Not Enough Time in the Day: An Examination of Correctional Counselor Workloads

By Matz, Adam K.; Skinner, Beth et al. | Corrections Today, January-February 2018 | Go to article overview

Not Enough Time in the Day: An Examination of Correctional Counselor Workloads


Matz, Adam K., Skinner, Beth, Bell, Dee, Lowe, Nathan C., Johanneson, Nicole, Lulla, Tara, Corrections Today


Empirical literature has heavily emphasized the security needs of correctional institutions and the provision of services to enhance long-term public safety by meeting the criminogenic needs of inmates. Indeed, since the majority of inmates will return to the community, the correctional system must release them in better cognitive condition and with greater resilience than when they were incarcerated. The manifestation of this reality in practice can take various forms, including, in the case of the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC), the designation of formal correctional counselor positions.

The term "correctional counselor" has no universally accepted definition. For many agencies, the activities associated with correctional counseling may fall under the purview of a parole officer, or a facility might combine these duties with those of a correctional officer. However, some could consider possessing distinct counselor positions as progressive, even if the concept of counseling within institutions is far from new. In terms of credentials, IDOC requires its counselors to possess four years of experience in individual- and group-counseling services in social, behavioral, educational or vocational settings, or an equivalent combination of experience and college education (a minimum of a bachelor's degree is required). Specifically, IDOC defines a correctional counselor as one who does the following:

Provides individual and group guidance and related counseling services to institutionalized residents in a correctional facility in the areas of social, behavioral, educational, vocational and related program planning; participates in the development and implementation of specific plans and goals for rehabilitation and gradual reintegration into the community; and performs related work as required.

Detailed roles and responsibilities of correctional counselors have generally been vague and poorly defined, but literature surrounding this topic has identified seven core duties:

1. Maintain caseload files.

2. Develop treatment plans.

3. Monitor inmate progress.

4. Produce agency reports.

5. Conduct individual and group counseling.

6. Support inmates in correspondences with other staff.

7. Provide treatment and security recommendations for inmates. (1)

Unlike counselors outside institutions, correctional counselors must also look after the custody needs of their clients. In some respects, correctional counselors may share the dual, perhaps conflicting, goals often associated with community supervision officers--one of therapy and another focused on institutional security. Dualities can lead to feelings of role conflict, cognitive dissonance and burnout. (2)

While other justice settings have conducted numerous time studies and workload evaluations, a paucity of research concerns correctional counselors. IDOC, in relation to its Statewide Recidivism Reduction (SRR) initiative, conducted a workload evaluation and time study in collaboration with the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), an affiliate of the Council of State Governments (CSG). The research was exploratory in nature, seeking to understand what were the most common tasks performed, how much time was associated with these tasks, and whether counselors felt quality was being sacrificed for efficiency.

Study approach

With the input of an advisory committee of subject-matter experts gathered from correctional facilities across Iowa, the department conducted a task analysis, resulting in a list of core correctional counselor activities. They integrated this list into a time study form and online application that study participants used to track how much time they engaged in a given activity over a four-week period (from April 18 to May 13, 2016). The department pretested the time study instrument twice, once in paper form and again as a web-based application, with three correctional counselors. …

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