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What do correctional officer salaries look like?
Median annual salary
In the past, prison correctional officers typically were hired without much more than a high school diploma (if that), and it was not a particularly incentivized career field. As the penal system becomes more aware of the needs of its inmate populations and sensitized to prison reforms and the benefits of employing mentally and emotionally healthy, educated officers, rigorous training has become more of a priority.
Outside of the mandatory basic training program (generally 13 to 16 weeks) many states such as California are now offering advanced programs that prepare officers for specializing above their college degree, so that they may advance up the correctional chain of command. More education generally equates to better pay, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites the following median correctional officer salaries by state:
Median Salary: $47,920
Projected job growth: -10.3%
10th Percentile: $34,600
25th Percentile: $38,590
75th Percentile: $62,940
90th Percentile: $79,340
Projected job growth: -10.3%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
Salary by metro area
Salaries are also impacted by where you live and work and the concentration of prisons, your years of experience in the field and what level of education you’ve earned. Look at the highest paying metropolitan areas for correctional officers:
Salary by facility
The level of government and industry in which you work will also have an impact on your pay. Federal prisons require more education but pay better than state prisons or local jails. The BLS says the top industries for correctional officers include:
|Industry||Median annual salary|
|Federal government facilities||$59,920|
|Local government, not including hospitals or schools||$48,530|
|State government facilities, not including hospitals or schools||$47,920|
|Facilities support services||$39,820|
How to increase your salary
Short answer? Education.
If you choose to work at the state level of corrections, your salary will be set by the state pay grade scale and every state will have its own unique set of education and training requirements to enter the field. But if you want to work in the prison system at the federal level, you’ll be required to hold a bachelor’s degree, even for entry-level positions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons may also accept one to three years of full-time experience in a field providing counseling, social work assistance or supervision to individuals as an alternative.
Jessie Murray, a detention officer in Carroll County, Arkansas, said her first job as a correctional officer didn’t have any educational requirements beyond a high school diploma. That being said, some agencies may pay you more if you have more education to begin with. “If you have more schooling, that does help.”
Experience can pay off, too. “If you come in as a detention/correctional officer but you’ve been a DO/CO somewhere else, that helps too,” Murray said.
If you want to move up the ladder and into administrative roles, or roles outside of the prison walls, additional training is key. As an example, correctional officers in California may select different areas to specialize, and they all require an academy training program. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) offers pathways to the following areas of specialty, among others, and all candidates must have experience and meet admission requirements:
- Basic Correctional Juvenile Academy
- Basic Parole Agent Academy
- Basic or Advanced Armorer and Munitions
- Baton Training
As mentioned earlier, that state also offers advanced training for those interested in pursuing correctional administration roles. Coursework in managerial skills and advanced supervision build on the education you received in your college program and may help prepare you for higher paying jobs such as prison warden or penologist.
As expected, higher-level positions will usually pay more as you advance up the career ladder. “At the place I’m at now in Arkansas, you start out with your detention officer pay like everybody else, and when you start leveling up you get a little bit more each time,” Murray said.
You might also consider a lateral move outside the system to a role such as probation officer or parole officer.
Here are some of the median annual salaries for related correctional careers:
|Career||Median Annual Salary|
|Correctional Officers and Jailers||$47,920|
|Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists||$60,250|
The federal prison chain of command and their salaries
Within the federal prison system there is an entire hierarchy of roles that lead up to the most advanced job you can attain: prison warden. These jobs are paid according to the federal government pay grade system and time on the job and training will be your best route to navigating its complexity. Here are some federal correctional salaries by pay grade for 2022:
|Job title||Pay grade||Average Step 5 (mid-point) salary|
|Senior officer specialist||GS-06||$39,269|
What is the job growth for corrections officers?
According to the BLS, job growth for correctional officers will decline through 2031. They still predict around 33,300 openings for correctional officers each year within that time frame, and the -10.3% decrease in job growth is attributed mainly to changes to how people are arrested and incarcerated each year.
Many states are moving away from incarceration due to high costs for keeping people in prison or requiring shorter sentences and alternatives to prison. Community-based programs that are designed to rehabilitate prisoners and limit their risk of repeat offending may also reduce prisoner populations and may provide opportunities for those who wish to pursue jobs as probation and parole officers, social workers, drug treatment counselors and penologists.
Is there a benefit to joining a union?
Due to the dangerous nature of corrections jobs within the prison system, unions are committed to promoting safer working conditions for correctional officers as well as pushing for better pay and benefit packages. There is one national union that represents correctional workers, the National Correctional Employees Union, whose mission is to bargain for better benefits, wages and working conditions for members, but most states either have their own chapter of the NCEU or other union representation that is nationally recognized, such as the Teamsters or AFL-CIO.
As an example of benefits, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) says the following benefits hold true for unionized correctional workers (and other career fields they represent):
- Better pay: Unionized workers make on average $10,000 more annually
- Better healthcare plans: 30% more union workers participate in employer healthcare programs than non-members
- A better pension or 401k: 60% more unionized employees have a benefit-pension plan than non-union workers
Other benefits to union membership may include scholarships to help advance careers through education, mortgage savings and automobile buying discounts, among other perks.