The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 437,100 correctional officers working in the United States as of May 2020. These correctional officers worked in a variety of institutional settings, from federal and state prisons, to local jails, to detention centers and other facilities that are used to detain adults and juveniles. Despite where they may work, one thing that all correctional officers have in common, however, is that they each have undeniably had a great impact on the inmates for whom they are responsible. Here, we will examine the role correctional officers play in the lives of the inmates they supervise.
How the Job Duties of Correctional Officers Impact the Inmates with Whom they Work
When looking at the basic job description of a correctional officer, there are many duties that directly impact the inmates with whom they work. In fact, most of the duties of a corrections officer involve working in close contact with inmates. These include:
- Enforcing the rules of the incarceration facility and keeping order. This is a primary duty of all correctional officers at all facilities, and brings them into close, direct contact with inmates. Part of this responsibility includes settling disputes between inmates, preventing assaults, preventing escapes, and monitoring for and preventing disturbances of all types. Enforcing the facility’s regulations is a large part of the correctional officer’s responsibilities.
- Monitoring and supervising the activities of inmates within all areas of the incarceration facility. The correctional officer must keep eyes on inmates at all times. This includes supervising them even in the bathrooms, when they are eating, in their cells, during visitation time, and during recreational time. Providing prompt response in an emergency is part of this duty as well. If inmates know that a correctional officer’s response will be swift and efficient, they may not only not “act out” in front of that officer, but also know that they can trust that officer to act quickly should things go wrong.
- Maintaining control and discipline of inmates. This may be done through direct contact, from patrol and security stations in the facility, and while escorting inmates to other areas of the facility or outside of the facility. Sanctions are used by correctional officers to enforce the rules and regulations of the facility and to maintain order and discipline.
- Searching inmates for contraband items. Part of the correctional officer’s job duties is to search inmates, and their cells, for contraband or prohibited items on a regular basis. They must also screen the inmate’s visitors to make sure that prohibited items are not entering the facility. This is done not only to protect themselves but also to protect the inmates for whom they are responsible.
- Reporting on inmate conduct. Correctional officers routinely prepare oral and written reports of the behavior of the inmates for whom they are responsible. These reports may be compiled and delivered at change of shift or when an inmate violates rules and regulations of the facility. Corrections officers also file daily logs that detail the behavior of inmates as well as any anomalies that have occurred.
- Transporting inmates from one facility to another, to medical facilities, or to court. Correctional officers must safely and securely transport inmates from facility to facility, as well as to court and medical facilities. Heightened supervision is especially important in situations such as these, when the chance of prisoner escape may be greater. This is often a good time for a corrections officer to get to know an inmate better in a one-on-one situation.
- Assisting in searches for escaped inmates. Should the worst happen and an inmate escapes a facility, correctional officers are often responsible for finding and securing the inmate.
- Rehabilitating and counseling inmates. This important part of a correctional officers’ job description will be discussed further below.
How Correctional Officers Can Shape Inmates Through Rehabilitation and Counseling
One important area in which correctional officers can have an impact on inmates is through suicide prevention. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, as of March 2014, approximately 10 inmates in prisons and jails commit suicide every week. Additionally, suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails, with the suicide rate there three times that of the suicide rate in prisons.
Correctional officers can work with suicide prevention professionals to help prevent inmate suicide. Because inmates can become suicidal at any point during their incarceration, suicide prevention should be an ongoing duty of all corrections officers. Officers should be trained in recognizing the signs of inmates at risk for suicide. In particular, inmates who have recently received bad news from a court hearing or a longer sentence, have received bad news from a family member such as regarding imminent divorce or a death, have been placed in restrictive housing, and are in the first four months of their incarceration are all at greater risk of committing suicide.
Today’s correctional officers must be counselors and rehabilitators as much as they are “jailers.” They should talk with inmates about their feelings at all times, not just when they are at risk of suicide, and listen in a calm, supportive, nonjudgmental way. Officers should refer suicidal inmates to the facility’s mental health professional immediately, and keep the inmate in a safe environment with constant supervision until that professional can see the inmate.
Mental Health Counseling
Most prisons and jails are now training correctional officers in counseling, training and educating inmates. If a correctional officer does not already possess an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a human services area, they might want to consider this type of education (link to site) in order to further their counseling abilities and skills. Inmates are more likely than people in the general population to have mental illness, a history of abusing alcohol or drugs, or chronic medical conditions, all of which can affect their mental health. Being trained in proper counseling techniques, which includes active and effective listening skills, is vital to the success of a correctional officer in connecting with inmates on a human level.
Correctional officers may participate in inmate rehabilitation efforts by scheduling work assignments for inmates, providing educational opportunities for them, and providing counseling to inmates. They must also provide security of inmates during these rehabilitation activities. Corrections officers may supervise work crews within various areas of the facility and away from the facility.
More incarceration facilities are now offering educational opportunities to inmates, either in preparation for their release back into society or to give them a more fulfilled life behind bars. GED and high school diploma completion programs as well as degree opportunities have all been offered to inmates at various institutions. Correctional officers are often responsible for shaping and delivering some of these educational programs to inmates.
Work situations for inmates may also be devised, programmed and supervised by correctional officers. These may involve inmates working within various areas of the incarceration facility, or even outside of the facility. Often, third-party employers will send work to prisons for inmates to complete and send back. This could involve hand-crafting skills, design, or other forms of labor. Correctional officers must have a good rapport with inmates in order to effectively supervise their work and to get the most productive behavior from the inmates in these situations.