WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BECOMING A CORRECTIONS OFFICER
Learn how to become a corrections officer and see what traits make a good fit for the job.
What’s the most important part of being a corrections officer (CO)? Most people would probably say that maintaining security is the main issue. But if you ask COs, they might say camaraderie and teamwork is an important part of the job: the relationships they develop with other COs, mentors, junior members of the team, and prison administration.
It’s no secret that working in prison can be challenging—and dangerous—but there are 468,600* correctional officers across the country willing to take the risk, and many more will go into the profession as the years go by, so there must be some reward to the role, right?
If you’ve been wondering how to become a corrections officer, you probably have ideas about what the career will entail, but still have some questions. We hope to answer them here.
What kind of people work in corrections?
People take many different paths to becoming correctional officers, so there’s no one-size-fits-all model.
If you still think that all COs are middle-aged, white males with a high school diploma, you’re reflecting an old stereotype. Today, COs are entering the field at a younger age, with much more education, and from all different backgrounds. The gender gap is closing in prisons too, and this means more job opportunity for women.
There are many dynamic, young people who go into the profession, and there are many career changers, those who worked in other fields and went into corrections as a second career. Some started as security guards or teachers and moved into the job. Others were social workers or police officers and became interested in working in prisons and jails.
What are the traits that make a great corrections officer?
The number one characteristic that will make you a good CO is interpersonal skills. You see some people day in/ day out, for months or even years at a time, and the way you interact with them really counts. You need to be able to develop rapport, command respect, and show them that you’re even-keeled and fair-minded.
Here are some other traits and characteristics that will serve you well as a correctional officer:
- A good judge of human nature
- Be willing to learn
- Good problem-solving skills
- Have a thick skin
- High ethical standards
- Open-minded yet consistent
- Physical and emotional fitness
- Respectful of others
What can you tell me about CO basic 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 about 300 hours, and covers many of the following topics:
- Computer Security
- Custody and Security
- Discriminatory Harassment
- Fire Safety
- First Aid and CPR
- Initial Administrative Process
- Managing Offender Behavior
- Stress Management
- Personal Searches
- Physical Training
- Policies and Procedures
- Prisoner Discipline
- Prisoner Grievances
- Prisoner Transportation
- Sexual Abuse and Harassment
- Substance Abuse
- Suicide Prevention
After completing this basic training, corrections officers are generally required to do additional on-the-job training for a certain period of time.
For those hoping to rise through the ranks, though, a degree in criminal justice with a corrections concentration might also be beneficial.
Although an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may not be required, you’ll get a deeper understanding of how corrections works, may be considered a more valuable member of the team, and might have better opportunities for career advancement.
What are the benefits of the job?
Many COs will tell you they love their jobs. And there are good reasons for that:
Camaraderie: The relationships you build in this type of work can last a lifetime. If you ever need to count on a colleague, it’s nice to know they have your back. And they’re glad that you’re looking out for them too.
Job security: There are jobs in corrections across the country, and since inmates aren’t going away, neither will the need for good COs. If you do your job, it’s likely that you can stay at it for a long time and get promoted to other positions that interest you.
A stable paycheck, with benefits: With job security comes a paycheck every two weeks. Many COs will tell you that they’ve been able to afford a lifestyle they like. You can earn more money for working nights and weekends, get paid overtime, and sometimes get a commuter subsidy. There may also be performance-based awards. Benefits include health and dental insurance, vacation, and sick leave.
Government pensions: Depending on where you work (state or federal prison), you may qualify for retirement after 20 years of service.
Satisfaction in a job well done: balancing the job requirements with the human factor when interacting with inmates can sometimes be a challenge. That’s why it takes a special person—someone who’s even-keeled and understands human psychology—to become a corrections officer.
Corrections Chain of Command: Career Advancement
The chain of command is the line of succession, authority, and reporting that corrections officers are required to follow. Seeing the chain of command also lets you know what corrections position you might aspire to. Below are corrections job titles and descriptions. Which one would you set your sights on?
- Probationary Correctional Officer: After completing CO basic training, you’ll have a probationary period that varies depending on the state you live in. During this time, you are still considered a trainee.
- Correctional Officer: Once you’ve finished your probationary period, you’ll be a fully vetted corrections officer, and your salary will go up.
