisory duties.

How much overtime do prison counselors work?

Overtime depends on the facility and staffing levels. Counselors in understaffed prisons may log several hours of overtime per week. However, excessive overtime can lead to burnout. Some prisons discourage overtime to maintain work-life balance.


Prison counselors earn average annual salaries between $40,000-$60,000, with top earners making upward of $70,000. Pay varies based on education, facility type, security level, experience, location, and overtime. The most well-compensated counselors have graduate degrees and credentials allowing them to provide clinical therapy and counseling.

While the work is challenging, prison counselor jobs are projected to grow sharply due to strong demand and high turnover. With the right skills and credentials, this career path offers the ability to earn a good living while making a difference in inmates’ lives during their incarceration and transition back to society.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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