Correctional officers form a vital part of the criminal justice sector, working in prisons and other correctional institutions to keep inmates on the path to rehabilitation. The role goes beyond many people’s perceptions of a prison officer, and, as you might expect, can be incredibly challenging, as you will need to work with some very dangerous people, as well as have the patience to work with those who have no interest in being rehabilitated.
Nevertheless, becoming a correctional officer can be rewarding, and is a popular job for many people. If you think being a correctional officer is the job for you, then read on to learn more about the role, what it takes to be one, and how to get started on this career path.
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Correctional officers are often referred to as prison guards, but the role goes far beyond preventing inmates from escaping. As the job title implies, correctional officers must be focused on helping inmates and ensuring the prison environment is conducive to them either becoming rehabilitated, or at least reformed and working towards self-improvement. Correctional officers can be based at large federal prisons, or smaller local or state correctional facilities.
A large part of correctional officers’ work is keeping inmates under supervision, performing roll calls and patrols, and responding to any emergencies as needed, sometimes using force if necessary. Correctional officers must understand when this approach is necessary and must always exercise restraint and prioritize dignity above all else.
Correctional officers work with prison management (such as wardens) to create an institutional environment that is positive and geared towards rehabilitation. This might include giving inmates work responsibilities, designing programs inside and outside the prison to support and enrich inmates’ lives, and collaborating with other criminal justice employees like psychologists and parole officers to support inmates.
Here are the main responsibilities of a correctional officer:
- Supervise and look after prisoners safely, empathetically, and in a lawful manner.
- Perform searches and checks on prisoners and their cells.
- Advise and support prisoners and help them make the best out of their time in the institution.
- Patrolling the prison and supervising visitors.
- Responding to incidents and stations with the aim to diffuse them and preserve order and safety.
- Writing reports and complying with prison procedures at all times.
Being a correctional officer isn’t easy, but it can be very rewarding. Offering a unique working environment as well as meeting interesting people, being a correctional officer is a job like no other. Read on for more information about what the job is like.
Correctional officers will spend most of their working time in prisons, although from time to time they will need to attend offices and support facilities, as well as attend offsite training. When in their prisons, correctional officers are bound to strict procedures and regimented ways of working that guarantees the safety of everyone at the facility.
Correctional officers need to spend extended periods of time on their feet, and lots of walking is involved. Due to patrols and observational duties, the role might be quite monotonous. That said, correctional officers also benefit from a very social environment; not just interacting with colleagues, but often forming long-term relationships with inmates as well.
Given the need for constant supervision in prisons, correctional officers will need to work shifts, and this includes weekends and night shifts as well. The role can be equally split over a five-day working week, but other patterns, such as four twelve-hour shifts, followed by four days off, are also common. Correctional officers need to respond to whatever is happening at work, and therefore will frequently be asked to work overtime or remain on shift a little later than planned.
Correctional institutions are generally very safe places, and while the threat or risk of violence from inmates can never be fully mitigated, the vast majority of interactions with them will be positive and peaceful. Nevertheless, correctional officers need to be ready for any eventuality or simply be careful of getting caught in the middle of a fight between two inmates.
Correctional officers also need to manage stressors, as the role can be emotionally draining and sometimes frustrating. There will be some work outside, so wearing warm clothing will be important. Given the need to move around prisons, correctional officers also need to be aware of slip, trip and fall hazards.
The job of correctional officer can be very frustrating and difficult, and it might come as little surprise that the levels of job satisfaction for the role are not as high as other occupations.
Common frustrations with the job include the salary, as well as some correctional officers finding a lack of meaning in what they do. That said, many correctional officers are very satisfied with their job, because of its purpose and importance to society. Generally, job satisfaction tends to increase the longer someone is working in the role.
The job market for correctional officers is contracting, with a 10% decline in employment rates forecasted each year up to 2031. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that there will be around 33,000 new openings of correctional officers each year.
This decline is driven in part by a decrease in public spending both in the US and in many countries worldwide, meaning that state-funded roles are heavily critiqued before being backfilled. Additionally, the US is looking at ways to reduce the cost of keeping people in prison, with shorter sentences, more community programs, and different laws all impacting the volume of inmates, as well as how long they are incarcerated.
The mean average salary for a correctional officer is $50,130 per year ($24.10 per hour). This is slightly below the United States’ national average salary of $58,260 ($28.01 per hour). Correctional officers will also have the opportunity to earn overtime, and the role might pay more in specialist prisons such as high-security institutions.
Annual wages for correctional officers at the 10th percentile sit at $31,740 per year ($15.26 per hour), $37,110 ($17.84 per hour) at the 25th percentile, $45,180 ($21.72 per hour) at the median, $60,110 ($28.90 per hour) at the 75th percentile, and $78,090 ($37.54 per hour) at the 90th percentile.
The top-paying state for correctional officers is California ($78,510 per year), followed by New Jersey ($71,190), Rhode Island ($68,540), Massachusetts ($68,270) and New York ($66,000).
