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How Much Do Prison Psychologists Make?

Prison psychologists play an important role in the criminal justice system. They provide mental health services to inmates in correctional facilities, assessing and treating mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, and other psychological problems. Their duties include:

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Conducting Psychological Assessments

When inmates first enter a facility, psychologists will evaluate their mental state and identify any disorders or special needs. Assessments help determine if inmates are suicidal, have anger issues, or need medication.

Providing Therapy and Counseling

Psychologists meet with inmates regularly to provide individual and group therapy. This helps inmates develop coping skills and work through trauma, addiction, and behavioral problems.

Reducing Recidivism

By addressing inmates’ mental health needs, psychologists aim to reduce recidivism rates and prepare inmates to successfully re-enter society after release. Treatment plans are customized to each patient.

Consulting with Staff

Psychologists consult with correctional staff to help manage problematic inmate behaviors and advise on proper interventions. They alert staff if inmates are at risk of self-harm.

Conducting Research

Prison psychologists may participate in research studies to better understand mental illness, criminal psychology, and rehabilitation methods. Their findings inform best practices for treatment.

Why the Career is in Demand

The need for qualified prison psychologists has grown considerably in recent years for several reasons:

Mental Health Issues are Common in Inmate Populations

Studies indicate at least 50% of inmates have a mental health condition requiring therapy. The most common diagnoses are depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and personality disorders. Without proper treatment in prison, these inmates are at risk of worsening symptoms.

Shortage of Psychologists Working in Corrections

While inmate populations have grown, the number of psychologists choosing to work in correctional facilities has not kept pace. Many opt for more traditional clinical settings instead of prisons. This leaves some facilities understaffed.

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Emphasis on Rehabilitation Over Retribution

There is increasing focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment programs to reduce recidivism. Psychologists play a key role in identifying inmates’ needs and providing therapy to help them successfully rejoin society. More psychologists are needed to support these initiatives.

Rise in Addiction and Substance Abuse

A large percentage of inmates have addiction and substance abuse problems. Psychologists help inmates recover and develop relapse prevention techniques. The opioid epidemic has further increased needs for addiction treatment services within corrections.

Requirements from Legal Settlements

Some legal settlements and reform efforts now mandate that quality mental health services be provided in prisons. Psychologists are essential to meet these defined requirements.

Salary Prospects for Prison Psychologists

Many factors determine the salary potential for a psychologist pursuing a career in corrections. Here is an overview:

Payscale for Prison Psychologists

  • National Average Salary: $79,891 per year
  • Entry Level Salary: $55,00 to $60,000
  • Mid-Career Salary: $80,000 to $90,000
  • Late Career Salary: $95,000 to $100,000

Salaries are higher in metropolitan areas and those with higher costs of living. Government and state jobs tend to pay less than federal prisons and private correctional facilities.

Highest Paying Industries

The industries offering the highest salaries for prison psychologists are:

  • Federal Prisons: $116,220 annual mean salary
  • State Prisons: $89,960 mean salary
  • Local Jails: $95,490 mean salary
  • Outpatient Care Centers: $96,960 mean salary

Highest Paying States

The top 5 highest paying states for correctional psychologists are:

  1. California – $120,910 annual mean salary
  2. New Jersey – $ 117,450 mean salary
  3. New York – $116, 750 mean salary
  4. Connecticut – $116,380 mean salary
  5. Illinois – $110,330 mean salary

The northeast and west coast tend to offer the highest compensation.

Job Growth Projections

Job growth for psychologists in correctional facilities is projected to increase 13% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is much faster than average growth rate for all occupations, as demand for mental health services increases.

Steps to Becoming a Prison Psychologist

Pursuing a career as a psychologist in the prison system requires specialized education and training:

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree focusing on psychology, sociology, or social work is required. Coursework in statistics, research methods, abnormal psychology, and personality psychology is preferred. Internships in counseling or mental health are highly recommended.

Obtain a Master’s Degree or Doctorate

A Master’s degree is required as minimum education for most correctional psychologist roles. Many employers strongly prefer or require a PsyD or PhD in clinical or counseling psychology. Doctoral programs includes in-depth training in psychological testing and therapy.

