Correctional officers oversee and manage individuals who are being detained. That detention might be for short periods of time, such as before a court hearing, or for the long-term, as would be the case with an inmate serving a prison sentence.
Entering a profession as unique as corrections necessitates extensive training and education. However, a formal degree is not required; instead, focused training, both on-the-job and at special academies, will teach correctional officers everything they need to know about handling detainees. This guide will give an overview of correctional officer careers and what it takes to become one, both from an education and training perspective.
Correctional officers have the primary role of maintaining order within a detention facility, such as a local jail or federal prison. The detainees a correctional officer will oversee can be incarcerated for any number of reasons, which run the gamut from awaiting a court hearing for a minor offense to serving on death row. This means that the day-to-day duties of a correctional officer can vary widely. Some will work in transport, taking prisoners to and from court. Some will rarely have contact with prisoners, and will instead work in the administrative areas. Others will work “on the floor” at all times, supervising inmate activities, searching through cells for contraband, overseeing occasional visits with family, escorting inmates to the infirmary and other necessary duties.
Like many other jobs, not all correctional officers have the same primary tasks. Some have special training to deal with violent inmates or large-scale disturbances. These officers are highly-trained and might attend training sessions once a month or more in order to keep their skills sharp. Other correctional officers spend less time maintaining order within a prison and more time helping rehabilitate or counsel inmates. These officers might have a degree in counseling or psychology, or be trained as a rehabilitation expert. There are also correctional officers that have supervisory duties and monitor the officers that are monitoring the inmates. Administrative duties might include working closely with local, state and federal officials – depending upon the security level of the prison – to ensure that everything is working smoothly and efficiently on all levels.
The amount of compensation that correctional officers can expect to receive varies greatly. Some higher-paid correctional officers are also located in some of the more expensive areas of the country. To find out more about what correctional officers can expect to make in each state, check out the following map.
Given the anticipated rise in the number of inmates, the number of correctional officers needed is expected to grow. However, governments are trying to reduce prison costs, so the number of correctional officers needed is not likely to rise at the same rate as the inmate population. The following map provides an overview of what areas are expected to grow at what rate.
The most important part of becoming a correctional officer is the proper training. Here’s how to get there.
For many correctional officer jobs, a high school diploma or equivalent is all that’s required. However, some employers or work settings might demand higher education, and earning a postsecondary degree can be vitally important for advancement later on.
For those who want to work at the federal level, a bachelor’s degree is preferred. However, the bachelor’s can sometimes be substituted with three years of applicable correctional or related experience. Those who have aspirations of obtaining a high ranking position within a prison, such as a warden, a bachelor’s degree or higher may be needed.
Municipalities and jurisdictions will have their own unique requirements for applicants, but many require passage of some sort of entrance exam before being accepted into a correctional officer training program. These exams often include a physical aspect, ensuring potential officers can handle the rigorous duties that might be required during disturbances or other incidents, as well as a written examination that focuses on legal issues that come into play during incarceration. Some require a psychological examination as well, to ensure that a potential officer is able to handle the mental and emotional toll that comes along with working with inmates.
Depending on the job and employer, individuals who intend to work in a jail or prison system and do not have the necessary prior experience will need to obtain relevant training from an academy or training center. These training programs can last a few weeks to a few months and will provide extensive training such as weapons, self defense, inmate handling, officer safety, crisis management and physical conditioning.
Much of the day-to-day work can only be learned through experience and on-the-job training. After completing a training academy program, correctional officers will start accruing valuable correctional experience that can make them more effective officers and allow for professional advancement later on. It is important to take advantage of every opportunity to learn something new, from firearms training to psychological counseling methods.
Getting additional degrees and credentials can increase a correctional officer’s chances of gaining more responsibility, higher pay and a promotion. Those who focus on management, psychology and communication can prepare themselves for a move into the managerial side of a prison or detention center. Jumping into training to broaden knowledge and skills is also helpful – for instance, officers could become experts in the use of non-lethal force, or study to lead a riot team.
