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By Kaitlin Louie

Correctional officers (also known as peace officers) are an important part of prison, jail, and reformatory staff. They oversee arrested and/or imprisoned criminals and perform duties such as monitoring inmates’ conduct, reporting on inmate activities and enforcing facility rules. They may also assist in the counseling of criminals, inspecting inmate quarters for contraband and ensuring that prison housing and facilities meet required quality, safety and security standards.

Corrections

Correctional officers typically work full-time shifts at local, state, or federal government agencies. They interact on a daily basis with the inmates under their watch, and also report regularly to the superiors at their facility, such as correctional sergeants. Correctional officers have a challenging yet essential job that enables prisons, jails, and correctional facilities to properly house, monitor, discipline, and address the needs of their inmates. While demanding and at times stressful, correctional officer jobs help to ensure the safety of society and the effective rehabilitation of incarcerated criminals.

The requirements for becoming a correctional officer vary depending on whether one seeks employment at a local, state, or federal institution. All correctional officers must earn a minimum of a high school diploma. Federal prisons require their corrections officers to have either a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject or at least three years of professional experience in a related field. Some local or state corrections institutions also ask their candidates to complete a college degree or a certain number of college courses in a field related to corrections. After completing relevant schooling and successfully applying for a corrections position, entry-level officers must complete training at an official corrections officer academy that is often affiliated with or sponsored by their employing agency.

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Learn more about a correctional officer’s daily responsibilities and demands in CareerColleges.com’s interview with Joe Baumann. To find out more about corrections and criminal justice degree programs, see CareerColleges.com’s interview with Michael Harrington.

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How does one become a correctional officer?

  1. Earn a minimum of a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent.
  2. Complete a degree program in criminal justice, law enforcement, or other field related to corrections, or obtain the required amount of professional experience in a related field.
  3. Apply for jobs at local, state, and federal corrections agencies, prisons, and jails. Note: For positions at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, applicants must be younger than 37 at their time of appointment, unless they have worked in a Federal civilian law enforcement position in the past.
  4. Pass the various screenings that correctional facilities require of their employees, including a physical abilities test, a medical screening, and a written examination.
  5. Undergo training at a correctional officer academy that is affiliated with one’s place of employment.
  6. Build experience and advance one’s career through additional certifications.

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What are the educational requirements for correctional officers?

The minimum educational requirement for all correctional officers is a high school diploma or its equivalent. . At the state and local level, some facilities only require candidates to possess an associate degree or have equivalent coursework in subjects related to law enforcement or criminal justice. In some cases, military or law enforcement experience can serve as a substitute for course completion. Federal prisons require correctional officers to possess at least a bachelor’s degree or have three years of professional, full-time experience in supervising, aiding, or counseling individuals.

Many degree-holding corrections officers take courses in law enforcement or criminal justice, which help them to better understand the justice system and the overall field in which they will work. Bachelor’s degrees in law enforcement or criminal justice, which typically take four years to complete, are available and public and private universities, some of which offer these programs through online education. Associate degrees in the same subjects are also offered at community colleges, career colleges, trade and technical schools, and online institutions, and generally take two years to earn. Courses for these degree programs include but are not limited to:

  • Introduction to Criminal Justice—the fundamentals and history of America’s criminal justice system, including foundational justice laws, the process of correcting offenders, the different classes of crime and the disciplinary actions against them; crime victims and their circumstances.
  • Introduction to Law—America’s legal system with an emphasis on criminal law; the legislation that the courts use for criminal corrections and sentencing.
  • Criminology—the sociological study of criminals and crime; explanations of certain criminal acts; measuring the degree of criminal offenses; different types of crimes including property, white-collar, sexual, organized, and violent.
  • Introduction to Corrections—the objectives and methodology of certain corrections processes; the effective management, discipline, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders; prison environments and procedures; the different agencies, staff, and organizations that are involved in the corrections process.
  • Criminal Justice Ethics—ethical theory and practice in the criminal justice system; different moral issues that arise in certain criminal law and corrections situations.
  • Statistics—basic principles and methods of statistics; statistical data collection and analysis as it relates to social and criminal studies.
  • Police Administration—the function, history, and methods of policing in America; daily responsibilities of policemen on the individual and police force level.
  • The Juvenile Justice System—legislative and correctional responses to juvenile delinquent conduct; measures to discipline and rehabilitate juvenile delinquents; specific juvenile issues such as substance abuse, theft, and mental illness.
  • Research Methods in Criminal Justice—the gathering and analysis of sociological and legislative data for criminal studies purposes.
  • Criminal Courts—the different courtroom processes, from pre-trial practices to post-conviction actions; the different participants in an American courtroom and their various responsibilities.

