Over 2.1 million people are being held in America’s jails, prisons and juvenile correctional facilities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The safety, security and control of this population is vital and is provided through the assistance of correctional officers.
What is a Correctional Officer?
A correctional officer oversees individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial, or who have been sentenced to serve time in prison or jail. In practice, this means correctional officers strive for safety, both in keeping the public safe from convicted criminals and keeping the inmates safe during their time in a correctional facility.
Their diligent oversight is critical. Supervision can range from instructing inmates on housekeeping or sanitation to issuing personal items to inmates.
Correctional officers are responsible for maintaining control through several routine practices. Establishing a secure environment is a critical component, from maintaining records of equipment to practicing knowledge of emergency measures, inmate transportation and restraint procedures. Duties may include:
- Enforcing rules and maintain order within the facility
- Supervising inmate activity
- Inspecting facilities for security and safety standards
- Searching inmates, visitors and mail for contraband items
- Reporting on inmate conduct
- Securely escorting and transporting inmates
Correctional officers strive to maintain a safe, secure environment by checking cells for unsanitary conditions or rule violations, as well as signs of tampering.
In some cases, particularly because of staffing challenges, correctional officers may also support rehabilitation and counseling, though this is most often asked of officers with advanced training or a degree.
Where do Correctional Officers Work?
In a role that oversees inmates, correctional officers predominately work inside correctional facilities, though they may spend time in courthouses as well as engage with all aspects of the criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the majority of correctional officer jobs were for state governments facilities. They are also employed at other facilities, including:
- Local sheriff’s offices
- County jails
- State and federal prisons
- Juvenile detention centers
Correctional officers work in shifts because correctional facilities require 24-hour staffing. In some cases, this may include weekends and holidays as well.
Work with inmates can be stressful, involve confrontation and may be dangerous. According to BLS, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of illness and injury.
How Do I Become a Correctional Officer?
Depending on the state or agency you’re looking to work for, requirements may vary, though all agencies will require a high school diploma and a training academy. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires a bachelor’s degree or a minimum of 1-3 years’ full-time experience in a related field for entry-level candidates. The demands of the job itself will require you to be in good physical condition as well.
Correctional Officer Salary and Job Growth
Employment of correctional officers is contingent on both state or local budgets and prison population levels. Prospective correctional officers can expect good job prospects, given a need to replace retiring, transferring or resigning correctional officers. In general, criminal laws can change annually, and impact the number of people who are arrested and incarcerated annually.
The average annual wage for correctional officers was $46,750 in May 2016, according to the BLS. Because salary potential and employment opportunities may vary depending on factors such as a candidate’s education and experience, as well as regional market conditions, prospective students are encouraged to conduct independent research.
Should I Become a Correctional Officer?
If you value the challenge presented in making a difference in this role, a career as a correctional officer may be a great opportunity for you. You’ll need to be comfortable with the tradeoff that this stable job is often stressful, and does have a high potential for injury on the job. Other important qualities for correctional officers include:
- Strong decision-making skills to quickly determine an approach in high-pressure situations.
- Attention to detail to ensure strict adherence to procedures.
- Interpersonal skills to navigate relationships with other criminal justice professionals and inmates.
- Negotiation skills to resolve conflicts between inmates.
- Physical strength to control inmates or others in a physical situation.
- Self-regulation in high-intensity situations.
If you’re interested in criminal justice, are a strong communicator, and can maintain a strong, commanding presence, you should consider a career as a correctional offer.