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Correctional officer career overview

correctional officer with inmate

Inmates in jails and prisons must be supervised throughout their sentence. Although the level of supervision may vary depending on the type of facility, there’s always a necessity for people to maintain the security and safety of a correctional facility and the people within it. This is the job of correctional officers (CO). 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.

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

A CO’s job is not limited to security operations, however. COs are important role models for inmates and hold them accountable for their actions when necessary. They get to make an impact on the lives of incarcerated individuals and hopefully get to see them successfully reenter their community. 

Correctional officers may also be referred to as detention officers (DOs). These terms usually mean the same thing, though detention officers may have a slightly different job duties than correctional officers depending on how the terms are used at an individual agency or facility. Both positions, no matter how they are used, fall under the corrections umbrella.

What do correctional officers do?

Correctional officers can work in different ways within a correctional facility. Depending on the size of the facility and the scope of your position, you may be assigned to a specific post such as transportation or recreation, or you may work in a variety of posts. COs may have to carry a firearm while on the job.

It’s also common for facilities to have a tiered system of correctional officers, in which COs with more experience advance to a higher position which comes with more responsibilities, all the way up to sergeants, lieutenants and captains. Some facilities have Community Correctional Officers (CCOs) as well, which focus more on providing support programs to inmates returning to the community.

Correctional officer duties

This means that your exact job as a CO can vary, but you can generally be expected to perform the following duties as a CO:

  • Assist in monitoring and directing the activities and movements of inmates within a facility
  • Maintain security and ensure inmate accountability to prevent disturbances, assaults and escapes
  • Inspect the facility by checking cells and other areas for contraband, fire hazards, unsanitary conditions and any evidence of infractions of the rules
  • Utilize interpersonal skills and physical force when necessary to deescalate potentially violent situations with inmates
  • Write reports on inmate behavior and the quality of inmate work
  • Act as a positive role model to inmates

What it’s like to work as a correctional officer

Jessie Murray, a detention officer in Carroll County, Arkansas, switched to the field of corrections after getting burnt out working in the medical field for about ten years. Now Murray works 12-hour shifts as a detention officer, where she typically works three or four days and then gets three or four days off. 

“I like being busy and on my feet and learning all this new stuff,” Murray said. “We do a lot of intakes, where the officer will bring somebody in or they surrender themselves, and we’ll take them in.” Murray said her time is split pretty evenly between administrative work like intakes and more active tasks such as pod checks.

In addition, Murray said she does a lot of on-the-job training as a detention officer to continue learning new skills. She’s even received a lot of medical training in case a nurse isn’t available or immediately present in a medical situation.  

Where do COs work?

Most correctional 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 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 with 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.

Shifts and post rotations

There is a lot of controversy about the types of schedules correctional officers keep, and since shift work is common in the correctional world, there has been scrutiny on its impact on correctional officers. Shift work is defined as a working schedule that is not the traditional Monday through Friday eight hour day, and because of administration looking to keep costs down, is common in prisons and jails. Some critics feel shift work causes physical and mental stress due to the lack of a predictable and regular sleep schedule.

The BLS states that correctional officers usually work full time on rotating shifts. Jails and prisons never sleep and security must be provided around the clock, so officers work all hours of the day and night, including weekends and holidays, and overtime is often mandatory.

Considering correctional officers need to be alert and able to make quick decisions, the ability to do the job well may be impacted by a rotating shift, so if you are looking for a job that has a stable, 40-hour a week, 9-to-5 schedule, you may want to think about a correctional administration or probation officer career path instead.

Example of a shift rotation
A correctional officer may work five days a week in eight-hour shifts, but the days off might vary from week-to-week. One week he or she may work five non-consecutive days and nights including weekends, while the next week they may work Monday through Friday with the entire weekend off. Some correctional facilities use a 12-hour work day schedule where officers work three days but then have two days off.

COs also find themselves rotating duty posts, often every few weeks. This kind of shift rotation is designed to prevent any CO from getting too comfortable in one area or with one set of wards. Post rotations can keep things fresh, always providing COs with new challenges and new environments to engage with.

Example of a post rotation
A correctional officer may find that their prison or jail works in 6 week post rotations, moving from one wing to another, or from transportation duty to yard duty. Other places may rotate COs every month, every other week, or randomly.

Correctional officer requirements

Although each agency’s requirements can vary slightly, almost all correctional officers 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 exams and physical fitness tests
  • Some agencies require some college education or relevant work experience
  • Have no felony convictions
  • Pass a background investigation
  • Pass a medical and psychological evaluation

These are minimum requirements—agencies may choose to have additional requirements beyond the minimum. 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 correctional officer.

Correctional officer training

All correctional agencies require and provide formal instruction and on-the-job training for hired correctional officers. This usually involves attending an intensive academy (similar to the types of academies new police recruits are sent to) to learn how to execute the tasks of the job successfully. Typical correctional officer trainings will take around 300 hours over several weeks, and covers many of the following topics:

  • Collaborative case management
  • Communicating with inmates
  • Computer security
  • CPR
  • Custody and security
  • Discriminatory harassment
  • Ethics
  • Firearms
  • Fire safety
  • First aid
  • Initial administrative process
  • Managing offender behavior
  • Mental illness in prison
  • Personal searches
  • Physical training
  • Policies and procedures
  • Prisoner discipline
  • Prisoner grievances
  • Prisoner transportation
  • Restraints
  • Self defense
  • Sexual abuse and harassment
  • Stress management
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicide prevention
  • Workplace safety

After completing this basic training, correctional officers are generally required to do additional on-the-job training for a certain period of time. In most cases, continued employment hinges on the successful completion of all necessary training requirements. 

