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What does a Penologist do?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A penologist studies prisons, jails or other incarceration communities. She works in these environments and interacts extensively with the prisoners and inmates to assess the effects of the system on their rehabilitation and analyze their behavior patterns. Her findings and recommendations are normally discussed with a wide spectrum of prison personnel, including prison guards, corrections officers and wardens. Discussions are also common with probation officers, criminologists and parole officers.

Penology is a division of criminology that focuses on prison management, the various types of punishment and retribution used by different societies and how effective these are. A penologist carefully examines these methods and their effects. She judges their success and failure rates based on prisoner attitudes, behavior and recidivism.

Her evaluations normally involve interviewing prisoners, studying current methods and programs and measuring their success. She also commonly observes the relationships between individual prisoners as well as individual interactions with prison authority figures. Prison employees are routinely asked for their input on established systems and encouraged to offer suggestions for change.

In addition to studying the prisoners, a penologist often investigates rehabilitation and self-help programs. She determines if the programs have been successful and recommends updates and changes based on her findings. Educational programs are also included in her scope of inquiry.

A penologist regularly follows up on the lives of released prisoners to determine if the education and rehabilitation programs they underwent while incarcerated genuinely helped them in the outside world. Prisoners and former prisoners are regularly asked to anonymously evaluate the quality of the programs offered by the facility as well as to comment on parole procedures. A penologist uses this information to prepare her reports for management or outside evaluation agencies focused on prison reform efforts.

If her analysis and recommendations are well received by prison authorities, she may be asked to prepare reports and proposals clearly defining her plans for improvements. These may include suggestions for revamping personal development courses or implementing anger management or drug counseling programs. Proposals for policy changes, alterations to physical environments and adjustments to personnel communication techniques may also be included in the penologist’s propositions.

A successful penologist will normally be inquisitive and have excellent communication skills. She may be required to talk to prisoners, guards and administrators in the same day, so the ability to interact with many different personality types is important. Defusing volatile situations and dealing with adversity are preferred traits—prisoners as well as administrators may be hesitant to consider changes proposed by an outsider.

A career as a penologist requires a bachelor’s degree in justice administration, psychology or criminal justice. Courses in penology are often offered as part of these undergraduate curricula. Opportunities for penologists vary by location and are highly dependent on the budget allowances for individual institutions.

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