What Does a Correctional Officer Do?

Correctional officers are responsible for the care and custody of individuals who have been charged or sentenced by the court system or who are incarcerated for other reasons (including substance abuse, mental illness and more). Many who are in the correctional system are awaiting trial and sentencing, while others have already been sentenced. Still others might be in rehabilitative facilities and have served their sentences, ready and waiting to transition back into society. Correctional officers are needed to maintain order and safety in these facilities. They do this by enforcing rules and regulations in order to prevent disturbances, supervising the daily activities of inmates so that they know where all inmates are at all times, and searching for contraband, settling arguments among prisoners, and enforcing discipline. The ins and outs of the job of a correctional officer will be explored here.

Basic Duties of a Correctional Officer

Some of the duties of a correctional officer include:

  • Enforcing rules and regulations within incarceration facilities
  • Keeping order in incarceration facilities
  • Supervising inmates’ actions
  • Helping in counselling and rehabilitation of inmates
  • Inspecting conditions throughout facilities to make sure that they meet standards
  • Searching inmates for contraband items
  • Reporting on inmate conduct

Skills Correctional Officers Should Have

Skills that are necessary to possess in order to perform the duties of a correctional officer effectively are:

  • Communication skills, both orally and in writing
  • Judgment and decision-making skills, especially being able to quickly assess a situation and make a quick decision about punishment or the best course of action
  • Listening skills to be able to counsel prisoners
  • Collaborative skills to work on rehabilitation with prisoners in vocational and educational settings
  • Good observational skills which come in handy during searches
  • Control of one’s emotions especially when confronted with hostile or challenging situations
  • Physical strength to be able to restrain inmates when necessary

Qualifications Corrections Officers Must Meet

Criteria for corrections officers differ from one facility to the next, but in general, these are standard qualifications one must meet in order to be hired as a correctional officer:

  • Be at least 18 (21 in some facilities)
  • Have a high school diploma or GED (federal prisons and some specialized facilities require a bachelor’s degree in a social sciences field) (click here to find corrections certificate and degree programs in your state)
  • Be a U.S. citizen/legal resident alien
  • Have a valid driver’s license
  • Have no prior felony convictions
  • Pass extensive medical, psychological, physical and background examinations
  • Pass a lie detector test

Other Things to Consider About Becoming a Correctional Officer

Some of the other things to consider about the duties and job of a correctional officer are:

  • The correctional officer’s job ends when he or she leaves the facility. They do not carry work home with them, as their work is confined to the prison or facility in which they work.
  • Correctional officers often work long hours and overtime. They are responsible for shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Occasionally correctional officers might be called upon to help law enforcement investigate inmate escapes or search for escapees. 
  • Benefits are often quite attractive for correctional officer positions, and may include health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, liberal time off, and more
  • Correctional officers often transport inmates to court, medical facilities, work, and other destinations. They must also escort inmates from one part of the facility to another.

Personality Traits Best Suited to Becoming a Correctional Officer

The best personality traits and interests for aspiring correctional officers to have include:

  • Realistic
  • Independent
  • Stable
  • Persistent
  • Genuine
  • Practical
  • Thrifty
  • Tactile
  • Physical
  • Athletic
  • Mechanical
  • Enterprising
  • Adventurous
  • Ambitious
  • Assertive
  • Extroverted
  • Energetic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Confident
  • Optimistic

Workplace Settings for Correctional Officers

Correctional officers may work in federal prisons, state prisons, local or county prisons or jails, private prisons or jails, residential treatment facilities, rehabilitation facilities, juvenile justice facilities, and more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that more correctional officers are injured on the job than in most all other professions. Working in corrections can be stressful, challenging and dangerous. Correctional officers may work indoors, within the facility, or outdoors, patrolling its perimeter and grounds. Some facilities are newer, well-lighted, temperature-controlled, and well-ventilated. Others are old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy. These are all things to consider when deciding where you want to work as a correctional officer.

Types of Jobs for Correctional Officers

There is a wide variety of jobs available for correctional officers. A quick perusal of the classifieds comes up with these sample openings for corrections officers:

  • Correctional Officer, Arizona Department of Corrections (starting salary $36,207 annually)
  • Correctional Officer, Lehigh County (PA) Department of Corrections (starting salary $44.200 annually)
  • Correctional Officer, Delaware Department of Corrections (starting salary $44,500 annually)
  • Correctional Officer – Pennington County Sheriff’s Officer, Rapid City, SD (starting salary $47,424 annually)
  • Treatment Counselor – Pike County Correctional Facility, Lords Valley, PA (starting salary $40,040 annually)
  • Corrections Counselor – River Region Human Services, Inc. – nationwide, salary not stated
  • Night Corrections Counselor – Alpha Human Services, Minneapolis, MN  ($30,000 starting salary)
  • Community Corrections Counselor – Mid-Cumberland Human Resource Agency, Dickson, TN ($40,000 starting salary)
  • Correctional Counselor I – State of West Virginia (starting salary $25,147)
  • Substance Abuse Counselor – Geo Corrections & Detentions, Milton, FL ($36,000 starting salary)

Salaries for Correctional Officers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual salary for correctional officers as of May 2020 is $52,340. These vary depending upon the employment industry and area in which one works. The top-paying industries for correctional officers are:

  • Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals:                    $62,310
  • Federal Prisons:                                                            $59,390
  • State Prisons:                                                                $53,400
  • Local Prisons/Jails:                                                        $51,200
  • Facilities Support Services:                                            $45,480

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

  • California:                                                                     $81,100
  • Massachusetts:                                                             $72,360
  • Rhode Island:                                                                $72,110
  • New Jersey:                                                                  $71,810
  • New York:                                                                     $69,400