- Senior Correctional Officer: After demonstrating your knowledge, skill and abilities, you can be promoted to senior CO. You’ll be responsible for all of your normal job duties, but will also help supervise and mentor newer COs.
- Sergeant: The next level of leadership is sergeant. Under the direction of your lieutenant, you’ll supervise staff activities, insure inmate safety and security, coordinate inmate programs, and help your lieutenant manage the facility.
- Lieutenant: Lieutenants get direction from the captain and have authority over their facility, personnel, and activities. They make sure that daily activities are completed, including sick call, recreation, court appearances, medical and dental appointments, resident programs, commissary, and daily cell inspections.
- Captain: Captains perform senior-level supervisory work, which may include directing the activities of correctional staff. They work with limited supervision and must show initiative and use independent judgment.
- Major: The next step up is major, the person responsible for the custody and discipline of offenders and for inmate work programs.
- Deputy Warden: The DW is the second-in-command, and he’s the primary administrative officer. Deputy wardens carry out the warden’s duties in his or her absence.
- Warden: The warden is like the CEO of a prison. He or she is responsible for the overall safety in and functioning of a prison, both inmate punishment and rehabilitation, how money is spent, and the results of incarceration.
Now that you know the different jobs you can find in prisons across the country, which one seems right for you? If you want to get a foot in the door, with a greater chance of promotion, why not look for the education you’ll need to set yourself apart from your peers and give you an advantage when promotional opportunities come up in your facility?
Where do correctional officers work?
Corrections officers work in all different types of facilities, from small jails to large-scale prisons. If we include inmates who are under supervision in our communities, the work of probation and parole officers can put them in government offices, and in individuals’ workplaces and even living quarters.
Here are descriptions of some of the places you might work if you become a corrections officer:
- Jails are short-term facilities that hold inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. They’re also 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 a year or more. They’re broken down into these three 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 in other facilities. Inmates assigned to minimum security prisons generally pose the least risk to public safety.
- Medium security prisons normally have secure dormitories (with military-style double bunks) that are locked at night. 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 are for the most dangerous inmates who are a severe threat to public safety, correctional staff and other inmates. They have cells with sliding cell doors that are remotely operated from a secure control station.
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.
- Probation and parole officers supervise people in community corrections. These offenders are either sentenced to probation for their crime or are released early for good behavior. Probation and parole officers may help their clients find housing or jobs, and may enforce drug and alcohol compliance or other requirements of the probationers’ or parolees’ release. Parole officers usually have fewer cases than probation officers, with caseloads ranging between 80 and 120. Probation officers with adult probationers can have many more. And some probation and parole officers have training in social work.
If you’d like to become a correctional officer and this seems like the career for you, get the education you need to set yourself apart from the competition. Be part of the solution. Society will thank you.
Sources: *www.bls.gov, Introduction to Corrections, Fifth Edition, Jeanne B. Stinchcomb and Vernon B. Fox, www.doc.wa.gov/family/offenderlife/facilitystaff.asp, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=10&ved=0CF4QFjAJahUKEwjo5qj6yYbJAhXNL4gKHdR7D98&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.orangecountyfl.net%2FPortals%2F0%2FLibrary%2FJail-Judicial%2Fdocs%2FCorrections%2520Frequently%2520Asked%2520Questions2.pdf&usg=AFQjCNG0_E9Vz3NpHKXcsVDAQKgIIoinkw&sig2=9eqlh0l9Eds9QMNc_egdsw, www.co.genesee.ny.us/departments/humanresources/seniorcorrectionofficerspec.html, http://sccounty01.co.santa-cruz.ca.us/personnel/Specs/RC9spec.html, http://www.co.champaign.il.us/DESCRIPT/shoff/nbu/LIEUTCOR.HTM, http://www.hr.sao.state.tx.us/compensation/JobDescriptions/R4512.htm, http://www.hr.sao.state.tx.us/compensation/JobDescriptions/R4513.htm,http://www.forbes.com/2006/04/15/prison-warden-reinvention_cx_lr_06slate_0418warden.html, http://forums.officer.com/t151555/, www.bop.gov/jobs/life_at_the_bop.jsp, www.bop.gov/jobs/positions/?p=Correctional%20Officer