Jun 11, 2019 in Management

Social Work in the Department of Corrections


Social workers undertake many responsibilities that ought to ultimately serve the interests of their clients. They thus try and abide to their code of ethics. Ethical dilemmas articulate the social workers’ environment as well as their practices in their daily endeavors. There are so many things that affect the social workers’ roles and operations, which rely on the environment and the pre-set ethical legal standards. Social workers encounter many ethical dilemmas during their relationship with people that make it difficult during the decision-making process. In the field of social work, the aspect of ethical decision-making arises among many social workers.    Social workers have for many times been faced with circumstances that involve legal and ethical issues. In many instances, the relevant ethical and legal issues have tended to complement each other. However, there are some circumstances where the ethical and legal issues have conflicted. This paper discuses and analyzes the ethical issues, principles and dilemmas that are related to social work in the department of corrections. The paper will also present a practical situation and ethical issues where it focuses on a dilemma. 

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Social work in correctional departments

Social workers in the recent past have had a defined role in the provision of services to incarcerated individuals since the introduction of the profession. The ethical challenge to social workers in any correctional facility is to weigh the overall needs of the justice system against those of the offenders. It is the role of the social worker to take up the challenge by actively participating in the legislative process and action to try and mould the social policy in order to create a balance between the offenders and the justice system. In ethical dilemmas choosing to make one moral decision automatically result in the violation of the other. Thus, the role or responsibility of the social workers is to help the justice system provide more and effective services to the offenders, their communities, and their families by participating in the process of public policy development (Giurgiu & Marica, 2013).

I have been working as social worker in a correctional department where we offer professional assessment to offenders. We have been providing the offenders with all the services related to social work as we assist them in developing some coping skills. Working with inmates has been challenging for many social workers. People ought to be aware of the unique situations that they will find themselves in when they are dealing with offenders. How to approach such cases with the high professionalism and compassion is very vital. As a social worker dealing with prisoners’ cases, one ought to be aware of the unique considerations that ought to be taken into account when you work with clients in the correctional system. 

The dilemma situation we faced 

Belinda was our supervisor in the correctional department I worked. Being a clinical social work supervisor in a correctional a facility for juvenile, she once received a memo from an agency administrator. The memo instructed her and our staff to immediately notify the administrator when one of the clients was an undocumented immigrant. The memo had stated that it was the correctional facility’s obligation to disclose the whereabouts of the undocumented immigrants to the federal immigration officials. Illegal immigration and undocumented workers in the US especially has become a matter of concern in the recent past. As we met to discuss the memo, everyone was very upset about the implications of that memo.  The staff came to an agreement that implementing such a policy would put them in a position which is uncomfortable as it constituted a conflict of interest. To report such cases to the immigration officials would conflict with our clinical duties which could have compromised our ability to meet the client needs. To comply with the new departmental directive presented an ethical dilemma as it would have undermined the willingness of the juveniles to trust social workers. The staff took a considerable time trying to think of what to do in such a situation. As social workers, we sometimes encounter ethical instincts conflict with agency regulations and policies.

This occurs when someone is employed in a setting where the employers are not aware of the ethical standards of social workers. Many expect social workers to disclose confidential information which is contrary to their ethical standards. In such a case, the legal and ethical standards conflict.

Literature review

We are dealing with two separate enterprises of literatures-the social work that encompasses counseling and criminal justice at correctional facilities or institutions. Whereas the criminal justice system lays its emphasis on the legal and state emphasis, social work on the other hand, in its health component points at individuals within the system.  In view of this, both the criminal justice system and social work share a basic commonality, for instance, they both are applied as opposed to strictly education fields, but are closely bound with political forces of the present world. Contrary to this, rehabilitation programs, correctional facility reforms and the general social services tend to go hand-in-hand as outlined by the constitution. To sum up, the way and nature by which the criminals or offenders are treated in any contemporary society positively reflects the philosophy of the culture. 

Social workers in correctional facilities are often vulnerable when faced with the demand of accountability because of their strong tradition of intuitive, private ways of working which is only applicable to social workers who work in correctional services. As one of the disciplines that are responsible for the process of rehabilitating the prisoners in correctional environment, which had to define itself in order to fit well in the new established system that carries out the mandate that is given to prisons by the new constitution. On the other hand, social work as a profession is tasked with the responsibility of defining its role appropriately in order to introduce and employ a much more consistent and accurate intervention in the rehabilitation of inmates in the correctional facilities (Hanser, 2010).

