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With over 749,000 workers servicing the needs of almost seven million clients, the correctional system is large indeed. Corrections (that is: jails, prisons, parole, probation, and community-based programs) is an important part of any society, and even the most basic job can become a meaningful career for those interested in pursuing it.
“It’s a really good job to be in,” said Jessie Murray, a detention officer in Carroll County, Arkansas. “I like being busy and on my feet.” Murray, who worked in the medical field for a decade, made the switch to corrections because she was both burnt out and wanted to pursue a lifelong dream of a career in law enforcement.
First, what is corrections?
The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines corrections as “the supervision of persons arrested for, convicted of, or sentenced for criminal offenses.” Correctional populations generally fall into two categories:
- Institutional corrections: Supervision of criminal offenders in a prison, jail, correctional camp, reformatory or detention center or any secure facility.
- Community corrections: Supervision of criminal offenders among the resident population, primarily defined as “on probation” or “on parole.”
When I apply to jobs, is there a difference between prison and jail?
Yes, there is. According to the National Institute of Justice, prisons are state or federal institutions designed for convicted individuals serving longer than 12 months. Jails are usually for those awaiting trial or with months long sentences, and are often locally administered. In a jail, you will see a greater flux in the population.
What are the different levels of corrections security?
Corrections institutions span minimum, low, medium, high and administrative security levels.
How to become a correctional officer
Determine if you are eligible to be a corrections officer.
Although the minimum requirements vary state to state and between individual agencies, most correctional officers must at least be a U.S. citizen, 18 or 21 years of age (depending on your state), have a high school diploma or equivalent and have no felony convictions. If you can’t satisfy these minimum qualifications, you will not be considered for employment.
Consider getting a degree in corrections or a related field.
Many agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, may have additional educational prerequisites for correctional officers, like having a bachelor’s degree or an equivalent combination of education and experience. Getting a degree in criminal justice, corrections or the social sciences could greatly increase your qualifications and chances of being hired, even if it’s not required at your particular agency.
Apply to be a corrections officer.
If you meet the qualifications at the corrections department you hope to work in, you can start applying for entry-level corrections officer jobs. At some point during the application process, you’ll have to undergo a background investigation which could include a drug test, psychological evaluation, fingerprinting, polygraph and more.
Pass any necessary exams.
You may have to pass a written, medical and/or physical exam, usually near the end of the application process. The physical exam measures your physical fitness and ability to handle the physical demands of the job, similar to physical requirements of military positions or law enforcement.
Complete on-the-job training.
Once you’ve accepted an offer of employment, your agency will provide on-the-job training, often at a training academy. This training period can be intensive and last several weeks or longer, depending on the agency. You’ll learn how things are run at the facility you work for, corrections basics and other job-specific skills to set you up for success in your position.
Complete a probationary period, if necessary.
Some correctional facilities—particularly at the federal level—make new officers complete a probationary period, often one year after they are hired. This probationary period is used to evaluate how you do on the job and determine if you are a good fit to continue employment.
What about CO training?
Correctional officer basic training usually takes about six weeks to complete. Each state is different, and the federal government has its own requirements, so check within your jurisdiction to see what its requirements are for becoming a correctional officer. Generally, if you’re accepted into a corrections job and need to attend basic training, you will be paid during your training.
All states and local correctional agencies require and provide formal instruction and on-the-job training. Typical corrections officer training takes 100 and 400 hours, depending upon the state.
After completing this basic training, corrections officers are generally required to do additional on-the-job training for a certain period of time.
“I can say each facility is very different. Each one operates differently,” Murray said. Murray also said that being a correctional officer can be a great way to learn many of the skills needed to be a police officer, and knows several people who were a detention or correctional officer before becoming a deputy or police officer.
Where higher education comes into play
To be a correctional officer, you’ll need at least a high school diploma or a GED. Certain agencies require some college, so consult your local agency to find their education requirements.
For those hoping to rise through the ranks or work at the federal level, a four-year bachelor’s degree is required. The GS-05 Correctional Officer job description from the Federal Bureau of Prisons states the role requires a combination of successful completion of a full 4-year course of study in any field leading to a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, or one to three years of full-time experience in a field providing counseling, assistance or supervision to individuals, such as social work.
Education need based on correctional position
|Job title||Education needed|
|Corrections Officer||In federal facilities a bachelor’s degree, otherwise a high school diploma|
|Bailiff||Generally, a high school diploma and some work experience in security|
|Penologist||Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or psychology|
|Probation/Parole Officer||Bachelor’s degree|
|Warden||Bachelor’s degree at minimum|
Master’s in corrections
While a master’s degree isn’t normally required to work in corrections, you may want to consider a graduate degree if you’re thinking of rising in the ranks and becoming a prison administrator, like a captain, major, deputy warden, or warden, or becoming part of the executive administration team in your state’s department of corrections.