Complete an APA-Accredited Internship

Completion of an internship at an APA-accredited correctional facility enablesstudents to gain supervised clinical experience. Most doctoral programs assist students in obtaining highly competitive prison internships.

Earn State Licensure

After graduating, psychologists must earn state licensure to practice. This involves passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Continuing education is also required to maintain the license.

Consider Board Certification

Psychologists can become board certified in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). This demonstrates specialized expertise when working with inmate populations or in court settings.

A Day in the Life of a Prison Psychologist

What does a typical workday look like for a psychologist in a correctional facility? Here is an overview of common duties and responsibilities:

8 AM – Morning Briefing

The day starts with a morning meeting to share updates about inmates receiving mental health services. The team discusses any crises that occurred overnight or changes in inmates’ treatment plans.

9 AM – Individual Therapy Session

The psychologist has a one-on-one therapy appointment scheduled with an inmate diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They meet weekly to work on managing mood episodes and developing coping strategies.

10:30 AM – Psychological Assessment

Next, the psychologist assesses a new inmate recently admitted to the facility. They administer tests to evaluate mental functioning, suicidal tendencies, and behavioral risks that could impact the inmate’s housing placement and security level.

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12 PM – Lunch Break

During their lunch break, the psychologist catches up on documentation. They write up case notes from the morning’s therapy and assessment sessions. Eating lunch also provides time to relax and regroup.

1PM – Group Therapy

This afternoon, the psychologist leads a group therapy session focused on anger management. Eight inmates attend who were mandated to get therapy for violent offenses. The psychologist facilitates discussions and teaches techniques to control rage.

3PM – Meeting with Warden

Before leaving for the day, the psychologist provides some guidance to the warden regarding an inmate causing disruptions. They suggest interventions that may improve the inmate’s behavior without need for isolation or other sanctions.

The Pros and Cons of Being a Prison Psychologist

Potential Rewards

  • Competitive salary, good benefits, and job stability
  • Opportunity to make a profound difference in inmates’ lives
  • Ability to develop expertise in criminality, forensics, addiction, and rehabilitation
  • Satisfaction being part of the solution to recidivism and public safety problems
  • Challenging and always evolving clinical environment

Challenging Aspects

  • Safety concerns and need for caution when interacting with inmates
  • High risk of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue
  • Frustration with limited resources and access to inmate patients
  • Large caseloads with little variety in types of patients
  • Some facilities have poor administrative support for mental health programs

Overall, being a prison psychologist can be a very rewarding career path for someone passionate about criminal justice reform, rehabilitation, multicultural psychology, and forensic psychology. Those who thrive in correctional environments will find this a continuously stimulating field where they can apply their skills in a truly impactful way.

Spotlight on Notable Prison Psychologists

Dr. Ruth Tatum

With over 25 years experience as a prison psychologist, Dr. Ruth Tatum has worked in facilities across the country. She is an expert in threat assessment and management, psychological risk screening, and developing individualized treatment plans for offenders. Dr. Tatum has testified in court regarding competency and risk assessments. She champions community re-entry programs to reduce recidivism.

Dr. William Davies

Dr. William Davies is one of the nation’s leading experts on designing therapeutic correctional environments. During his 30 year career working in prisons, he has focused on making structural changes to improve inmates’ psychological well-being. He has also conducted extensive research on mental health treatment approaches that are empirically validated with offender populations.

Dr. Shelley Booker

Dr. Shelley Booker is a psychologist renowned for her work with incarcerated women. As a survivor of childhood abuse, she brings a trauma-informed perspective to supporting female inmates with histories of sexual assault and family violence. Dr. Booker has developed parenting programs for mothers in prison so they can maintain family bonds.

Dr. Jamal Barnes

As an African-American psychologist, Dr. Jamal Barnes focuses on the mental health needs of Black inmates. He works to identify and address inherent biases in the criminal justice system. Dr. Barnes incorporates principles of restorative justice into his therapy approaches and strives to reduce racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates.

Challenges Facing Prison Psychologists

Psychologists working in corrections face a number of challenges:

Limited Resources

Lack of funding, staffing, programs, and treatment options constrain what psychologists can provide to inmates. Those working in publicly funded prisons frequently report lacking resources.

