Correctional officers are a vital part of the criminal justice system. They enforce rules that help prevent inmates from harming themselves or others.
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, where inmates serve longer sentences. Private prisons also employ correctional officers.
Correctional Officer Duties & Responsibilities
The job generally requires the ability to perform the following duties:
- Enforce prison or jail rules
- Supervise activities of inmates
- Escort and transport inmates
- Inspect facilities to ensure that they meet security and safety standards
- Search inmates for contraband items
- Break up physical altercations
- Monitor and report on inmate conduct
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. Correctional officers are often assigned to patrol particular areas of the prison during their shifts.
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.
Correctional officers also look out for each other on the job. If one officer makes a mistake, harm can come to that officer and other officers. They're often outnumbered by inmates, so they must watch out for themselves and their co-workers, especially when handling tense situations.
Correctional Officer Salary
A correctional officer's salary can vary depending on location, experience, and employer.
- Median Annual Salary: $44,330
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $76,760
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $31,140
Education, Training, & Certification
- Education: Qualifications vary by state and agency. Generally, correctional officers must have high school degrees or an equivalent. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires a bachelor’s degree in an area such as criminal justice, as do many state and local employers. However, applicants may substitute three years of relevant experience for Bureau of Prisons positions.
- Training: Once hired, correctional officers go through training aligned with standards, usually those set forth by the American Correctional Association. Length of training varies based on state and employer, but it can last several months. Employers do not put new correctional officers on duty by themselves until those officers have been appropriately trained. Most also require ongoing training and professional development for correctional officers.
- Experience: Some experience is helpful for correctional officer positions. For many organizations, it is required. 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.
- Certification: Requirements vary by employer, but most correctional officers must pass written and physical tests to certify that they're qualified for the position.
Correctional Officer Skills & Competencies
To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:
- Interpersonal skills: An important part of the job is being able to interact and communicate effectively with inmates, other correctional officers, and other staff.
- Decision-making skills: People in this role must be able to think on their feet and make quick decisions as needed to ensure their own safety and that of those around them.
- Physical strength and stamina: Correctional officers may be on their feet for long periods of time. They may also need to break up physical confrontations and protect inmates and other officers from getting hurt. Correctional officers must remain alert and physically able to subdue threatening behavior.
The BLS projects that employment in this field will decline 8 percent through 2026 (the average for all occupations is a growth rate of 7 percent). However, the BLS points out that job prospects should still be decent because there will still be a need to replace correctional officers who retire or leave the job.
Corrections can be a dangerous and difficult line of work. Correctional officers are frequently injured while on duty and have one of the highest rates of injury and illness compared to all other occupations in the U.S.
Correctional officers generally work full time, often working rotating shifts because they're needed around the clock. That means officers may work on weekends and holidays, as well as any time of the day or night.
How to Get the Job
Check Your Requirements
Check with your state's Department of Corrections to find out the specific requirements you need to apply and be hired. Or, if you want to work for the federal government, review the requirements of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Complete the Hiring Process
Requirements vary by employer, but in order to be eligible for a job offer as a correctional officer, you may need to pass the following:
- Citizenship and age verification
- Panel interview
- Background investigation
- Medical and physical exam
- Drug test
- Written test
- Probationary period
Comparing Similar Jobs
People who are interested in becoming correctional officers may also consider other careers with these median salaries:
- Police officer or detective: $63,380
- Probation officer: $53,020
- Security guard: $28,530
- Firefighter: $49,620
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018