While law enforcement degrees aren’t necessary for a career in corrections, training is crucial. Understanding the concepts behind the training can be gained through an education program in corrections, criminal justice or a related degree. Students have several options available when deciding which degree level to pursue. The table below details what students can expect at each level.
|Career Goal & Educational Needs||Certificate||Associate||Bachelor||Master’s||Online|
|I already have a full-time job and plenty of experience working in the corrections field. I want to improve my chances of getting promoted and getting higher pay with more responsibility. I also have a desire to learn more about a specialized area in the field.|
|I want to start working as a correctional officer in a federal prison, but I don’t have any correctional experience. I also want to make sure my chances for later promotion are as good as possible|
|I’d love to get a degree, but I am so busy with work and family, there’s no way I can attend school full-time and take classes on campus during regular business hours. I need a program that allows flexible scheduling of classes and remote learning.|
|Since I already graduated high school, I’ve gotten all the formal education I need to work as a correctional officer. However, I’d like to take some college level classes to expand my educational horizon and improve my chances of getting accepted into a correctional officer position.|
|I’m not 100% sure I want to work as a corrections officer, but I do know I want to have a career within the justice or legal system. I think a degree is a good way to learn more and show I’m serious about my professional area, but I’m not ready to commit to a four-year degree.|
There are many educational and training paths an individual can take to begin a correctional officer career; there is no degree type or field of study that corrections officers must take. However, remember that each jurisdiction and department will have its own requirements and expectations. Here’s where students can get the education they need.
Vocational and trade schools offer unique opportunities to their students. Some schools provide full degrees, such as the associate, where students can study any number of justice system related subjects, including as criminal justice. Some vocational or trade schools allow high school students to take classes that will count toward college credit.
Military veterans have the discipline, emotional toughness, specialized training and physical fitness that many jail and prison hiring committees like to see. Prior military experience can show that the applicant has what it takes to complete training and familiarity with the hierarchical culture that is often found within correctional officer departments.
For those interested in getting a degree or certificate, a community college offers a quick and economical method of education. Not only can associate degrees be completed in two years or less, the cost per credit is often less, as long as the student comes from an area that the community college serves.
Whether it’s at the private, local or state level, there are many training centers or academies that provide tailored training to future correctional officers. Classroom instruction includes custody and control, mental health issues and laws and regulations. Physical training will include things like qualification for firearms and crowd control weapons along with physical fitness training.
For most entry level correctional officer positions, a bachelor’s degree is not required; however, it will usually be needed for federal correctional officer entry level jobs. Even if a bachelor’s degree isn’t required, it can expand the possibilities of future promotions and workplace development.
Though only a high school diploma is required to enter corrections, those who choose to go further with their education might see advantages down the road. Here are the options.
A certificate is a popular choice for students who are already established in a legal related field but seek additional knowledge about corrections. Depending on the school, the certificate can serve as the first step in an associate degree in corrections.
A certificate program is fairly short, rarely lasting longer than six months. It should be noted that the typical certificate curriculum will not include physical training that would be necessary to serve as a correctional officer. Some of the typical classes are detailed below:
Students learn various concepts, theories and definitions relating to criminal behavior.
This offers a broad interpretation and explanation of police within society in the United States.
The basic theories and ideas behind criminal punishment and rehabilitation are taught in this class.
An associate degree can serve as an opportunity for additional instruction of the correctional field for those already working as a corrections officer. For those not currently working in the field, an associate degree can either meet minimum educational requirements for correctional officer applicants (assuming an associate degree is required) or provide an education to help individuals succeed in their future correctional officer career.
Usually lasting about two years, an associate degree curriculum may include some of the following courses:
Students are taught about fundamental concepts and tools for proper and safe oversight of inmates.
This is a comprehensive overview of counseling and interviewing techniques for correctional officers.
Students will learn conflict resolution techniques within the abnormal behavioral context.
A bachelor’s degree typically takes four years of full-time study to complete, although this timeframe may be accelerated in some programs. A bachelor’s degree is good for those who want to work at the federal level, as well as students who may eventually want to go into management, executive or supervisory roles within a correctional facility. A few programs offer a bachelor’s degree in corrections, but most offer a criminal justice degree with a specialization in corrections. Either way, students can expect to take the following courses:
Various rehabilitation and intervention tools and methods commonly used in a criminal justice system are discussed in this course.
Students will peruse the background and overview of prison laws and regulations within the United States.
Students will receive instruction on how jails and prisons operate.
At the master’s level, a corrections degree will be relatively uncommon. However, there are many related degrees that have a corrections component or opportunity for specialization. Types of degrees available include criminal justice, correctional counseling and justice policy and leadership. Courses available will vary depending on the specific program, but typical classes that can be found at the master’s level may include:
Students will receive an overview of alternative correctional methods that do not involve prison incarceration.
