Correctional officers provide protection and security on the front lines at detention and penitentiary facilities. Correctional officers, or detention officers when employed at pretrial facilities, serve as enforcement officials on the inside of county, state, federal, and private jails and prisons. Correctional officers and jailers oversee people who are serving time in a secure, locked facility, either as they await release on bail, wait for a trial or hearing, or serve time as part of a local, state or federal sentence. The job can be high risk and stressful, but rewarding for those who want to be part of the criminal justice community.
Day in the Life of a Correctional Officer
On a typical day, some common correctional officer duties include:
- Maintain security and ensure inmate safety and accountability
- Prevent escapes, assaults and other disruptive behavior
- Enforce institutional rules and regulations
- Supervise inmates on work assignments
- Occasionally search individuals, living quarters or mail for contraband
- Inspect holding mechanisms (such as locks, gates or window bars) for tampering
- Submit oral and written reports on inmate conduct and work quality
Most correctional officers are assigned to a single cell block, which they may work alone or in tandem with another officer. In prison settings with the highest level of security precautions, where inmates present the greatest risk for dangerous or disruptive behavior, correctional officers may be assigned surveillance from a centralized control room rather than walk a cell block floor. These environments use electronic tracking systems, such as radio-frequency identification, to keep tabs on the prison population.
Important Characteristics for Correctional Officers
Good judgment can help a correctional officer quickly determine the best course of action in dangerous situations, and it is one of the most critical traits for these members of law enforcement. They also need good interpersonal and negotiation skills to help them interact effectively with inmates and others, to resolve differences and maintain order in correctional facilities and courtrooms. Correctional officers also need strength to control their emotions and to physically subdue inmates when conflict erupts.
The path to becoming a correctional officer depends on the type of facility in which you plan to work. The following steps are for prospective employment at a federal facility, which requires the most advanced level of education and training:
- Earn your high school diploma. A high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED) is the most basic requirement to become a correctional officer. It is also advisable to take advanced coursework in social sciences in high school, such as sociology and psychology.
- Earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Alternatively, three years' experience providing full-time counseling or supervision may, in some cases, be enough to work in a federal facility. State or county correctional institutions may require some college credit, military experience or law enforcement training and field work to qualify for employment.
- Attend a corrections officer training academy. The education program is based on American Correctional Association and American Jail Association guidelines and covers institutional policies, regulations and operations, and custody and security procedures. Correctional officer programs should also include firearms training, chemical agents training, and arrest and control techniques.
- Complete on-the-job training. Once hired, a rookie correctional officer may receive up to 200 hours of formal in-house training at the facility where they work.
There are steps you can take throughout your career as a correctional officer to ensure you are the best you can be. For example:
- Stay sharp and in shape: Stay physically fit, and keep your skills sharp by practicing at a firing range.
- Continue your education: It is important for correctional officers to continue training and instruction to stay abreast of newly developed tools and procedures.
- Consider further specialization: Corrections officers may specialize in other areas of criminal justice, such as, becoming probation officers, correctional treatment specialists or correction health professionals.
- How to Become a Correctional Officer or Bailiff, Bureau of Labor Statistics (December 2015) https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm