Prison wardens are high-ranking officials who oversee prisons. They are responsible for the safe, secure, and efficient operation of prisons. They also oversee all prison staff to ensure proper and consistent adherence to all applicable laws, rules, standards, and facility-specific policies.
Prison wardens are employed at all levels of government and the private sector. They work in the Bureau of Prisons within the U.S. Department of Justice, state prisons, and private prisons that contract with states. City and county governments operate jails. Jail wardens do the same job as prison wardens, but the facilities have different populations. Jails hold people serving short sentences and those awaiting trial, while prisons house inmates with lengthier sentences.
In their daily work, prison wardens see people who are in the lowest times of their lives. Many inmates do not rehabilitate, and it can be frustrating for wardens to see people come back to prison repeatedly. However, some people come to prison once, get their behavior under control, and leave to lead productive lives; and this can be rewarding for prison wardens.
Prison Warden Duties & Responsibilities
Prison wardens are generally responsible for the following:
- Supervise all prison staff for both juveniles and adults.
- Determine staffing needs and allocate available staff accordingly.
- Ensure that staff stays compliant by adhering to all laws, rules, and standards that govern how prisons operate, as well as to the facility policies and procedures approved by the warden.
- Oversee staff training and request routine data reports on training activity including delinquency on mandated recurring training.
- Supervise or conduct investigations of alleged inappropriate behavior and take disciplinary action, if deemed necessary.
- Ensure that the facility and security equipment are properly functioning to keep staff safe.
- Manage budgets and monitor expenses involving building and grounds upkeep, as well as significant health care, food services, and laundry costs.
Prison wardens supervise all prison staff, which include correctional officers, health care professionals, counselors, maintenance staff, and custodial staff. They delegate responsibilities and make all final decisions. Prisons rarely house both adult and juvenile offenders, however, when they do, those two populations maintain physical distance between each other. Wardens who administer juvenile prisons manage juvenile correctional officers instead of correctional officers for adults.
A warden ensures the staffing needs of the prison are met at all times. They determine staffing needs and allocate available staff according to those needs. When needs are not met by available resources, a warden prioritizes staffing functions that must be covered, those that can be partially covered, and those that can be foregone for a period of time. When resources are strained, wardens advocate for more resources with their managers.
When it is alleged that a staff member acted inappropriately, the warden either investigates the situation or appoints someone to do the job. Either way, the warden ensures that the investigation is thorough, fair, and reaches the appropriate conclusion. If the staff member is found to have acted inappropriately, the warden decides what personnel actions will be taken against the staff member.
Prison Warden Salary
A prison warden's salary can vary greatly and depends on the state in which they work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes prison wardens under the category correctional officers and jailers, which earned the following salary:
- Median Annual Salary: $44,330 ($21.31/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $76,760 ($36.90/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $31,140 ($14.97/hour)
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
PayScale also provides salary information for prison wardens, with figures higher than those provided by the BLS:
- Median Annual Salary: $87,099 ($41.87/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $144,002 ($69.23/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $54,715 ($26.31/hour)
Source: PayScale.com, 2019
Education, Training, & Certification
Those interested in a career as a prison warden will need the following education, training, and certification:
- Education: Employers usually require candidates to hold a bachelor’s or associate's degree, preferably in criminology, criminal justice, social work, or justice administration. Some prison wardens may hold a master's degree in business management or corrections management. Coursework generally covers the social and psychological aspects of crime, juvenile delinquency, research and reporting skills, forensic science and investigative skills, and the history of crime and the justice system.
- Training: Candidates are required to have extensive experience in corrections working as a police officer, corrections officer, government clerk, or government contractor. This experience must include time as a supervisor, ideally with increased responsibility in several positions.
- Certification: Positions in this industry may require extensive post-certification training or other credentials. The American Correctional Association (ACA) offers certifications for those looking to advance and gain recognition in the field. To become certified, candidates must complete a self-study program followed by successful completion of an exam.
- Background check: Candidates need to have a clean criminal history with no felony convictions, a clean drug screen, and eligibility to own or possess a firearm.
Prison Warden Skills & Competencies
This career requires the following skills:
- Physical and mental stamina: Wardens must be able to control the prison environment to minimize the likelihood of violent events that can lead to serious injuries and fatalities among prisoners and staff.
- Leadership: To gain and keep the respect of their staff, wardens must demonstrate good leadership and deep knowledge of the criminal justice field.
- Verbal communication skills: Wardens represent prisons to oversight authorities and external entities. Even though the prison may have a public information officer, news reporters may want to interview the warden. Therefore, wardens must polish their public speaking skills.
- Critical-thinking skills: When confronted with a possible violation, a prison warden must analyze and evaluate the situation to determine the most appropriate solution.
- Business management skills: Running a prison requires managing budgets and monitoring expenses, as well as overseeing the maintenance of buildings and grounds.
- Negotiation skills: There may be violent or contentious incidents that require good negotiation skills to diffuse situations before they become life-threatening.
- Self-defense skills: Inmates may be unpredictable and become violent at times, requiring wardens to protect themselves from harm.
For many who hold a prison warden position, it is the last job they hold before retirement. Wardens are seasoned professionals who have proven their knowledge, skills, and abilities over a long career.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide employment information specifically for prison wardens. However, it does provide information for correctional officer jobs, which are projected to decline by 7% until 2026. State and local budget constraints and prison population levels will determine how many correctional officers are necessary.
Prison wardens may work in an office or other areas of the prison facility, or outdoors overseeing inmate and staff operations. The environment can be difficult at times. Even in the safest prisons, emergencies are bound to occur. Security breaches such as escapes or riots may occur, and natural or man-made disasters may strike. Prison staff members must stay calm during these times.
Wardens serve as incident commanders in emergency situations. They snap into action to direct resources toward abating the emergency and addressing the aftermath. They do this until they get help from outside the prison from organizations such as the National Guard or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Even when their authority is superseded by a new incident commander, the warden is an integral part of the incident command structure because of the volatile nature of prison populations.
Constant security is needed at all hours, seven days a week, so rotating shifts will occur throughout the day and night. Officers can expect to work a rotating schedule to include weekends.
How to Get the Job
The North American Association of Wardens & Superintendents (NAAWS) and the American Correctional Association (ACA) provide resources, such as job postings, for industry professionals.
Membership in organizations such as the U.S. Deputy Warden's Association (UDWA) and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) can introduce you to other industry professionals, which can lead to a job.
Wardens are hired through the normal government hiring process. Because individuals in these positions have direct access to inmates, employers conduct criminal history and background checks. Felonies disqualify individuals from employment. Finalists are often asked to submit to drug testing before a job offer is extended.
Because the position has such a high level of responsibility and because the warden’s supervisor does not have an office at the prison, panel interviews are often used in the hiring process. This type of interview helps hiring managers mitigate the impact of any biases they may have. Hiring managers must be able to trust new hires, but they do not want to misplace that trust. Panel members provide their input on who should be hired, but the ultimate decision remains with the hiring manager.
Comparing Similar Jobs
People interested in a prison warden career may also want to consider the following jobs, along with the median annual salary:
- Probation Officer and Correctional Treatment Specialist: $53,020
- Correctional Officer or Bailiff: $44,400
- Police Officer or Detective: $63,380
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018