Government Job Profile: Correctional Officer

Key in Jail Cell Door
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Correctional officers are a vital part of the criminal justice system. They monitor inmates to prevent them from harming themselves or others. Correctional officers look out for each other on the job. If one officer makes a mistake, harm can come to that officer and other officers.

Who Employs Correctional Officers?

Organizations across all levels of government employ correctional officers. Cities and counties operate jails that house individuals awaiting trial and serving short sentences. States and the federal government employ correctional officers to work in prisons. Those serving longer sentences do their time in prisons. The Bureau of Prisons within the Department of Justice is the federal agency that operates prisons. Each state has its own agency that is autonomous from the Bureau of Prisons.

Private prisons also employ correctional officers. These facilities hold contracts with government organizations to operate prisons. These prisons work just like public prisons and are monitored by the contract-holding organizations. Companies base their fees on how many prisoners are housed each day.

Corrections is an extremely dangerous line of work. Correctional officers are frequently injured while on duty. They deal with the most dangerous people in our society. Even though these people have had weapons taken away from them, weapons are sometimes smuggled in or made from materials prisoners can access. Correctional officers must remain alert and physically able to subdue threatening behavior.

Prisons have high turnover rates. While corrections is a noble profession, the significant risk of injury combined with relatively low pay creates an environment few want to stay in for too long. Entry level pay is particularly low, so individuals desiring to leave do not have much difficulty finding better-paying work with less chance of injury. It takes a lot of time and money to train a correctional officer, and this only exacerbates the turnover problem.

Prisons have organizational structures much like police departments. Depending on the size of the prison, a warden may have several levels of management in a prison’s staff. Titles may include sergeant, lieutenant, captain and major.

The Selection Process

New correctional officers must be old enough to have obtained the education required for the job, but there is a cut-off in some organizations for how old a correctional officer can be. For the Bureau of Prisons, new prison guards cannot be older than 36 unless they held a Federal civilian law enforcement position covered by special civil service retirement provisions that include early and mandatory retirement.

Applicants for correctional officer positions submit application materials just like they would for other types of jobs. Hiring managers use the normal government hiring process to determine which applicants will be put through the organization’s testing processes.

Correctional officers must demonstrate particular knowledge, skills, and abilities. These can’t always be put down on a resume or job application. The organization administers tests to verify that finalists have these KSAs. Tests may include written examinations, polygraph testing, firearms proficiency testing and physical strength and endurance testing.

Before hiring someone for a correctional officer position, an employer has a background and criminal history checks performed on the potential new hire. The bars to employment vary by organization, but felonies and Class A & B misdemeanors are sure-fire transgressions that prevent someone from becoming a correctional officer.

Drug testing is also common for correctional officers in both the hiring process and on an ongoing basis.

The Education You'll Need

Correctional officers must have high school degrees. The Bureau of Prisons requires a bachelor’s degree as do many state and local employers; however, applicants may substitute three years of relevant experience for Bureau of Prisons positions.

Once hired, correctional officers go through training aligned with standards set forth by the American Correctional Association. Employers do not put new correctional officers on duty by themselves until those officers have been appropriately trained. New correctional officers must meet the educational requirements to get hired, but once on the job, their employers will provide all the job-specific training new hires need to perform their duties while keeping themselves and other personnel safe.

Orientation training for correctional officers with the Bureau of Prisons consists of 80 hours of familiarization with the officer’s facility and 120 hours of training at the Bureau’s residential training center in Glynco, Georgia.

The Experience You Need

Some experience is helpful for correctional officer positions. For many organizations, it is required. The Bureau of Prisons requires that incoming correctional officers have either a bachelor’s degree or “the equivalent of at least 3 years of full-time general experience performing duties such as providing assistance, guidance, and direction to individuals; counseling individuals; responding to emergency situations; supervising or managing; teaching or instructing individuals; or selling products or services (persuasive commissioned sales).”

Many correctional officers have military experience. Veterans are well-suited for this type of work because of the paramilitary structure of prisons, the physical abilities required of the job and the training military personnel receive on firearms and self-defense.

What You'll Do

Correctional officers enforce prison rules. They make sure that inmates are where they are supposed to be and doing things that are within their rights to do. Officers are often assigned to patrol particular areas of the prison during their shifts.

To the greatest extent possible, correctional officers use verbal interventions to get inmates to adapt their behavior, but when inmates are uncooperative, correctional officers must use physical force. Officers prefer to use verbal interventions, but sometimes prisoners do not respond. When officers use physical force, they place themselves in imminent danger of injury or death.

Officers can also become injured when they fail to pay the utmost attention to their surroundings. Inmates have plenty of time to dream up ways of harming other inmates and correctional officers, so officers must remain highly alert. Officers watch out for themselves and their co-workers. Correctional officers are outnumbered, so they use every advantage when handling tense situations.

Correctional officers escort prisoners between locations. This can be from the cell to the dining area or from the prison to court. Officers maintain visual and sometimes arm’s length contact with the prisoners while in transport. Prisoners must remain in custody and be prevented from harming others.

Inmates are not allowed to have drugs, weapons and certain luxury items while in prison. Some prisoners try to smuggle in and conceal these illicit items. Correctional officers inspect prisoners, visitors and physical spaces for contraband. If contraband is found, those who are responsible for the items are held accountable. Prisoners may be subject to discipline, and visitors can be prosecuted.

What You'll Earn

According to 2010 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, correctional officers earn a median salary of $39,020 per year. The top 10% of correctional officers earn more than $67,250, and the bottom 10% earn less than $26,040.

Depending on their qualifications, federal correctional officers are hired at either the GS-05 or GS-06 pay grade. For the fiscal year 2012, the minimum salary for the GS-05 pay grade is $27,431. It is $30,557 for the GS-06 pay grade. The Bureau of Prisons pays extra compensation for evening shifts and Sunday duty. The federal government offers increased pay rates to employees in areas with higher costs of living. This is done so that employees in similar positions within the federal government have similar buying power with their earnings.