Among the most challenging occupations in law enforcement is that of the correctional officer. These law enforcement professionals supervise the care and control of imprisoned individuals. Unlike the detention officers at a county jail, prison officials manage the daily activities of prisoners who have already received their sentence and are serving out their period of imprisonment.
Correctional officers are usually highly trained and qualified professionals who must maintain constant awareness of themselves and their prisoners. Prisoners can be desperate and violent, and often lack any regard for themselves or others. This is a dangerous combination that can put guards at risk. In order to minimize the potential for injury from a violent attack, prisons put strict controls in place whenever a prisoner is in contact with correctional officers.
Duties and Job Description for Correctional Officers
The management of many hundreds or thousands of prisoners is a complex task involving a wide variety of roles. Correctional officers may serve in a variety of posts within the prison facility including:
- Control room – Guards monitor all areas through cameras and radio communications with prison officers.
- Perimeter post – A specified area of the territory demarcating the boundary between the prison and the outside is monitored by walking or motorized transportation
- Receiving gate – Guards check the vehicles of all entering and exiting personnel.
- Dormitory post – Officers maintain a strict routine for prisoner activities in and around their cells
- Visitor interactions – The activities of inmates and their visitors are scrutinized to ensure that contraband is not provided and that behavior doesn’t become unruly.
Within the confines of a prison, correctional officers are expected to perform their many responsibilities at the highest possible standards, to ensure the safety of themselves, their fellow officers and inmates.
Basic Professional Requirements for Corrections Officers and Prison Jobs
In most states, the requirements to serve as a correctional officer are quite attainable.
Candidates should possess these qualifications:
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Be 18 years or older
- No felony convictions
- Have a driver’s license or some form of government issued identification
- Have near normal vision and hearing, with or without correction
Many states require applicants to pass a written basic skills test that evaluates reading and mathematics.
Correctional Officer Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 392,600 correctional officers working in the United States as of May 2021. During this time, the average salary for these professionals was $53,420, while those at the top of the pay scale (90th percentile) earned about $79,340.
The following BLS table identified correctional officer salary averages by state and experience level (25th percentile= early career professionals, 90th percentile= highly experienced) as of May 2021:
Educational Requirements for Correctional Officers
The minimum educational requirement for correctional officers is a high school diploma, but supervisors and senior officers are usually expected to possess a post-secondary degree of some kind.
While many prison jobs do not require education beyond high school, there are several ways to enhance credentials so as to increase the likelihood of employment in this competitive field. Many two-year, four-year and graduate schools offer degrees in law enforcement and related fields that can provide valuable expertise in corrections. Many of these degrees in criminal justice, corrections or sociology can improve a correctional officer’s chances for getting hired, not to mention career advancement and promotion.
Certification Options for Correctional Officers
In addition to traditional educational institutions, there are also several organizations that offer certifications for correctional officers. Among the most reputable is the Certified Corrections Officer credential offered by the American Correctional Association. This and other professional certifications require successful passage of an examination.
Many states offer certification programs through their law enforcement or correction departments. These programs usually require enrollment in a training program that can be several weeks in length and require a registration fee. In order to receive the certification, the final exam must be passed. Some states limit the number of times the certification exam can be taken, so it is imperative to prepare diligently. These programs may cover a variety of topics including
- Prisoner behavior
- First aid
- Report writing
- Fire safety
- Suicide awareness
- Correctional law
- Cultural diversity
- Defensive tactics
The advantage of a state certified program is that they signify instant employability within the state’s prison system.
Training for Correctional Officers
Some states require new correctional officers to complete a training program. In some states, this may involve enrollment in a formal training academy that may last several weeks or months. In addition to the classroom instruction, recruits may be required to participate in a rigorous physical conditioning program designed to augment fitness, strength and stamina. A physical fitness exam may also need to be passed for final placement at a prison facility.
Following academy training, some states mandate a probationary period of several months where a senior correctional officer closely supervises new recruits. These supervisors assist new recruits as they acclimate to the prison setting. This on-the-job training period helps recruits learn specific procedures utilized in the facility, gain an understanding of the prison populace, and more readily recognize threats and risks.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for correctional officers and jailers. Job growth projections from the US Department of Labor-sponsored resource, Projections Central. Figures are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2022.