Correctional Officer Career Guide

A Guide to Careers in Corrections

career guide book for becoming a correctional officer

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2020 there were 405,870 correctional officer and jailer positions across the United States. These jobs are not just found within prisons and jails. Correctional officers are employed in a myriad of settings, including but not limited to psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals; state, local, and federal prisons and correctional facilities; and juvenile correctional centers. Per the BLS, largest employer of correctional officers in the U.S. is state government, which employed 209,390 correctional officers in May 2020; followed by local government, employing 156,120; facilities support services, where 23,540 correctional officers worked; federal executive branch, employing 15,380; and psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, where 1150 correctional officers worked. 

Correctional officers are responsible for supervising the inmates of a facility who have been arrested, are awaiting trial, or have been sentenced. A correctional  officer must constantly be aware of the locations of all inmates at all times, and be able to prevent disturbances, assaults and escapes. Supervision of inmates, searching inmates, inspecting facilities, reporting inmate conduct, enforcing rules, keeping order, escorting and transporting inmates are just some of the job duties of a correctional officer. Some correctional officers might also provide counseling and guidance to inmates. The position of correctional officer can be quite challenging and stressful at times, but, according to those who do the job, can also be a rewarding one. 

Best Traits for Correctional Officer Careers

If you are exploring correctional officer careers and wonder if it is the right fit for you, consider the following interest areas that lend themselves well to such a career, according to the Holland Code:

  • Building: this interest area focuses on working with machines and tools, fixing or making practical items
  • Persuading: this interest area focuses on influencing, motivating and selling to others
  • Organizing: this interest area focuses on working with information and processes to keep things organized and arranged in an orderly fashion

General personality traits that are found in the best correctional officers are:

  • Good judgement– ability to quickly assess a situation and determine the best course of action
  • Excellent interpersonal skills – ability to communicate with inmates and other staff
  • Negotiating skills – help others resolve differences to avoid conflict
  • Physical strength—ability to physically subdue inmates as necessary
  • Resourcefulness – able to think quickly and determine the best practical approach to a problem
  • Self-discipline – ability to control one’s emotions when confronted with challenges or hostility

View more information on what a correctional officer does.

Education and Training for Correctional Officer Careers

Most correctional officer positions require a minimum of a high school diploma (or equivalent). Correctional officers working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, must have a bachelor’s degree or one to three years of experience in counseling, supervising or helping others. 

View more information on correctional officer education.

Training for Correctional Officer Careers

Usually, correctional officers must complete training at some type of academy. This specialized training lasts for a few months, and varies from one state to the next. Each state has its own Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) programs that aspiring correctional officers must complete, usually upon being hired for a position. States all have their own training processes but most focus on self-defense, physical prowess, learning regulations and policies of an institution, operations, and security procedures.

Correctional officers who are hired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons must also undergo on-the-job training, as well as specialized correctional training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. Here, they are trained in firearms, self-defense, policies and procedures, and must ultimately pass the Physical Abilities Test (PAT). 

View more information on correctional officer exams, and resumes.

Types of Correctional Officer Careers

Correctional officer is a broad term that encompasses many different careers. We will explore some of them here.

View more information on correctional officer careers.

Adult Detention Centers 

Most correctional officers are employed in adult detention facilities. The Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that the total combined federal and state adult imprisonment rate as of 2019 was 419 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, the lowest that rate has been since 1995. The rate decreased by three percent from 2018, and by 17 percent from 2009.  The total prison population in the U.S. as of 2019 was 1,430,800. However, the U.S. still has the largest prison population in the world, followed by El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Thailand and Palau. 

Adult detention centers may employ correctional officers within federal or state prisons. Each state has its own requirements for correctional officer jobs, involving a mixture of education and experience. On-the-job training at an academy is typically provided for these jobs. 

Federal correctional officers must be under the age of 37 when they apply. State correctional officer position minimum age requirements vary from 18 to 21. Both types of jobs usually mandate that the applicant not have any felony or domestic violence convictions on file.