Ethical Dilemmas

Prison psychologists must balance custody and care. At times, their duty to report risks and maintain safety may conflict with providing confidential therapy. Navigating these dilemmas can be difficult.

Security Constraints

Strict security policies, lockdowns, lack of private space, and rules limiting inmate interactions inhibit therapeutic progress. Psychologists have little control over the environment.

Stigma Around Inmate Treatment

Some staff see mental health treatment as “coddling” inmates. They may not value psychologists’ work, making it harder to advocate for rehabilitation programs.

Occupational Hazards

Working in prisons carries risk of assault, exposure to diseases, and vicarious trauma from hearing about inmates’ crimes. Maintaining personal safety and wellness is crucial.

High Demand, Limited Psychologists

There simply are not enough psychologists to fill all the vacant positions in corrections. Caseloads become unmanageable, waitlists long, and staff burnout common.

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Tips for Succeeding as a Prison Psychologist

How can psychologists develop rewarding careers working in correctional facilities? Here is some expert advice:

Set Clear Boundaries

Separate your personal life and avoid over-identifying with inmates’ hardships. Maintain professional role.

Seek Mentorship

Learn from seasoned psychologists. Ask for their guidance handling challenging situations and navigating prison politics.

Know Facility Policies

Study the standard operating procedures for your institution. Follow proper channels for raising concerns. Clarify ambiguities.

Build Relationships

Cultivate trust and rapport with guards and wardens through respect and open communication. Seek common ground.

Stay Vigilant

Do not let your empathy blind you to manipulation or conning by inmates. Be alert and keep your guard up against threats.

Address Burnout

Make self-care a priority with regular vacations, therapy, massage, meditation, or other stress relief. Maintain work-life balance.

Be a Change Agent

Advocate passionately for rehabilitation programs and adequate mental health resources. Influence improvements.

Professional Associations for Prison Psychologists

Psychologists working in corrections should participate in professional associations. Here are 5 top organizations:

American Psychological Association (APA)

The APA offers the Division 18 focused on psychologists in public service, including those in forensic and correctional settings. Members benefit from networking, conferences, scholarly journals, and advocacy.

International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology (IACFP)

This association specifically serves psychologists working with offender populations. They provide research publications, professional development, and best practice guidelines.

American Board of Forensic Psychology (ABFP)

Psychologists can receive board certification in forensic psychology from ABFP. This demonstrates specialized expertise in assessments and court proceedings.

Criminal Justice Section of the American Psychological Association

This section of APA is dedicated to research and practice in legal, criminal, and correctional endeavors. They offer newsletters, continuing education, and legislative updates.

National Register of Health Service Psychologists (NRHSP)

NRHSP allows psychologists to earn credentialing demonstrating their qualifications in areas like forensic or police psychology. Many correctional facilities require or prefer hiring registered psychologists.

Answers to FAQs About Prison Psychologist Careers

What qualifications do you need to become a prison psychologist?

A doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology is required. You must complete an APA-accredited internship and obtain state licensing. Board certification in forensic psychology is preferred.

Do you need security clearance to work in a prison?

Yes, all employees at correctional facilities must pass extensive background checks and security clearances before being hired. U.S. citizenship is also required in most cases.

What skills make someone a good prison psychologist?

Empathy, problem-solving, cultural competence, ethics, and boundaries are essential. You need to be comfortable working within rigid hierarchies and security protocols.

What are typical work hours for prison psychologists?

Most work standard weekday schedules, but evening or weekend hours may be needed to accommodate therapy sessions. Expect on-call rotations for handling inmate mental health crises.

What is the most challenging aspect of working in prisons?

The frustrating limitations of the environment, security constraints on your clinical work, risks of violence, and lack of resources are commonly cited challenges.


Working as a psychologist in the prison system is a complex, demanding career path that requires specialized expertise. However, it also offers the chance to make a profound difference by addressing inmates’ mental health needs and promoting rehabilitation.

With awareness of the risks and disadvantages, the right education and training, strong ethics, and a passion for social justice, psychologists can find deep purpose and meaning in correctional roles. By providing quality mental health treatment to marginalized offender populations with high rates of trauma, addiction, and illness, prison psychologists can improve outcomes for inmates, reduce recidivism, and strengthen communities.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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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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