How to Become a Correctional Officer

As of 2020, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States. Correctional facilities in the U.S. include 1833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in U.S. territories. With all of these correctional facilities housing this many inmates, it is clear to see why well-trained, educated correctional officers are needed within all levels of the correctional system. Here, we will examine what it takes to become a correctional officer. 

Minimum Requirements for Correctional Officers

Requirements to become a correctional officer vary depending upon the type of institution to which you are applying. Correctional facilities are usually broken down into federal prisons, and state and local prisons and jails. Each has its own minimum standards for correctional officers:

Federal Standards for Correctional Officers

  • You must be a U.S. citizen.
  • You must be between the ages of 20 and 37.
  • You must have either a bachelor’s degree (discussed further below) or three years of experience in counseling, management, teaching, sales, or emergency response.
  • You must have no criminal convictions that disqualify you.
  • You must have a good credit/financial history.

State and Local Standards for Correctional Officers

Standards for state and local correctional officers vary from one jurisdiction to the next. They may include:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen.
  • You must be at least 18 years of age (some states/jurisdictions require a minimum age of 21)
  • You must have a high school diploma or GED.
  • You must have no criminal convictions that disqualify you.
  • You must have a valid driver’s license.
  • You must be physically and mentally fit and able to perform the duties of the job.

Education for Correctional Officers

If you want to become a correctional officer, the type of education you need is dependent upon where you wish to work. Within local and some state facilities, you only need a high school diploma in order to land a job as a corrections officer. In federal prisons, however, you need at least a bachelor’s degree to be hired as a correctional officer. 

Even if your jurisdiction does not require formal education beyond a high school diploma or GED, getting some type of education in the field is desirable and can help you to garner a higher salary. Fields that directly relate to corrections and for which education is usually accepted include:

  • Criminal justice
  • Criminology/sociology
  • Corrections
  • Psychology
  • Human services
  • Counseling

Degrees are available at the associate, bachelor’s and graduate levels, and both undergraduate and graduate certificates are also available. Click here to see a listing of some of the most applicable degrees and certificates for aspiring correctional officers in each state

Training for Correctional Officers

Prior to hire or once you have been hired for a correctional officer position, you must complete further training. This usually consists of practical training as well as classroom-based training. Practical training for correctional officers will cover things such as:

  • Procedures – each state/jurisdiction has its own criteria that all correctional officers must follow to maintain safety of inmates and staff. Procedures that are usually taught include (but may not be limited to):
    • First aid/CPR
    • Emergency operations
    • Inmate transport
    • Ethics
    • Booking and receiving of prisoners
    • Riot control
    • Cell extraction
    • Searches
    • Identification and location of contraband
    • Restraint techniques
  • Firearms – although correctional officers do not typically carry firearms on the job, they must be proficient in their use in case of an emergency or if they are assigned to guard the institution’s perimeter, for example. Firearms training usually includes training in using shotguns, rifles and pistols. 
  • Fitness – states and the federal academies all require correctional officer to meet minimum basic fitness requirements. Skills that are usually tested include:
    • Dynamic arm power
    • Grip strength
    • Quarter-mile run
    • Ladder climb
    • Squats
    • Sit-ups
    • Push-ups
  • In-service training – this type of training involves job shadowing a fellow correctional officer or working under close supervision with a senior officer for a period of time

Classroom training for new correctional officers will cover things such as:

  • Federal, state or local laws, rules and regulations
  • Basic legal training, including:
    • Use of force
    • Rules of evidence
    • Civil rights law
    • Arrest procedures
    • Constitutional law
    • Criminal law
  • Training in rehabilitative methods including:
    • Treatments/programs for substance abuser inmates
    • Vocational programs for inmates
    • Dealing with inmates with mental health issues
    • Educational programs for inmates

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that as of May 2020, the mean annual salary for correctional officers in the U.S. is $52,340. This translates to a mean hourly wage of $25.16. According to the BLS, the salary breakdown for correctional officers working in various types of institutions is as follows:

Salaries for Correctional Officers

  • Federal correctional officers:                                                     $59,390
  • State correctional officers:                                                         $53,400
  • Local correctional officers:                                                         $51,200
  • Correctional officers in psych/substance abuse facilities:            $62,310

The highest-paying states in which correctional officers work are:

  • California:                     $81,100
  • Massachusetts:             $72,360
  • Rhode Island:                $72,110
  • New Jersey:                  $71,810
  • New York:                     $69,490

Outlook for Correctional Officer Jobs

Job opportunities for correctional officers are projected to decline by 7 percent from 2019 to 2029. As state and local budgets are tightened, funding to correctional institutions is expected to be decreased, creating a drop in the number of jobs for correctional officers. Prison population levels have much to do with how many correctional officers are necessary, too. If they decline, jobs will decline. If they hold steady, jobs for correctional officers should remain steady as well.

Resources for Aspiring Correctional Officers