Correctional officers supervise inmates who are detained pending trial as well as those who have been convicted of crimes and are serving sentences in jails, prisons or other correctional institutions, such as mental health and substance abuse facilities. Correctional officers also oversee the transport of inmates between facilities and to and from court proceedings.
Known also as jailers and prison guards, correctional officers are vital members of the nation’s criminal justice system. They regulate inmates’ day-to-day routines, including occupational, recreational and educational activities. These criminal justice professionals are required to be alert and physically capable of intervening in threatening situations in order to restore order or prevent such occurrences.
Other duties can include: inspecting an institution’s locks, doors, gates, fences, surveillance cameras, alarms and other security equipment; recording information about inmates, including daily logs of activities and behavior; conducting searches of prisoners, cells and inmate mail for contraband; screening visitors; and performing administrative tasks for inmate booking and release.
Job Outlook and Salary Range for Correctional Officers
There were nearly 435,000 correctional officers employed nationwide in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). About 54% worked for state governments, while 36% were employed by local governments. Other correctional officers were employed by federal institutions and private facilities.
The average annual wage for correctional officers was $43,550 as of May 2012, the BLS reported. Those employed in local government facilities averaged $42,650, while federal employees averaged $53,400.
Nationally, employment of correctional officers is projected to grow by 5% from 2010 to 2020, fueled by population growth and employee turnover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. As government agencies contract for corrections services in order to cut costs, new jobs may increasingly be found in the private sector.
Employment opportunities and salary ranges vary according to multiple factors, including local market conditions, and a candidate’s educational qualifications and work history.
Education and Training for Correctional Officers
A college education is a minimum requirement for employment as a correctional officer with some agencies. For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls for candidates to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Coursework in criminal justice, psychology, counseling and social services can prove beneficial.
In addition to strong problem-solving and decision-making skills, prospective correctional officers should have the ability to communicate clearly, handle stressful or crisis situations and supervise others.
Many law enforcement agencies and private firms require prospective correctional officers to be U.S. citizens with a valid driver’s license and no felony arrests or convictions. Physical exams, drug testing, background checks and lie-detector exams may also be part of the screening process.
Once hired, correctional officers typically also complete weeks or months of specific on-the-job training, which may include self-defense and firearm use.
Correctional officers can enhance their training and knowledge, and potentially boost their opportunities for career advancement, by pursuing professional certification through organizations such as the American Correctional Association and the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.