Social workers in correctional institution are regarded as agents of social control whereby some individuals find it an uncomfortable situation. In view of this, it is evident that social workers do play the role of being authoritative or a coercive role in the process of correcting the inmates or the prisoners. Members of the social work department in any correctional facility are tasked with the responsibility of pursuing the social process of service delivery to its clients that strives to ensure that the inmate’s current behavior is kept and maintained within specific and acceptable limits and at the same time modification of life adjustment. Holding the inmate’s accountability for their behavior possess the highest likelihood of moving them towards a positive changing future behavior (Montilla, 2012). 

People’s views on this is that, the excessive use of authority can be effective in crime prevention, because it has the potential of creating a personal crisis for the offenders that may lead or force them to re-evaluation of their behavior and attitudes towards a better future.  Social work practitioners in correction institutions should acknowledge and positively respond to the real emotional and environmental crises that can be created by imprisonment. Each crime offender has the ability and capacity to grow and develop to become a more constructive member of the community, family or the society at large. Inmates are responsibility for their general behavioral change. According to research carried out, results indicate that the central component of valuing an individual is recognizing the individual’s relation to their community and the family at large. Social workers are tasked with the responsibility of challenging attitudes and behaviors, which in turn, may result in crime and further cause harm or distress to others and the victims involved.

It is recommended that social workers in the department of correctional services need to be trained in order to work with the inmates or the prisoners. Social workers should and must obtain a general orientation in order for them to practice in correctional or in criminal justice setting. The general aim of any social worker in a correctional facility is basically to offer rehabilitation services rather than punish the offenders. They need to help clients to try and understand themselves better, their relationship with other members of the society in which they live (Montilla, 2012). The main goal of social work is to try and utilize knowledge and skills of the social work profession in a much more corrective manner, guide them towards becoming productive members of society. A model needs to be placed as a social work policy, which is to be re-visited by taking into account cognizance of various reform programs.

How the situation was solved 

The staff reviewed the ethical standards and came to a conclusion that disclosing the juvenile’s information to the agency officials will be contrary to their ethical standards.  They thus did not follow the directive from the immigration department but rather explained their standards to the agency. The ethical challenge to social workers in any correctional facility is to weigh the overall needs of the justice system against those of the offenders. It is the role of the social worker to take up the challenge by actively participating in the legislative process and action to try and mould the social policy in order to create a balance between the offenders and the justice system.

It is true that as social workers, we have the obligation of ensuring that the agencies and even employees are familiar with the social work’s ethical standards. As social workers, we took the reasonable steps to ensure that the immigration officials were aware of our ethical obligation set in the code of ethics for social workers. Belinda was thus, obligated to acquaint the administrator of the child welfare department with the relevant professional ethical standards. After revising the code of ethics in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), some standards were identified. It was realized that social workers ought to be very alert to avoid conflict of interests that may interfere with exercising professional discretion and judgments which may be impartial (Giurgiu & Marica, 2013). They should thus inform the clients whenever a potential or real conflict of interests and thus take reasonable steps in resolving the issue.

Ethical principles for social workers that were applied

Ethical principles are usually designed to reduce the restrictive measures that reduce the chances of dilemmas. Critical decision making involves high rank stake holders considering special clients’ requirements during their care by social workers. There are general principles which social workers ought to consider before making ethical decisions. The social worker as a counselor or therapist is supposed to respect and protect the rights of the people he/she interacts with.  Here the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence will apply. The social worker being a professional ought to strive to benefit the offenders all the time and she should do anything not to harm him. Social workers seek to safeguard the rights and welfare of the clients they interact with. 

Right to Self-Determination

This is one of the principles that guide social workers and dictates that social workers ought to respect the offenders’ right to self determination. This means that the offenders (clients) are in charge to make their independent decisions as well find solutions to their problems. This is regardless as to whether the social worker agrees with their course of action. As social workers, we just provided guidance and aid to the offenders to just explore their options.  We do not allow our opinions and our personal biases towards the agencies to influence the clients’ choice of our facility. This is dilemma that is difficult as it is created by the desire of a social worker to act in the best interest of the client and thus, the need to be respect their rights in ways they feel are the best. Once a social worker has begun the practice in the correction facility setting, positive information about the practice, should be growing as fast and far as possible in an organized systematic model of practice.


This is the dilemma we were faced with. This is a common dilemma that is largely encountered by all social workers whether they are experienced or just novice. There is a dilemma between the rights to confidentiality versus self-determination right especially in juvenile cases. This therefore, means that social workers ought to respect a client’s privacy, rights, and confidentiality. We are not supposed to disclose any information about our clients without their prior consent which should be written. The right of a client to choose their course of action which is referred to as right to self determination ought to be respected. 