Correctional Officer Jobs at Maximum vs. Minimum Security Prisons

Correctional officers working at adult detention centers may work in maximum- or minimum-security facilities. Minimum security facilities typically house inmates who are allowed to work in the community under the supervision of correctional officers. Security protocols are usually lighter at minimum security facilities. 

Maximum security facilities, on the other hand, require correctional officers to use behavior control procedures like physical barriers, searches, checkpoints and scheduling of all activities. These correctional officers do not usually carry firearms but may use batons, pepper spray and hand-to-hand combat as necessary. 

Juvenile Detention Centers

Correctional officers may also work at juvenile detention centers or juvenile correctional facilities. A juvenile detention center holds juveniles who are presumed innocent until they are tried in court. It provides temporary confinement while their case is being handled. A juvenile correctional facility, on the other hand, provides longer-term placement for youth who have been determined by the courts to be delinquent and ordered to be confined in a facility for their crimes.

As of 2018, per the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 195,000 juveniles were placed in detention centers. The average stay is 27 days. Juvenile detention centers are usually operated by local or state authorities. There are 625 such facilities across the U.S. as of 2018. 

The Prison Policy Initiative notes that as of 2019, more than 48,000 youth are confined in juvenile correctional facilities on any given day. This number has declined by 60 percent since 2000. Of this 48,000, 16858 may be in detention centers; 10,777 in long-term treatment facilities; 10,256 in residential treatment facilities; 4535 in adult prisons and jails; and 3375 in group homes.

Correctional officers work within all of these settings in which juveniles are detained. Many of these correctional officers also provide counseling, job training and other services to juveniles to help them re-enter society when their sentences are completed. 

Other Options for Correctional Officer Careers

In addition to the traditional careers for correctional officers that are listed above, there are other places in which correctional officers work. Here are a few examples:

  • Criminal Justice Officer: This type of correctional officer typically works within a residential facility, either for adult or juvenile offenders. They provide supervision, monitoring, and counseling within these residential facilities. 
  • Addictions Specialist Detention Officer: This type of correctional officer has specialized training in addictions and works with addicted populations inside specialized treatment or regular correctional facilities. 

Correctional officer jobs may go by many different names, such as:

  • Detention Deputy
  • Detention Assistant
  • Civilian Detention Officer
  • Certified Detention Officer
  • Community Corrections Officer

Salaries for Correctional Officer Careers

The BLS notes that as of May 2020, the annual median wage for correctional officers in the U.S. was $52,340. As correctional officer encompasses a wide range of job possibilities and settings, it’s important to look at the range of salaries for correctional officers. Those earning in the 25th percentile, for example, made $37,950 annually; while those earning in the 75th percentile earned $63,290; and those in the 90th percentile, $81,940. 

The highest-paying industry in which correctional officers work, per the BLS, is psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, where they earned $62,310 annually. This is followed by federal prisons, where they made $59,350; and state facilities; where they earned $53,400. 

View more information on correctional officer salaries.

Best-Paying Cities for Correctional Officer Careers

Correctional officers working in the following metropolitan areas made higher-than-average salaries as of May 2020, per the BLS:

  • Bakersfield, CA:                                                  $85,850
  • Stockton-Lodi, CA:                                             $84,790
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA:            $83,050
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA:           $82,650
  • Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA:      $77,830
  • San Diego-Carlsbad, CA:                                   $77,070
  • Fresno, CA:                                                        $76,340            
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City NY/NJ:             $74,550
  • Boston-Cambridge-Nashua MA/NH:                $73,050
  • Providence-Warwick RI/MA:                              $72,050

The Future of Correctional Officer Careers

Correctional officers will always be needed in our society. As prison populations decrease, however, the need for correctional jobs is also expected to decrease slightly. The BLS predicts a decline of seven percent from 2019 to 2029 in the number of jobs available for correctional officers nationwide. State and local budgets for prisons, as well as prison population and incarceration levels, are all ultimately responsible for whether jobs for correctional officers increase, decline or hold steady.