Correctional officers supervise individuals who have been arrested and who are awaiting trial or who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve time in a jail or penitentiary. They maintain security, enforce the rules, and prevent disturbances and escapes. They have no law-enforcement responsibilities outside the institution where they work. Police and sheriffs' departments in county and municipal jails or precinct station houses employ correctional officers who are sometimes called detention officers. The majority of the approximately 3,400 jails in the United States are operated by county governments, and about three-quarters of all jails fall under the jurisdiction of an elected sheriff. The average jail population is in flux. New offenders arrive and other prisoners are released on an almost daily basis. Correctional officers in local jails process about 12 million people a year, and about 700,000 offenders are in jail at any given time.
Most correctional officers are employed in state and federal prisons, and they supervise about 1.4 million incarcerated offenders. Other correctional officers oversee individuals held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, pending release or deportation, or work for correctional institutions run by private for-profit organizations.
Correctional officers maintain order within the institution and enforce rules and regulations. To ensure that inmates are orderly and obey rules, correctional officers monitor prisoner activities and supervise work assignments. Officers must search inmates and their living quarters for contraband like weapons or drugs, settle disputes between inmates, and enforce discipline. On paper, this sounds pretty simple. But it's a tough job for tough people.
Correctional officers inspect locks, window bars, doors, and gates for signs of tampering, and they inspect mail and visitors for prohibited items. The cliché from old movies and television shows is the file inserted into a cake. In reality, most prisons do not allow inmates to receive food from friends and family. The rules for what inmates can receive are quite strict. They can only receive paperback books because a hardcover might be able to be used as a weapon, as could a spiral-bound manual. More and more prisons only allow inmates to purchase items from their internal commissary — including playing cards and other items.
Correctional officers report both orally and in writing on inmate conduct and on the quality and quantity of work done by inmates. They keep a record of convicts' daily activities. In jails and prison facilities with direct supervision cellblocks, officers are unarmed. They carry communications devices to call for help if necessary. These officers often work in a cellblock, alone or with another officer, among the fifty to 100 inmates. Officers enforce regulations primarily through their communications skills and the use of progressive sanctions, such as the removal of some privileges.
In maximum-security facilities, where the most dangerous inmates are housed, correctional officers often monitor the activities of prisoners from a control center with closed-circuit television cameras and a computerized tracking system. In this environment, inmates may not see anyone but correctional officers for days or weeks at a time. Correctional officers escort inmates to leave their cells only for showers, solitary exercise time, or the occasional visitor. Correctional officers may have to restrain the more dangerous inmates in handcuffs and leg irons to escort them safely to and from cells and other areas and to see authorized visitors.
A Dangerous Job
Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and sometimes dangerous. Correctional officers occasionally are injured in confrontations with inmates. Correctional officers work both indoors or outdoors, and they usually work an eight-hour day, five days a week, on rotating shifts. Because prison and jail security must be provided all day, every day of the year, officers work all hours of the day and night, weekends, and holidays. Officers may also be required to work paid overtime.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires entry-level correctional officers to have either a bachelor's degree or three years of full-time experience in a field providing counseling, assistance, or supervision to individuals. Candidates may also have a combination of relevant work experience and education.
Candidates are required to meet standards of physical fitness, eyesight, and hearing. Many jurisdictions use various tests to determine the applicant's suitability to work in a correctional environment. Applicants are screened for drug abuse. They are subject to background checks and are required to pass a written examination.
Federal, state, and some local departments of corrections provide training for correctional officers based on guidelines established by the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association. Some states have regional training academies. State and local correctional agencies often provide on-the-job training, including training on legal restrictions and interpersonal relations. Many systems require firearms proficiency and self-defense skills. Officer trainees typically receive several weeks or months of training in an actual job setting under the supervision of an experienced officer.
What are the requirements for a position as a correctional officer?
Most institutions require correctional officers to be at least eighteen to twenty-one years of age and a U.S. citizen. Officers must have a high school education or equivalent and usually two years of work experience. And it goes without saying that they cannot have any felony convictions.
Federal corrections officers undergo 200 hours of formal training within their first year of employment. They also complete 120 hours of specialized training at the Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center at Glynco, Georgia, within sixty days of their appointment. Some correctional officers are members of the prison tactical response teams. They are trained to respond to disturbances, riots, hostage situations, and other dangerous confrontations. They practice disarming prisoners, protecting themselves and inmates against the effects of chemical agents, and other SWAT-team–style tactics.
With education, experience, and training, qualified officers can advance to the position of correctional sergeant. Sergeants supervise the correctional officers, and they are usually responsible for maintaining security and directing the activities of other officers during an assigned shift.
There Is Always a Need
Bailiffs, correctional officers, and jailers hold about 484,000 jobs. Three of every five jobs are in state correctional institutions, including prisons, prison camps, and youth correctional facilities. There are about 16,000 correctional officers in federal correctional institutions, and another 15,000 in privately owned and managed prisons. The remaining jobs are in city and county jails or in other institutions run by local governments.
Job opportunities are and will continue to be plentiful. The increasing demand for jobs stems from the current trend of longer sentences and reduced parole for inmates as well as the new construction of corrections facilities. Layoffs of correctional officers are rare because prisons are filling up. Median annual earnings are $44,700 in the federal government, $33,750 in state governments, and $33,080 in local governments. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the starting salary for federal correctional officers was $26,747 a year in 2005. The average salary of the supervisors/managers of correctional officers is $41,080 in state government and $49,470 in local government.
Correctional officers employed in the public sector are usually provided with uniforms or a clothing allowance to purchase their own uniforms. Civil service systems or merit boards cover officers employed by the federal government and most state governments. Their retirement coverage entitles correctional officers to retire at age fifty after twenty years of service or at any age with twenty years of service.