Here's a quick rundown for correction officers' salaries:
Correctional officer jobs require the use of many skills and abilities. Here is a list of the main skills and attributes needed for success in the role:
- Communication skills: Correctional officers need to be able to communicate with a wide range of people. Their communication must fit varying contexts and be clear and accurate at all times. Verbal communication is especially important.
- Assertiveness: Correctional officers need to manage challenging situations and gain the understanding and respect of inmates. The best way to do this is through showing strength through assertiveness; being able to act and communicate firmly but fairly.
- Resilience skills: Prisons will naturally be difficult places to work, and correctional officers might be exposed to challenging situations. Having the resilience to be able to respond to these situations and remain calm throughout is an important attribute.
- Reliability and dependability: In an environment where processes and rules are so important, correctional officers need to be dependable and understand the importance of everything they do, and ensure their attendance is second to none.
- Leadership skills: Leadership is an important trait for all levels of correctional officers to have. Inspiring and influencing inmates to better themselves is a vital part of correctional officers’ job, and this is where leadership and human resources management comes into play.
- Critical thinking: Correctional officers will be faced with demanding and tricky situations, so analyzing and responding to these carefully is vital for success.
If you have read this far and feel that becoming a correctional officer is the job for you, then read on to discover more about how to get into this career.
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right career for you
You must spend some time carefully thinking about whether such a challenging role like correctional officer is one for you. Given there’s more to the job than observing inmates, having only a passing interest in law enforcement might not be enough alignment for you to be truly energized by this role. If you are passionate about helping people and encouraging them to improve and better themselves, then this might indicate that the role is a good fit with your career goals. Having skills that align with the ones needed to be a correctional officer is also important.
If you haven’t found a perfect career yet, then don’t panic as you won’t be the only one! One thing to consider taking is a career interests test, such as CareerHunter’s six-stage assessment. This maps out your career interests and skills to various career paths, helping you find one that you will really enjoy.
Step 2: Complete your high school diploma and higher education
Correctional officers at local and state level are required to have at least a high school diploma. Focusing on the right subjects at school is a good place to start here, with business studies or English being good subjects to focus on. Physical education is also beneficial, as are foreign languages.
Further education can be specific to the job, such as a college education or an associate degree in a subject, like a degree in corrections. There can also be courses that can be taken at evening school or similar, such as courses on criminology, corrections, or law enforcement.
A bachelor’s degree is essential for correctional officers at a federal level. Subjects like criminal justice, criminology or law enforcement are a perfect fit, and can often be taken with electives focusing on corrections. These degrees are an especially good idea for anyone wishing to progress in their corrections officer journey, hoping to become a team leader or manager.
Step 3: Check the minimum requirements
There are stringent minimum requirements for aspiring correctional officers to be accepted in the role. As well as the educational requirements mentioned above, there’s a minimum age to work in the role (21 years old at the time of appointment for federal prisons and 18 for state and local prisons), pass a criminal background investigation, as well as having no disqualifying felony convictions.
Correctional officers must also pass a physical fitness test, have a stable financial history and be a US citizen. State requirements (for state and local prisons) might vary and include elements such as experience requirements, having a valid driving license and passing medical examinations. Many states also hold entry examinations focused on testing the knowledge attained as part of the educational route.
Step 4: Complete on-the-job training
Once hired into a correctional officer role, you will need to undertake plenty of on-the-job training. The purpose of this is to ensure that you are keeping yourself, your colleagues, visitors, and inmates safe. Correctional officers need to be trained in many different procedures. These are all in place for a reason, and any deviation from these can have very serious consequences.
In addition to training processes, correctional officers will need to demonstrate successful completion of certified firearms training, fitness training, legal courses, and training based on developing knowledge of rehabilitation procedures and various physical and mental health conditions.
Step 5: Get sworn in and begin further certification
Correction officers will need to swear allegiance to their state’s Oath of Office (sometimes called an Oath of Honor) that governs the expectations placed upon them in the role. The oath might cover elements like the duty to keep order and supervise inmates, searching for contraband, inspecting facilities, reporting and responding to inmate conduct, and assisting in the rehabilitation of inmates.
The American Correctional Association offers voluntary certification courses. These are progressive and will become increasingly important if you wish to further your career development within the corrections profession. The entry-level certification is the Certified Correctional Officer (CCO), then Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS), Certified Corrections Manager (CCM), and finally Certified Corrections Executive (CCE).
Being a correctional officer is a challenging role. It involves long hours and potentially managing people who don’t want to be reformed, as well as dealing with the pressure and challenges that come with working in a prison. That said, the role can be hugely rewarding. Prisons are often likened to close-knit communities, and you will develop close bonds with colleagues and prisoners.
Helping people improve themselves and work towards rehabilitation can be inspiring to be a part of, and for that reason, being a correctional officer could be a role you might genuinely wish to consider.
Are you interested in becoming a correctional officer? What is it about the role that appeals to you? Let us know in the comments below!