What is a Correctional Officer?

Correctional officers in the United States work in local jails, state and federal prisons, and other incarceration facilities. They are responsible for serving as an authority over prisoners housed within the facility, as well as ensuring their safety and welfare. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of May 2020, there are 462,300 correctional officers working nationwide, responsible for the supervision and welfare of the 2.3 million people incarcerated within the country’s 3163 local jails, 1833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1772 juvenile correctional facilities, 218 immigration detention facilities, 80 Indian Country jails, and within military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals, civil commitment centers, and prisons in U.S. territories. Work may be conducted indoors (within facilities) or outdoors (patrolling the grounds of correctional facilities, supervising recreation, etc.). 

Duties of a Correctional Officer

Correctional officers must keep the order and enforce rules within incarceration facilities. A few of their job responsibilities include:

  • Supervising inmate activity
  • Counselling and participating in rehabilitation of offenders
  • Inspecting facility conditions to make sure they meet standards
  • Reporting on inmate conduct
  • Searching inmates for contraband
  • Imposing punishment for inmates who break rules
  • Escorting prisoners within facilities and to other facilities

Skills Correctional Officers Should Have

In order to be a good correctional officer, you should:

  • Be a good problem solver
  • Have good oral and written communication skills
  • Be able to control your emotions in hostile situations
  • Physically be able to restrain inmates

Personality Traits Correctional Officers Should Possess

Those thinking of becoming a correctional officer should consider if their personality traits mesh with the challenges of the position. The best correctional officers possess the following characteristics:

  • Independence
  • Stability
  • Persistence
  • Practicality
  • Physical prowess
  • Ambitious
  • Enterprising
  • Confident

Education and Training for Correctional Officers

Many correctional officer positions require no education past a high school diploma, besides the on-the-job training that you will receive after hiring. Some correctional officer positions mandate that a new hire attend a training academy, in which rules, regulations, procedures, and physical activity will be tested and trained. 

Jobs within federal prisons typically require a bachelor’s degree in a related field, or experience may be substituted for this education. If you are truly interested in becoming a correctional officer, having additional education when you apply for a position is definitely an advantage. There are three levels of education that potential correctional officers may pursue:

  • Correctional Officer Certificate Programs – these usually last anywhere from three to 12 months
  • Associate Degree – a two-year degree program, in one of the following disciplines:
    • Corrections
    • Criminal Justice
    • Criminology
  • Bachelor’s Degree – a four-year degree program, in a discipline such as:
    • Corrections
    • Criminal Justice
    • Criminology 

Salary and Job Outlook for Correctional Officers

As of May 2020, the mean annual wage for correctional officers working in the U.S. is $52,340, or $25.16 per hour. Top paying industries in which correctional officers work are as follows:

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

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

Jobs for correctional officers are expected to decline by 7 percent from 2019 through 2029. As prison population levels continue to decrease, it is expected that job opportunities for correctional officers will decrease accordingly.

Focusing on Two Correctional Officer Duties- Safety and Rehabilitation

One of the primary duties of a correctional officer is making sure that safety is maintained within a facility. This does not just involve prisoner safety, but rather, encompasses the safety of all who live and work within the incarceration facility. 

Personal Safety

When hired as a correctional officer, you must complete a rigorous training program that will instruct you in the proper use of firearms, hand-to-hand combat, pepper spray and other non-lethal weapons, such as batons.   Correctional officers who work in close proximity to prison populations must maintain their physical capabilities at all times in case of an attack.  Officers must constantly remain vigilant and cognizant of their situation and surroundings to limit any opportunities for inmate violence against officers.

Protocols are in place to ensure that correctional officers are never left vulnerable to attack and that back-up is always present and able to respond immediately. As a correctional officer, you will also be trained in prevention through observation. You will develop working relationships with the inmates that will allow you to better recognize the signs of emotional distress in inmates that may indicate the likelihood of violent outbursts.

Team Safety

Correctional officers are also responsible for the safety and security of other correctional officers and prison personnel.  For some correctional officers, like those manning perimeter towers, this may be a principal responsibility.  Regardless of position, following proper protocol is critical to ensuring safety. Most of these protocols, in which all correctional officers will be trained, have been developed over decades of research and are extremely effective in limiting the danger to staff.

Searching prison cells and vehicles that come and go from the prison compound, with the intention of isolating and confiscating potential weapons, also helps ensure team safety. Correctional officers are routinely involved in these measures to limit the likelihood that inmates could come into contact with dangerous items that could be used to cause injury or death

Inmate Safety

Correctional officers are also responsible for the safety of inmates.  The pressures of imprisonment can contribute to depression, anger or hopelessness within inmates, and correctional officers must recognize the signs of trouble before they lead to a violent altercation or suicide.  If signs of despondency appear, it is the responsibility of officers to notify mental health counselors, or to take more active steps, like putting an inmate under suicide watch.

Efforts are also made to segregate inmate populations as needed to better ensure the protection of inmates that are at higher-risk of being assaulted, victimized or targeted for assassination.  In some instances, this may mean keeping rival gang members from sharing communal areas at the same time.

Facility Security

Maintaining the security of the correctional facility is of paramount importance to correctional officers.  Any breach in prison security may allow contraband drugs, weapons or communication devices into the facility, which may contribute to more violence among inmates.  Any compromise of the prison’s borders may allow prisoners to escape and harm others in the community.  All threats to the prison’s security must be identified and immediately remedied.

Most prisons utilize surveillance cameras to monitor the prison grounds and inmate activity that takes place in common areas.  Searches and security checks are regularly scheduled to disrupt potential plans for escape or rioting.  Correctional officers also carefully monitor the behavior of offenders to ensure that there are no disruptions in usual patterns of behavior that may indicate an inmate is making preparations for an escape.

Many prisoners engage in paid employment during incarceration.  While this occurs on prison premises, the tools, equipment and materials are closely monitored so that offenders do not abscond with them for use as weapons or tools in aiding an escape.  In lower security facilities, prisoners may work in the community under close supervision during daylight hours, while correctional officers work with local police to manage duties like trash pickup, farming or construction.

Inmate Rehabilitation

Another main responsibility of many correctional officers is the rehabilitation of inmates under their supervision. The corrections community has utilized research to develop more constructive options for prisoners.  This may involve mental health treatment, employment, religious instruction, vocational training or chemical dependency counseling.  Correctional officers play a key role in communicating with offenders and providing trustworthy advice to improve their lives.  Most departments of corrections are beginning to recognize that offenders who actively participate in these programs are much more likely to stay out of trouble once they are released.

Correctional officers may assist offenders who are eager to improve their futures by helping them to choose the institutional programs that would most benefit them.  By communicating and building relationships with offenders, correctional officers may obtain insights into the forces that compelled a prisoner to commit their crimes.  Almost 80 percent of offenders are dependent upon alcohol or drugs, so convincing most prisoners to seek cognitive retraining and substance abuse counseling can produce enormously positive effects.

Correctional officers also work with agencies within the community to rehabilitate prisoners.  In some states, correctional officers are authorized to work outside of prison facilities in an effort to connect newly released prisoners with treatment programs, halfway houses, or community organizations.  Correctional officers working in prisons may even assist in the rehabilitation of offenders by communicating their needs and risks to parole officers, parole boards, judges or probation officers.