Correctional officers are charged with supervising and managing inmates incarcerated in jails and prisons, otherwise known as penal institutions. Make no mistake about it. It is not the easiest of careers, certainly not for the faint of heart. You need to have both the physical and mental strength to do it.
But if you are passionate about the criminal justice system, and don’t mind spending the better part of your days handling inmates and helping them turn their lives around, then a career in corrections can be quite fulfilling.
This guide explores everything you need to know about careers in corrections.
What Do You Do as a Correctional Officer?
If you want to pursue a career in corrections, you might be wondering, “What is it like being a corrections officer?” Here’s what your job description might look like if you decide to take that path.
Enforcing the Prison Rules
Are correctional officers considered law enforcement? Well, in a manner of speaking yes – but not outside of the correctional facility.
One of the primary duties of a corrections officer is to enforce the rules and regulations within the prison walls. They take various measures to achieve this, some of which may involve the use of progressive sanctions that may include the loss of certain privileges. This works to keep the inmates on the straight and narrow.
Keeping the Order
Another all-important function of a correctional officer is to keep the peace and maintain security inside the prison. This involves swiftly settling disputes that may arise between inmates before things escalate and get out of control. You would also be responsible for preventing assaults, escape attempts, or anything else that may cause a disturbance.
Supervising the Activities of the Inmates
A corrections officer has to monitor the whereabouts of the inmates to ensure that they know where they are at all times. This means that you would have to supervise all the day-to-day activities of the detainees.
This important duty includes escorting them between the correctional facilities and anywhere else they may need to be like medical facilities, courtrooms, and any other authorized destinations.
Ensuring No Contraband Is Smuggled Into the Prison
Officers have the right to search inmates’ living quarters from time to time to ensure that they don’t have any contraband items in their possession. You would also be responsible for screening all visitors coming into and out of the facility to make sure they don’t bring anything that goes against the prison rules and regulations.
Carrying out Routine Inspections of the Facilities
As a correctional officer, you would need to carry out a general inspection of the facilities to make sure that everything is up to standard. Periodic inspections involve checking the windows and bars for any signs of tampering (you wouldn’t want to have a Prison Break situation on your hands, now would you…); checking for any evidence of the violation of rules which may include the presence of contraband items, and checking that sanitary conditions inside the cells are up to par.
Reporting on the Conduct of Inmates
Part of the duties and responsibilities of correctional officers involves filling out daily logs detailing inmate conduct. You would be required to write incident reports detailing anything out of the norm that might have taken place during your shift.
If an inmate violates the rules, this needs to be reported. If a crime is committed or a convict escapes on your watch, this needs to be recorded as well. In such instances, reports are important to help law enforcement agencies investigate the incident or, in the event of an escape, find the inmate in the shortest time possible.
A common question many people have is, “What do cops think of correctional officers?” While there is an undeniable social pecking order in the criminal justice system, law enforcement officers, in general, have tremendous respect for the work that correctional officers do. Dealing with inmates, especially those convicted of serious crimes, can be challenging, to say the least.
Rehabilitating and Counseling the Offenders
Many people don’t often realize that the function of a correctional officer also involves – correction. This means they are responsible for organizing and facilitating rehabilitation efforts among inmates, for transforming them into honest law-abiding and productive members of the society when their prison stint is up.
Rehabilitation activities for inmates include providing them with training and educational opportunities, arranging work assignments, and providing counseling to convicts. These are a few of the things you would be required to do.
Steps to Becoming a Correctional Officer
Now that you understand the duties and responsibilities that come with this job, what are the requirements to be a corrections officer? Here’s what you need to know about the process.
What Do You Need to Be a Correctional Officer?
Is it easy to become a correctional officer? No. But will it be worth it? Yes, definitely.
Figure out whether you want to work at federal- or state-level correctional facilities. More often than not, the minimum requirements for each are largely the same but may differ in some aspects of the recruitment process.
Nonetheless, you can expect the following criteria in most jurisdictions across the country.
- You need to be a US citizen. If you’re a foreign national who’s in various stages of the citizenship application process, you might get a pass in some states. If you’re undocumented, on the other hand, your chances are slim to none.
- You need to be at least 18 years old, although some states require applicants to have attained at least 21 years. If you intend to work in a federal prison facility, you need to be at least 20. You’re now thinking, “That’s great and all but… what is the maximum age to become a correctional officer? The age limit is capped at 37, so it might not be too late to apply.
- You should have a high school diploma or a GED at the very least. The only exception to this requirement is if you have some prior extraordinary work history or have a military background.
- Your record needs to be clean. A felony conviction on your record automatically disqualifies you from applying. This also includes individuals who had their records expunged or received a presidential pardon. However, this isn’t always the case in every state.