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Do correctional officers have to pass any examinations in order to qualify for employment at a corrections agency?

Yes. Upon applying to a corrections officer position at a local, state, or federal agency, candidates must typically pass the following examinations and screenings:

  • Written Exam—to test applicants on their cognitive and reasoning abilities. This exam may also include questions about correctional officer duties and policies. Some agencies provide online test preparation booklets on their website, which may include sample questions and/or a summary of exam content.
  • Test of Physical Agility and Ability—to ensure that applicants have the endurance and strength to handle daily work with inmates. This test may involve push-ups, sit-ups, stepping and running drills, and grip strength tests.
  • Medical Clearance—a physical check-up that includes a vision test and screenings for diseases, such as Hepatitis B and HIV.
  • Background Check—an investigation of applicants’ previous job performance and educational background, as well as screenings for any past misconduct, including driving and criminal records. A routine fingerprinting is included in this background check.
  • Drug Test—to screen candidates for past and current drug use.

The nature and content of the examinations, tests, and screenings listed above vary depending upon state and agency regulations. Prospective correctional officers should always check the specific requirements of the agencies to which they are applying.

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What does correctional officer training involve?

Upon acceptance to a correctional agency or facility, candidates must complete formal correctional training at an academy before starting full-time work. In general, a correctional officer trains at the academy of the agency or department at which he or she is employed, though some corrections departments allow their officers to complete academy training at a separate, but approved institution.

Academy training generally takes several weeks to a few months to complete, depending on agency requirements, and includes a combination of hands-on skills training and classroom instruction. This training is typically paid for, as trainees must generally be employed by an agency in order to attend the agency’s academy. Furthermore, this occupational training is independent of and in addition to any academic preparation that a candidate must fulfill to work in corrections.

In training academies, individuals learn firearms training, methods of apprehension and control, defensive tactics, chemical agents, and training in impact weapons. Classroom instruction focuses on the daily life, responsibilities, and proper conduct of corrections officers and could include topics like the laws of criminal apprehension, constitutional law, appropriate use of force, prison gangs, conducting cell searches and pat-downs and prisoner rights. Even after training at an academy, corrections officers typically complete on-the-job training in the workplace. Some agencies have apprenticeship programs in which newly hired corrections officers are assigned a supervisor who helps guide them through the first year or two on the job.

The required number of hours for correctional officer training varies from state to state and across local agencies. In contrast, all federal corrections officers must complete 200 hours of training within their first year on the job, 120 of which must be at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons training center. Due to the variance in required training hours across different state and local agencies, and in order to receive the most up-to-date information, it is best for one to check with specific corrections departments that one is interested in.

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What are the primary duties of a correctional officer?

Corrections officers monitor prisoners and enforce facility rules, thus helping to maintain order in jails, prisons, and reformatories. Their responsibilities include but are not limited to:

  • Monitor behavior of prisoners in housing, visiting, recreational, and work areas to ensure that inmates follow facility rules, regulations, policies, and procedures
  • Search prisoners, their living quarters, and prisoner transportation vehicles for contraband items, weapons, and/or valuables
  • Inspect doors, locks, windows, and gates of facilities to maintain security and prevent prisoner escapes
  • Perform inmate head counts to ensure the presence of all prisoners
  • Use physical force, handcuffs, and weapons to enforce discipline among inmates
  • Inspect inmates’ mail for contraband, valuables, and potential weapons
  • Record prisoner information such as identification, daily activities, criminal background, and prison misconduct
  • Establish a communicative yet professional rapport with inmates in order to effectively diffuse tension within facility and discern potential prisoner issues
  • Report to superiors regarding inmate behavior and facility safety
  • Process convicted criminals’ admission into correctional facility

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What key skills are required to succeed as a correctional officer?

Correctional officers typically work in dynamic and fairly stressful environment that require them to skillfully manage conflicts, enforce rules on a group and individual basis, and also detect and discuss inmate issues. These varied tasks require a broad range of skills, including:

  • Critical thinking—discerning momentary and long-term inmate problems and implementing effective solutions are daily responsibilities for the correctional officer.
  • Sound judgment skills—correctional officers work in high-stress environments that require them to make sound decisions that maintain the safety and security of the facility and promote the discipline and well-being of prisoners.
  • Physical strength and endurance—correctional officers must be able to restrain and/or subdue prisoners who become violent to themselves or others.
  • Self-discipline—correctional officers can face hostile and/or volatile situations on a regular basis, and as a result they must be able to control their emotions and address situations objectively.
  • Listening skills—as correctional officers are held accountable for the welfare of the prisoners under their watch, they must be able to listen carefully and comprehend any issues prisoners might convey either directly or indirectly.
  • Communication skills—correctional officers must be able to effectively communicate with prisoners about facility rules and regulations, and must also convey important information about inmate conduct to their superiors.
  • Negotiation—correctional officers must frequently help inmates resolve conflicts before they escalate to belligerence or violence.
  • Writing Skills—writing detailed reports about inmate behavior and general facility events is an essential responsibility in the field of corrections.