Some facilities, like the one that Murray works at, operate a little differently. She didn’t attend a formal training academy once she got hired, but received and continues to receive extensive on-the-job training. “It’s a lot of training, a lot of learning.”

Certifications and certifying bodies for corrections

There are numerous national, voluntary certifications available to correctional officers. A professional certification can be a boon to your resume and distinguish yourself in the field—it could also be the key to landing a more advanced position and a higher salary.

American Correctional Association

The American Correctional Association (ACA) has eight certifications available for correctional officers: four in adult corrections and four in juvenile corrections. To qualify for each type of certification, you must have a certain combination of education and experience and pass an exam. Each exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. You must get a grade of at least 70% to pass, and getting a grade of 90% or higher will earn you an honors credential.

Certified corrections professionals through the ACA must renew their certification every three years by submitting a recertification application that demonstrates the successful completion of a certain amount of recertification credits.

ACA CertificationQualifications
Certified Corrections Officer (CCO) /Juvenile (CCO/JUV)High school diploma/general educational diploma (HS/GED) +
One year work experience in present position at the officer level
Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS) /Juvenile (CCS/JUV)Associate degree + one year work experience in present position at the supervisory level
HS/GED + one year work experience in present position at the supervisory level + two years of full-time corrections experience
Certified Corrections Manager (CCM) /Juvenile (CCM/JUV)Associate degree + one year work experience in present position at the managerial level
HS/GED + one year work experience in present position at the managerial level + five years of full-time corrections experience
Certified Corrections Executive (CCE) /Juvenile (CCE/JUV)Bachelor’s degree + one year work experience in present position at the executive level
HS/GED + one year work experience in present position at the executive level + seven years of full-time corrections experience

American Jail Association 

The American Jail Association (AJA) also offers its own tiered certifications for correctional officers. To earn any of these qualifications, you have to pass an exam. The exams are multiple-choice and vary in length depending on what certification you are testing for. You must get a grade of at least 80% to pass.

These certifications must be renewed every four years. You have the option to either demonstrate that you’ve taken a certain amount of training relevant to your position to recertify, or take the exam again to earn your recertification.

AJA CertificationQualifications
Certified Jail Officer (CJO)Must be employed full time for a minimum of one year as a paid jail officer
Certified Jail Supervisor (CJS)Must be employed full time for a minimum of one year as a paid jail supervisor
Certified Jail Manager (CJM)Must be employed full time for a minimum of one year as a paid jail manager

National Institute of Jail Operations

The National Institute of Jail Operations (NIJO) also has a certification for jail officers, supervisors and executives. Individuals can seek their certifications voluntarily, and a number of corrections agencies have their staff members get NIJO certified.

Unlike the other certifications which require passing a test, NIJO certifications are obtained by completing a certain number of NIJO certified training hours (plus having a specified number of years of work experience for supervisors and executives). These training hours can be obtained through NIJO’s Detention and Correction’s Online Training Academy (DACOTA) or NIJO approved training seminars or conferences.

To maintain your certification, you must complete an additional 15 hours of NIJO approved continuing education hours annually after the first two years. NCCEs are the exception—they must complete 20 hours annually.  

NIJO CertificationQualifications
National Certified Corrections Officer (NCCO)40 total NIJO certified training hours
No minimum work experience required
National Certified Corrections Supervisor (NCCS)70 total NIJO certified training hours
Two years work experience in a jail, detention facility or support required
National Certified Corrections Executive (NCCE)115 total NIJO certified training hours
Four years work experience in a jail, detention facility or support required

Is becoming a correctional officer right for you?

Like most occupations, not just anyone can thrive as a correctional officer. Murray said there are some essential qualities that you should have to do your job well and enjoy it, too.

Character traits and soft skills useful for COs

  • Mental fortitude: When you’re working in a correctional facility, you aren’t necessarily seeing people at their best. Murray experienced this working in the medical field too, which is why she emphasized the importance of being mentally resilient and not taking things that people say too personally. “They need to have really good mental strength so they don’t let what anybody says get to them,” Murray said. “To work in this area, you learn to have better control of your emotions and know not to act upon them.”
  • Physical strength: Although you can expect to receive physical fitness training once you are hired, you’ll still need to be physically fit enough to pass any initial standardized fitness tests that an agency may have. For good reason, too—you may need to defend yourself or restrain inmates in the event of a physical altercation. “They need to be good physically, have some strength just in case because that’s very much needed,” Murray said.
  • Quick learner: Murray said she receives a lot of on-the-job training to continue gaining new skills. “In each setting, each jail or prison, they’re all fast-paced and you’ve really got to grasp onto things as fast as you can.”
  • Good judgement: You may need to make a decision quickly in order to ensure your, or another officer’s or inmate’s safety. Knowing what to do and when is critical in this role.
  • Critical thinking: You’ll need to be able to use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses in your approaches to problems.

Hard skills for COs

Some hard skills that you’ll need and can develop on the job include:

  • CPR and first aid: In a volatile environment accidents and intentional or unintentional violence can happen. And where there is a large congregation of people doing different types of labor and tasks, injuries can occur. You may be first on the scene and you’ll need to be able to administer CPR or temporary first aid quickly.
  • Computer and monitoring systems software skills: Jails and prisons use computerized databases and there are different software applications out there that help manage case files, security, surveillance, inmate profiles and behavioral and health records. Knowledge of applications and systems such as 3M Electronic Monitoring, Guardian RFID, jail management software and Microsoft Access are likely to be part of the job.
kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

With professional insights from:

Jessie Murray

Detention officer, Carroll County, Arkansas