Differences of Morals and Values

An ethical dilemma is not much different from a moral dilemma as it involves situations which are correlated. However, a moral issue is something that you are taught to believe is right or wrong. Values are something that comes from within.  People are judged more harshly on their morals because they tend to have more social value and acceptance than values. This is to imply that a certain issue to one person may trigger a different behavior in a person from a different cultural or social background. In ethical dilemmas, choosing a moral decisions automatically leads to violating another moral action. 

As social workers, everyone has their own different internal value systems as well as set of morals. Though they try their best to keep their feelings in check and have respect to their differences, social workers have often being confronted with many situations where their morals and values are conflicting with those of the clients. Like in this case, it is morally and legally right to report all the undocumented immigrants to the officials but these conflicts with the interests of the clients and values of the facility which is to respect the privacy of the offenders.

Ethical issues require one to choose between two different ideas. Ethics can be learnt through mentors and by observing those around us. All this comes as a result of some cultural issues raised as really correct in the society in question. When participating in summer program as a masters student there are ethical issues one can face. Imbalance in experience can cause complication when it comes to ethical matters. A social worker student that feels uncomfortable and unsure about a client or situation should seek guidance from a supervisor. Often times one may try to guess there way out of situation.  This is a risk that a social worker should not take because it jeopardizes their professionalism as a social worker.

Administrative Dilemmas

Like in this case, not all social works ethical dilemmas will involve direct contact with the client. Social workers like us who are employed in administrative roles encounter many challenging situations. For instance, the agency policies for implementation wanted us to report all the cases involving undocumented immigrants which are contrary to our principle interest of keeping our clients’ information confidential.


Social workers should understand that challenging a policy from a government agency can sometimes be difficult and should take time before taking a decision. It can be a fraught with employment and political repercussions which can be as a result of the directive from the agency. There are disciplinary measures, sanctions and interpersonal resentment that social workers could be concerned with when working in correctional facilities. By Belinda sharing the directive with her staff, this was a good idea as the staff helped in reasoning and understanding better the ethical standards. The decision not to disclose the information to the immigration department was the best as it was for the interest of the clients. Social workers in any correctional facility need to know and understand that dealing with cases involving inmates or prisoners should be aware of the unique considerations that must be put in place when or while working with the clients in the prison facilities.

Social Workers need to be understanding, empathetic, and caring, but they also need to realize that boundaries have to be set.  Some inmates may view a social workers behavior as an invite to a personal relationship.  The relationship must be therapeutic, but remain professional at all times. If not boundaries may be crossed, and the therapeutic process is no longer effective because it becomes unethical in many ways.  The respect and trust must be there, and the client must understand his place in the relationship.

My take on the issue 

  • Conflict of interest. This will occur as the social worker cannot exploit persons over whom they have authority over like their clients. The social worker wants to continue serving her client, so she will not report any threat as this means losing a client.
  • Maintaining confidentiality- as a social worker Belinda had the obligation to take reasonable precautions in protecting the information of the juveniles, who are our clients. Although the extent to which confidentiality is maintained can be regulated like, in this case, the social worker ought to try her best to maintain the confidentiality of the client.
  • Discussing the limits of confidentiality, the client is not mentally ill, so this does not apply here.  This applies to people who are legally incapable of giving an informed consent which makes a social worker use a family friend or a relative or a legal representative 


Social work is considered as a profession that has for long maintained a partisan commitment to work with the marginally dependent and the poor individual in the society.  According to reports generated, it is viewed that the dependant and the poor happens to be victims of social injustice, social disorder, and social change. Social work have confronted the root causes of several problems, modification of societal structures and engaging in the process of advocating for legislative and policy changes to try and improve environmental conditions and create open opportunities 

The above paper has positively examined the viability of using a strength focused framework by the social workers in correctional facilities. One of the major factors that have emerged from the above discussion is that, social workers have encouraged empowerment counseling as a cognitive approach to ensuring a free flow of activities in the correctional facilities.  Crime in the present world is a major social problem. It lays concerns not only to those who are involved directly as the victims but also to those who tend to consider future and present implications of the increasing level of antisocial behavior. Social workers in correctional institutions play a significant role in the practice and administrative positions in correctional programs. Throughout the years, social workers have researched and utilized a variety of services to try and help prevent and reduce crime. Today there isn’t one answer, to help this frightening and perplexing social problem.


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