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What is the typical job environment for correctional officers?

The job environment for correctional officers differs according to place of employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), 95 percent of correctional officers worked for local, state, and federal government agencies in May of 2010. The remaining five percent worked at private corporations that provide services to correctional agencies and institutions. Correctional facility conditions can range from clean, well-lit, and orderly to noisy, overcrowded, and poorly maintained. Due to the fact that they must interact closely with convicted criminals for monitoring and disciplinary purposes, correctional officers face a high risk of injury. In fact, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of non-fatal occupational injuries in the nation.

Correctional officers can work in county jails, state or federal prisons, or other correctional facilities. Jails are short-term incarceration facilities, where criminals typically stay to await trial or serve short sentences. Jails are generally run by local or county governments, and sometimes implement short-term drug and behavioral management programs for their inmates. In contrast, prisons typically house long-term inmates who are serving multi-year sentences, and thus host more gradual rehabilitation programs such as work or study release centers. As inmates in state and federal prisons stay for longer periods of time, these institutions are often safer than county jails because correctional officers are generally able to develop a better rapport with the prisoners residing there (bls.gov).

Correctional officers typically spend long hours on their feet, patrolling facility halls, conducting inmate room searches, and escorting prisoners to and from various locations. As a result, they may develop leg, back or foot pain. In addition, correctional officers may be exposed to infections and diseases while on the job and should take precautions when working closely with inmates or performing routine searches.

Due to the demands of their job, full-time correctional officers typically receive health and life insurance from their employers, along with other employment benefits such as paid sick leave and holidays, free meals during working hours, subsidized uniforms and clothing maintenance and 401(k) plans. Some correctional agencies also provide their employees with financial incentives to maintain physical fitness or even attend college.

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How can correctional officers advance their careers?

Correctional officers who have worked for several years and have successfully demonstrated their expertise and qualifications may have options for career advancement and mobility. For example, correctional officers can advance to the position of correctional sergeant, which is a more managerial role that involves overseeing facility security and directing other correctional officers. Other officers may have the opportunity to transfer to related occupations, such as parole officer, probation officer, or correctional treatment specialist.

Education level, including continuing education, may also provide advancement opportunities. For example, for federal corrections officer positions, there are different position levels and pay grades that correspond with candidates’ level of relevant education and experience. As candidates gain more work experience or educational credentials, they may be able to advance to positions that give them more responsibility and higher pay.

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What professional associations are available for correctional officers to join? What benefits do they provide?

Numerous local, state-specific, and nationwide associations are available for correctional officers to join. The American Correctional Association (ACA) is one of the largest and most established associations that serves correctional officers’ interests. The ACA provides members with online training courses, holds conventions and workshops, offers discounts on community college courses and other products and services, and also works to further the interests of correctional officers in government legislation. Many corrections departments also use ACA guidelines to develop their academy training programs. In addition, California, New York, and Texas, three of the states with the highest employment levels for correctional officers according to bls.gov, all have professional associations to support correctional officers, namely the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, and the Texas Corrections Association, respectively. While resources and services differ across these organizations, member benefits can include continuing education courses, a supportive community, scholarships, web resources, discounts on certain products and services, and both political and legislative representation. To become a member of these associations, officers must fill out an application form and pay an annual fee.

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What professional certifications can correctional officers obtain, and how are they helpful?

Certification requirements and offerings vary across state and local agencies. In some cases, certification is required and part of the officer application, examination, and/or training process. For example, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement requires prospective corrections officers to pass their State Officer Certification Exam before being accepted and entering academy training, while the Wyoming Department of Corrections requires all of its correctional officers to receive Peace Officer Standards and Training Certification. Other corrections departments may require their officers to receive CPR and/or First Aid certification as a part of their application, or incorporate these certifications into their officers’ training. For other corrections agencies, certain certifications are optional but could be helpful in one’s career. Due to the state-specific nature of certification requirements and options, applicants should always check with the agencies to which one is applying.

The American Corrections Association (ACA) provides multiple certifications for correctional officers who wish to hold a nationally recognized credential. The ACA offers several levels of professional corrections certifications to fit various individuals’ career experiences and goals.

