Incorporating Content on Offenders and Corrections into Social Work Curricula

Article excerpt

SOCIAL WORK EDUCATORS strive to present material in the classroom that is relevant to the pressing social problems graduates will face in diverse practice settings. One area of great social importance that is often overlooked within social work curricula is practice in corrections with adult offender populations. As the number of adults under correctional supervision fast approaches 6 million (Bonczar & Glaze, 1999), more social workers will find themselves working with offenders and their families, even outside of traditional correctional settings. Despite the relevance to the profession of the problems faced by offenders, many schools of social work do not have the resources to provide an entire course in corrections. The incorporation of content on offenders into existing graduate social work curricula would provide relevant information to a majority of students when a lack of resources precludes other options.

This article presents suggestions and tools for incorporating content on adult offenders and corrections into courses across the social work curriculum, including human behavior in the social environment (HBSE), practice, research, and policy courses. First, a brief overview of the historical and present-day involvement of social workers in corrections provides a context for the current discussion. Second, an exploration of the overlap between offender populations and the individuals and families with whom social workers come into contact in other settings makes clear the need for greater attention to offenders in the curriculum. Then a rationale is presented for utilizing an integrative curricular approach. Key principles to guide social work involvement with offenders in any setting are set forth. Finally, specific suggestions for content integration in major curriculum areas are offered. These suggestions may assist social work educators in their efforts to prepare students to address the complex needs of offenders and their families and to successfully interact with correctional systems on behalf of clients.

Involvement of Social Work in Corrections

The criminal justice system has three major components: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. If these components are seen on a continuum, corrections encompasses the latter end of the continuum and deals with individuals who have been convicted of a criminal offense. Prisons and jails are the most visible correctional facilities for adults. However, probation, parole, and other alternatives to incarceration (such as some diversion programs) also fall under the aegis of corrections and account for more than two-thirds of the adult correctional population (Bonczar & Glaze, 1999).

The social work profession's involvement in the justice system began in the area of corrections (McNeece & Roberts, 1997; Miller, 1995; Roberts & Brownell, 1999). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much social work activity was directed toward institutionalized adults and juveniles, as well as to individuals on probation. Social workers advocated for juvenile justice reform and for better conditions of confinement for adults. Indeed, social workers were actively involved with the National Conference of Charities and Corrections that was formed in 1879 and later became the National Conference of Social Work (Miller, 1995; Roberts & Brownell, 1999). Prior to the 1970s, during the years when rehabilitation was a more accepted correctional philosophy than it is now, social workers were visibly employed in probation, pa role, and correctional facilities (Treger & Allen, 1997).

As social work has continued to evolve, however, it has largely abandoned the field of corrections (Gibelman, 1995). Several reasons have been offered for the profession's move away from this field. Predominant among these is the coercive nature of corrections, which is contrary to the social work profession's emphasis on client self-determination (Fox, 1983; Miller; 1995). …