Students will be provided an overview of the juvenile criminal justice system.
This course covers the administrative component of effective prison and correctional institution management.
There are many careers related to the correctional officer profession. Some of the jobs below are potential jobs that aspiring officers might enjoy pursuing, with yearly salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Probation officers are responsible for keeping track of those released on probationary terms. In addition to monitoring the individual on probation and ensuring they are following the terms of their probation, a probation officer also takes steps to prevent the individual from committing another crime.
Bailiffs are tasked with ensuring the smooth operation of courtroom activities. Working largely at the direction of the judge, bailiffs handle courtroom tasks such as escorting litigants, protecting courtroom participants and serving as an informational resource to the general public.
Security guards work to protect life and property from harm or theft. Job tasks can include monitoring a given area through visual contact or electronic surveillance, apprehending and detaining violators and controlling who is permitted to enter a protected area.
Police officers are tasked with protecting the public and investigating crimes. Very often police officers must apprehend and capture suspects and criminals, then hand them over to a detention facility, such as a jail.
A federal correctional officer works within the federal prison system, which houses inmates who are being charged with or convicted of a federal crime. The job requirements can include a bachelor’s degree or at least three years of experience in correctional or related work.
State correctional officers deal with inmates who have violated state law. Generally speaking, the job requirements for state correctional officers are less demanding than for federal correctional officer positions in that a bachelor’s degree or several years of correctional experience will not be required as a condition of employment.
Correctional officers deal with stressful and dangerous situations; therefore, they must have a set of skills and tools to allow them to do their job effectively and safely. There are also credentials that correctional officers should look into obtaining to improve their chances of professional advancement.
Correctional officers work in close proximity to inmates every single day. A seemingly normal event can become an emergency situation if the right steps aren’t initially taken. A correctional officer will also need to be able to distinguish a potential threat from innocent behavior.
Many harmful encounters or serious events that correctional officers will have to face will come without obvious warning. Having keen observational skills can help an officer spot these events before they happen.
One of the major purposes of correctional officers is to keep inmates under control and within their respective jail, prison or detention center. There will be times when a correctional officer’s brute strength will be the only thing keeping an inmate in check and secure.
Correctional officers will often have to deal with some of the worst members of society. Correctional officers might also encounter hostile situations and inmates who are trying to get antagonize them. Discipline and composure must be maintained at all times.
Correctional officers will be in communication with colleagues and inmates all the time. As a result, correctional officers must be able to convey directions and orders effectively, especially in stressful situations.
Correctional officers receive most of their skills and instruction from on-the-job training as well as local training academies and centers. The opportunity for advancement, promotions and increased responsibility can be improved by obtaining certain credentials. Some of these credentials are certifications, which indicate that the professional holding the certification has a certain amount of relevant knowledge in an area related to their certification. A few of these are listed below.
These certifications can be obtained by passing an exam, having the requisite degree (often a bachelor’s or associate degree) and accruing a certain amount of applicable experience.
Depending on which certification is being sought, the certifications offered by the National Sheriffs’ Association require applicants to pass an exam, have a certain amount of relevant work experience and take a minimum number of courses.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Graduates of criminal justice programs are passionate about public safety. Similar jobs include police officer, detective, probation officer, and security guard. All of these professions enable the employee to protect the citizens in and around their geographic area.
But like any other career, salaries vary depending on where you live—the state, county, or city—and what type of facility you work in. Our salary comparison tool will help you learn more about the salaries of similar professions all around the country.
The mission of the ACA is to advance education, research and public perception of the corrections field, as well as improve diversity and promote professional development, including offering certifications.
A nonprofit organization that represents the interests of professionals who work in jails and other local detention centers, the AJA provides educational and professional advancement opportunities for its members.
Serving as an international organization, the APPA represents the interests of various justice system professionals, such as parole, probation, correctional and pretrial professionals.
The CPOF is a charitable organization with the noble mission of helping family survivors of those who have died in the line of duty serving as correctional officers.
CUSA works to improve the standing of correctional officers at all levels of government. The CUSA also works against the movement to privatize the prison system.
The FBP is a federal agency tasked with managing and improving the federal justice system. Roles include improving the care of federal inmates and improving the overall service provided by federal prisons.
There are numerous degree and program options available to those interested in becoming a correctional officer. Though a degree is not required, earning one might boost the officer’s status and hiring potential. The following tool will help narrow down the wide range of possibilities into something more manageable.