Prison Psychologist: punishment and rehabilitation

A prison psychologist assists people who have constraints on their freedom and also staff working for detention and rehabilitation centres. Their purpose is to fulfil a key principal of the Italian constitution, according to which a prison sentence should serve a real educational purpose and help people get back into society. The duties of a prison psychologist are governed by national laws, including Law 348 from 1975 about “Staff working for the administration of correctional institutes”. A prison psychologist may be seen as specialising in legal and differential psychology, but with a greater focus on the cognitive, emotional and behavioural dynamics in penitentiaries and rehabilitation centres. They require a firm grounding in clinical, social and community psychology, as well as a good understanding of sociology, anthropology, criminology and psychiatry. A good knowledge of the legal-penal system is also required. They work with the directors of correctional facilities, magistrates, prison officers, educators, teachers and cultural mediators.


The first step to becoming a prison psychologist is to get a master’s degree in psychology, pass the board examination and then be licenced in section A of the Association of Psychologists in order to work freelance. They will study general psychology, psychobiology and psychometry, dynamic and clinical psychology, legal, forensic and criminal psychology, the psychology of deviant behaviour, developmental and educational psychology and social, industrial and organisational psychology. It is important to have a good understanding of sociology, anthropology, criminology and psychiatry and a proper understanding of the workings of the legal-forensic system. It is always advisable to take a master’s or post-graduate course and absolutely vital to gain plenty of experience attending training courses and internships in correctional-rehabilitation institutes. Lastly, given the extremely delicate nature of their job, the various regional sections of the Association of Psychologists set specific requirements in terms of training and experience working as a prison psychologist: among all the various professions in psychology, this is one of those requiring the most expertise and entailing the greatest responsibility. Another separate issue is the possibility of a prison psychologist also being a psychotherapist: in this case, they will have attended an authorised specialist educational institute.

Job Description

A prison psychologist works with inmates in correctional facilities or people with some kind of restrictions on their personal freedom to ensure that this experience conforms as far as possible to the values of the Italian Constitution, according to which punishment is considered to be a means of rehabilitating criminals and enabling them to re-join society. Their duties include diagnosing inmates, creating treatment plans to encourage them to change, being involved in the so-called New Inmates Service designed to protect the physical and psychological well-being of prisoners entering correctional facilities, being part of the Integrated Discipline Council that determines the level of surveillance an inmate requires in accordance with their danger to society and, finally, providing proper psychological support for inmates with depression, anger management issues, personality disorders,  self-harming issues or suicidal tendencies. A prison psychologist works both on a personal level with individual inmates and as a community operator, intervening to help with the organisation of the correctional facility itself. A complementary part of their work concerns prison staff, notably people working for the prison force. Given the very specific nature of the context in which they operate, they will find themselves working with a range of other key figures in this specific field, such as: magistrates, lawyers, directors, police officers, educators, cultural mediators, teachers, health care staff and volunteers.

Career Opportunities

A prison psychologist may work in any kind of institute or organisation involved in the prison or rehabilitation service. They most typically work in prisons, where they may be employed directly by the administration body or as part of the psychological services provided by the National Health Service. Another typical career path is working for the courts as a prison expert (in accordance with Law 354/75). As regards young offenders, on the other hand, a prison psychologist may by summoned to Young Offenders Courts as an expert or as a private operator or honorary magistrate (in accordance with article 2 of Royal Legal Decree of 20th July 1934, no. 1404), as an expert consultant at Young Offenders Centres (art 7, paragraph 6, of art. 8 of Legal Decree 28  from 1989, no. 272) or for USSMs (Social Service Offices for Minors).