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Corrections Officer Careers, Jobs and Training Information

Corrections Officer Career and Job Highlights

  • Jobs can be demanding and dangerous.
  • The majority of correctional officers work in rural areas with smaller inmate populations than with large populations in urban jails.
  • Employment prospects are bright.

Corrections Officer Career Overview

Correctional officers supervise arrested persons awaiting trial and convicted criminals serving time in penitentiaries, jails, and reformatories. One primary role of correctional officers is to avert attacks, escapes, and other disturbances, ensuring inmate accountability and security. Outside of the jail or penitentiary where they work, correctional officers have no policing duties.

Correctional officers working in for sheriff and police departments in local and county jails and precinct holding facilities are also known as detention officers. Counties manage about 3,300 jails in the United States; 75 percent of those are operated under the authority of an elected sheriff. The population of these jails changes regularly as new persons are arrested and old detainees are either transferred to prison or released. Annually greater than 11 million people are processed through the U.S. jail system; some 500,000 people are in prison at any moment. The most dangerous time for correctional officers occurs when new arrestees are brought to jail—they may not know the identity or background of the new detainees; dangerous criminals may be placed in with the regular prison population.

There are a few correctional officers who supervise foreign persons awaiting deportation or release by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. A small number work for privately-held, for-profit correction facilities. The majority of correctional officers, however, work with government prisons and large jails, overseeing the nearly one million people incarcerated in the United States at any time. All work in correction facilities can be hazardous, though jail populations tend to be less stable than prison populations; in prison populations, correctional officers know more about the security needs of the people they are supervising.

The primary role of correctional officers is to ensure order and security and enforce the policies and rules of the institution where they work. Officers observe actions and oversee task assigned to inmates in order to make certain inmates are obeying the rules. Officers may need to search inmates’ cells, confiscate drugs or weapons, enforce order, and resolve conflicts between inmates. Officers also help maintain the integrity of the holding facility by performing routine checks on doors, vents, windows, and locks. They also regularly look to ensure there are no fire hazards, unsafe conditions, or rule-breaking anywhere in the prison or jail. Correctional officers also examine inmates’ company and mail to make certain no banned objects enter the facility.

As part of their supervisory role, correctional officers make written and oral reports on inmate work and behavior. They also document conflicts, behavior discrepancies, hazards, and suspicious circumstances in a daily log and other specialized reports. Correctional officers must report every inmate who violates a rule without discretion or “playing favorites.” When necessary, correctional officers help look for prisoners who have escaped or help conduct investigations dealing with crimes that occur in their facility.

Officers who are employed in correction facilities with direct supervision cellblocks do not carry firearms. They usually work in tandem or alone, and are in charge of supervising from 50 to 100 inmates. These officers enforce the rules by taking privileges away from inmates who violate regulations and through effective communication. Despite being unarmed, these officers do carry radios in order to call for help when necessary.

Computer tracking systems and cameras help correctional officers observe violent and dangerous inmates from a centralized control center. In the highest security institutions where such criminals are restrained, the correctional officers may be the only people the inmates see for significant stretches of time. Inmates leave their cells only to shower, exercise, or receive supervised visitations. Correctional officers may need to shackle some inmates, depending on the stipulations of their imprisonment, to escort them between cells or to receive visitors. Inmates are also escorted by correctional officers to and from court and hospitals.

Corrections Officer Training and Job Qualifications

In order to work at most correctional facilities one must be at least 18 or 21 years old; not a convicted felon; have a high school diploma or GED; have U.S. citizenship; and have held a job for two years prior. A college degree or postsecondary education will give applicants an edge with regards to promotions.

Prospects for correctional officers’ positions must meet minimum requirements of eyesight, hearing, and physical abilities. They must also be able to demonstrate sound judgment and decision-making abilities. Drug tests, background checks, and written tests are also part of the application process. Quite a few institutions determine a candidate’s aptness to succeed in correctional facility employment by using standardized tests.

The American Jail Association and American Correctional Association have established standards for training correctional officers that many local, State, and Federal institutions use in their training. Local agencies in some States rely on State-sponsored academies for training. Instruction continues on-the-job after formal training, especially with regards to legal regulations related to an officer’s work and effective communication skills. Self-defense training and firearm certification is required by some institutes. Though training and application requirements differ between facilities, most trainees receive weeks or months of on-the-job training after being hired.

In formal training at academies, new officers learn about several pertinent topics, including custodial practices and security procedures, facility regulations, and prison operations. New Federal officers, in order to maintain their employment, are required to receive 200 hours of official training within one year of being hired. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons administers an additional 120 hours of training during the trainees first 60 days of employment at their residential training center in Glynco, Georgia. In-service trainings help veteran officers maintain awareness of advances and new practices. Prison tactical response teams are composed of correctional officers who have received training about chemicals, emergency management techniques, forced entry procedures, and weapons. These teams respond to prison uprisings, conflicts, forced cell moves, hostage situations, and other hazardous disturbances.

Correctional sergeants are chosen from among qualified officers that have a combination of training, education, and experience. Sergeants fill a supervisory role as they ensure safety and manage actions of officers in specific areas during their shift. Additional supervisory and administrative jobs, including all the way up to warden, are filled by qualified and dedicated correctional officers. Lateral job movement occurs as correctional officers transfer to similar fields of employment like parole officer, probation officer, or correctional treatment specialist.

Corrections Officer Job and Employment Opportunities

Superb job opportunities await correctional officers. Thousands of jobs will be created each year as existing officers leave the field by retiring or transferring and as employment demand increases. The comparatively low salaried and rural location has made finding and keeping qualified officers difficult for State and local facilities. These conditions will likely continue in the future.

The growing prison population will create new supervisory positions and correctional officer posts, resulting in a faster-than-average employment growth rate through 2012 for correctional officers. Inmate populations will likely increase as an effect of mandatory sentencing laws resulting in reduced parole and longer sentences. New facility construction will create more job opportunities as well, though the rate at which new institutions are built may be slowed somewhat by State and local budgetary constraints. Private institutions hired by the government to provide correctional services will also be a source of corrections employment.

Correctional officers can join unions or other negotiating groups but are not permitted to strike. However, the rising inmate population allows for few officers being fired or laid off.

Historical Earnings Information

The top 10 percent of correctional officers and jailers earned $52,370 in 2002, compared to the less than $22,010 that the lowest 10 percent earned. The median annual earnings were $32,670 with the middle half earning between $25,950 and $42,620. Veteran officers may earn more still.