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corrections officer career

Correctional Officer Career Overview

Imagine this: you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You sense something’s wrong. It’s a good thing that you practice martial arts, because when the inmate attacks, you easily disarm him and verbally de-escalate the situation.

Luckily events like this are relatively rare in jails and prisons because correctional officers (COs) do a great job managing prisoners. But it’s also a good reminder that you need the right training to become a correctional officer.

Correctional officers oversee people in jail who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve time in prison.

They maintain security and ensure inmate accountability to prevent disturbances, assaults and escapes. They also write reports on inmate behavior and on the quality of inmate work.

COs periodically inspect the facilities, checking cells and other areas of the institution for contraband, fire hazards, unsanitary conditions and any evidence of infractions of the rules.

In addition, they routinely inspect locks, window bars, doors and gates for signs of tampering. Officers report security breaches, disturbances, violations of rules and any unusual occurrences.

After several years of experience, some officers train to become sergeants, or work up the chain of command to warden or assistant warden, the person who helps develop, supervise and implement standards, policies and guidelines for the facility.

Where You’ll Work

There were about 469,500 corrections officers in the U.S. in 2012, and while the work can be demanding, many COs like the job security, the benefits and the opportunities for advancement.

Most corrections officers work in the following types of correctional facilities:

  • Local, state and federal jails and prisons
  • Private, for-profit correctional institutions
  • A relatively small number oversee people being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) before they are released or deported

You’ll want to also decide whether to work in a jail, or a minimum, medium or maximum security prison. This hierarchy is based on the perceived public safety risk posed by the inmates and the severity of their crimes.

  • Jails are short-term facilities that hold inmates awaiting trial or sentencing, or they are for inmates sentenced to a term of less than one year, usually for misdemeanors.
  • Prisons are long-term facilities run by the state or the federal government that normally hold felons and inmates with sentences of more than a year. They’re broken down into the following categories:
    • Minimum security prisons have non-secure dormitories which are patrolled by correctional officers. There is less supervision and control over inmates in these prisons than at other facilities. Inmates assigned to minimum security prisons generally pose the least risk to public safety.
    • Medium security prisons normally have secure dormitories that are locked at night, and each one has a group toilet and shower. Inmates sleep in military-style double bunks. Correctional officers directly supervise the inmates and sleeping area. These prisons usually have a double fence perimeter with armed watch towers or armed patrols. There is less supervision here than at maximum security prisons.
    • Maximum security prisons have cells with sliding cell doors that are remotely operated from a secure control station. They are for the most dangerous inmates who are a severe threat to public safety, correctional staff and other inmates.

The jail or prison you work in will depend on a lot of factors: the kind of work you want to do, your level of training, where you live, and more. Keep reading to learn what you need to do to work in jails and prisons of all types across the U.S.

Correctional Officer Prerequisites

To work as a correctional officer, you’ll need to meet the following requirements:

  • Be a U.S. citizen over 18 or 21 years old, depending on your state
  • Have a high school diploma or a GED
  • Pass written and physical exams
  • Some agencies require some college education or relevant work experience
  • Have no felony conviction

These are minimum requirements. For instance, to work in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, entry-level personnel must have at least a bachelor’s degree, and three years of experience providing counseling or supervision. Specific requirements and on-the-job training vary from state to state and agency to agency, so check requirements early to see what you need to do to become a corrections officer.

Correctional Officer Degrees and Education

All states and local correctional agencies require and provide formal instruction and on-the-job training. Typical corrections officer training will take about 300 hours, and covers many of the following topics:

  • Collaborative Case Management
  • Computer Security
  • CPR
  • Custody and Security
  • Discriminatory Harassment
  • Ethics
  • Firearms
  • Fire Safety
  • First Aid
  • Initial Administrative Process
  • Managing Offender Behavior
  • Stress Management
  • Mental Illness in Prison
  • Personal Searches
  • Physical Training
  • Policies and Procedures
  • Prisoner Discipline
  • Prisoner Grievances
  • Prisoner Transportation
  • Restraints
  • Sexual Abuse and Harassment
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicide Prevention
  • Workplace Safety

After completing this basic training, corrections officers are generally required to do additional on-the-job training for a certain period of time.

However, earning your bachelor’s degree (BS), especially in a criminal justice-related field, will increase your chances of promotion.

If you’re interested in this career and want to set yourself apart from the competition, here are some of the courses you’ll take to earn a BS in criminal justice with a corrections concentration. Contact schools to see their particular course of study.

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Community Offender Supervision
  • Computer Applications in the Social Sciences
  • Correctional Institutional Management
  • Corrections and Juvenile Justice
  • Criminal Justice Research Methods
  • Criminal Law
  • Criminology
  • Deviant Behavior
  • Drugs and Drug Abuse
  • General Psychology
  • Human Behavior
  • Intermediate Composition
  • Introduction to Computer Science
  • Introduction to Corrections
  • Introduction to Criminal Justice
  • Introduction to Ethics
  • Introduction to Juvenile Justice
  • Introduction to Sociology
  • Introduction to the American Court System
  • Laws of Evidence
  • Legal Rights of the Convicted
  • Social Problems
  • Social Psychology
  • Social Science Statistics
  • State and Local Government

As you might expect, the courses you take at the university level will go into more detail than corrections basic training. So, again, if you’re thinking of working up the chain of command in the state or federal prison system, getting a BS in criminal justice with a concentration in corrections might be very helpful.

For employment at the national level, new federal correctional officers must do 200 hours of formal training within the first year of employment. They also need to complete 120 hours of specialized training at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center at Glynco, Georgia within the first 60 days of appointment.

As you can see, education is an important part of all good corrections officer training. Get the degree that’s right for you and your career goals.

Corrections Officer Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median national annual salary for correctional officers is $38,970. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

So, what are you waiting for? If you think that this career is for you, get ahead by earning a criminal justice degree and get the skills you’ll need to succeed.