  • Certified Corrections Officer (CCO): for individuals who work closely with criminal offenders, and who report to higher corrections management.
  • Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS): for corrections employees who work at the middle-management level, such as correctional supervisors or sergeants.
  • Certified Corrections Manager (CCM): for those who hold an upper-level managerial role at a corrections facility. Examples of such people include department heads, corrections unit managers, and chiefs of correctional programs.
  • Certified Corrections Executive (CCE): for individuals who operate on the highest level of corrections management, such as superintendants, correctional facility directors, and wardens.

To qualify for one of these certifications, candidates must verify their educational background and occupational experiences and qualifications. They must also pass an ACA-administered exam that is specific to their desired certification. Certified corrections officers maintain their certification for three years before having to renew their credentials. In order to qualify for re-certification, candidates must complete a certain number of Continuing Education Credits through ACA or another reputable organization/association.

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What is the employment outlook for correctional officers?

In 2010, 493,100 correctional officers were employed nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012). Employment of correctional officers is expected to grow nationally by 5 percent between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is slower than the national average for all occupations. Population growth will serve as the primary source of employers’ demand for correctional officers. In addition, demand at some state and local corrections facilities may derive from high employee turnover rates as officers switch job positions or advance to higher ranks.

The slowing of the national growth rate for correctional officer jobs is attributable to both decreasing crime rates in the nation overall and the budget constraints that many government correctional facilities currently face. Numerous state governments have responded to the increased cost of maintaining prisoners with legislation that shortens prison terms and implements alternatives to incarceration, such as community-based rehabilitation programs. Despite these factors offsetting the growth of correctional officer jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the numbers of correctional officers leaving the workforce for retirement and higher-ranking or different occupations should produce employment opportunities. Job openings at private companies that provide staffing services to correctional facilities may also arise.

States with the highest employment level for correctional officers:

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

Texas

48,190

$16.77

$34,880

California

42,410

$31.99

$66,540

New York

34,290

$27.36

$56,900

Florida

33,640

$18.78

$39,070

Pennsylvania

18,390

$22.70

$47,220

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

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What is the average correctional officer salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2012), the mean compensation for correctional officers in 2011 nationally was $43,300 per year, or $20.82 per hour. The vast majority of correctional officers work full time. As prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities must be secure and monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, officers work on rotating shifts and may also be required to work evenings, weekends, and/or overtime. In addition to salary, correctional officers typically receive health, dental, and vision insurance from their employers, as well as other benefits such as sick leave, paid vacation, and a retirement plan. Additionally, many corrections agencies provide their officers with free uniforms and meals.

National percentile wage estimates for correctional officers (based off of May 2011 data):

Percentile

10%

25%

50%
(Median)

75%

90%

Hourly Wage

$12.84

$15.07

$18.75

$25.86

$32.96

Annual Wage

$26,710

$31,350

$38,990

$53,800

$68,550

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

Top paying states for correctional officers (based off of May 2011 data):

State

Employment

Hourly mean wage

Annual mean wage

New Jersey

10,610

$33.58

$69,840

California

42,410

$31.99

$66,540

Massachusetts

6,930

$27.62

$57,450

New York

34,290

$27.36

$56,900

Alaska

1,080

$26.62

$55,380

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012

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Related Careers:

  • Probation Officers work with criminal offenders who have either been put on probation in lieu of being imprisoned, or who have been released from jail. Their job consists of helping to rehabilitate criminals so that they can safely and competently re-enter society. They supervise offenders, provide guidance and discipline, and discuss possible treatment and rehabilitation options with them.
  • Police Officers protect the people and property within their community by patrolling areas within their watch, enforcing laws and regulations, pursuing and apprehending offenders, issuing traffic tickets, and responding to civilian calls for assistance.
  • Detectives investigate crimes by collecting and inspecting evidence, conducting interviews, keeping detailed records of cases, and pursuing and arresting crime suspects.
  • Security Guards maintain the security of a designated piece of property by patrolling assigned areas, monitoring security cameras, controlling the entry of people into secured area, and detaining criminals, vandalizers, and trespassers.

Sources and Additional Information:
"http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm" | U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Correctional Officers
"http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3012.00" | O*Net Online: Correctional Officers and Jailers
"http://www.aca.org/" | American Correctional Association (ACA)
"http://www.ccpoa.org/" | California Correctional Peace Officers Association
"http://www.nyscopba.org/" | New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association
"http://www.txcorrections.org/" | Texas Corrections Association


Kaitlin is a content writer and editor for CareerColleges.com and CityTownInfo.com. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature, and aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing and social dancing on the weekends.