- You need to have a valid driver’s license. Some states require that you have a clean driving record as well. Having a DUI or DWI might disqualify you.
- You should be physically fit to do the job. Before you even apply, make sure that you are capable of passing the fitness test and that the results of your doctor’s physical exam give you a clean bill of health.
Becoming a Correctional Officer With a Criminal Record
If you have a criminal past or were previously convicted on a misdemeanor or felony charge, you’re likely wondering how this will impact your chances of becoming a correctional officer. Here are the answers to some of the frequently asked questions to help clear this up.
What Will Disqualify You From Being a Correctional Officer?
Before the state or federal prison system hires you, they’ll do a background check. This involves:
- Running your fingerprints to verify that you are who you say you are
- Being subjected to a drug test
- Verifying your references
- Checking your credit report
Suffice it to say that if any of these checks don’t come back in your favor, then you will automatically be disqualified from the selection process. Other issues that may work against you in the application process are:
- If you don’t meet the stipulated age requirements
- If you’re not a US citizen
- If you don’t meet the education requirements
- If you have any major medical issues
- If you were previously convicted on a felony charge
- If your driving record reveals that you were previously arrested on a DUI or DWI offense
Can I Become a Correctional Officer With an Expunged Felony?
Most states will disqualify candidates who have a felony conviction on their record – expunged or not. However, in other jurisdictions, applicants whose felony record was expunged are eligible for consideration. Ensure that you check state-specific requirements to find out if you can apply.
Can You Become a Correctional Officer With a Misdemeanor?
Well, it depends on two things: The state-specific requirement in the jurisdiction you’re applying in and what the misdemeanor was for. Some states will consider applicants with misdemeanors as long as all fines and restitution have been settled in full. On the other hand, if the misdemeanor was for a drug-related offense, you will not be considered for the role.
Education Requirements for Correctional Officers
What education is needed to become a correctional officer? It depends on the employing agency. Remember, local, state, and federal governments all employ correctional officers. The education requirements for each vary from one jurisdiction to the next.
Local and state governments require that applicants have a high school diploma or GED at the very least. However, this isn’t the case across the board, with some states adopting stricter recruitment practices that require applicants to have some form of post-secondary education. Even those that don’t have this requirement always prefer candidates who have post-secondary credentials – if it came down to the wire.
On the flip side, if you’re applying for a position in the federal prison system, having a bachelor’s degree is a mandatory requirement. There are no two ways about it. So the question is: what degree do you need to be a correctional officer?
Ideally, any degree that majors in criminal justice is a definite plus and will give you an edge over the other candidates. This is mainly because such degree programs have a healthy focus on crime detection, how to create sustainable systems designed to curb crime, detention best practices, in addition to criminal prosecution and punishment.
Aside from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice – which is your best bet to get into a career in corrections – recruiters will also consider candidates who have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in psychology, counseling, sociology, or any other field focused on behavioral science.
Can You Become a Correctional Officer without a Degree?
The natural career progression of a lower-level correctional officer is to advance from a local or county jail to a state-level correctional facility. Such an officer with prior correctional experience may be considered even without a degree.
Officers who have previously worked in law enforcement can also be considered for a position even when they don’t have a degree. Individuals who have previous experience in any of the following fields are also eligible for selection:
- Medical technician
- Probation officer
- Security guard
- Social worker
If you happen to fall in any of the above categories, there’s no guarantee that you will be hired, but it certainly presents a strong case in your favor. If you’re wondering what to wear to correctional officer interview to increase your odds of landing the job, dress like you would any other interview you’re going for – professionally. Dress conservatively, preferably in a neutral-colored business suit. Your hair should be neat and conservative as well.
Juvenile Corrections Officer
First things first: What is a juvenile correctional officer? As the name implies, this is an individual responsible for incarcerated minors. The oldest age that a minor can be to be placed in juvenile detention is 17 in 44 states across the country. In five states, the maximum age is 16, while in one state, the age is capped at 16.
The basic functions of a juvenile correctional officer are largely the same as those of their adult counterparts. However, they do have certain specialized duties.
These include acting as life coaches and providing mental, emotional, and psychological guidance to the detained minors during the period they’re incarcerated. That way, they can turn over a new leaf and get reinstated as productive members of society when they get out.
Corrections Officer Salary
Now, to the all-important question: How much money does a correctional officer make? According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for correctional officers is approximately $44,400/year.
This figure will be much higher if you have the right credentials (like a bachelor’s degree) and several years’ worth of experience. Federal correctional officers earn a median salary of around $54,300 per year.
Correctional officers play an important part in our criminal justice system. If it appeals to you, go for it!