Despite some efforts to downsize the U.S. correctional population at both the state and federal levels, large numbers of men and women remain behind bars; according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BLS) over 1.4 million people were incarcerated in U.S. prisons at the end of 2019. While this reflects a 7 percent decline from 2009’s peak U.S. prison population, it also reflects decades of buildup, including a 700 percent increase in incarcerated adults between 1972 and 2009.
While the prison population may be experiencing a modest decline, more than a million inmates remain who require the protective services of correctional officers. Even in this period of flux, the correctional system offers a number of rewarding career paths, including positions as entry-level officers as well as leadership roles. Some correctional officers may even become counselors, helping inmates navigate the rehabilitation and reentry process.
Several important steps are involved in becoming a correctional officer. A good starting point is earning a degree or certificate in a criminal justice-related field.
The Correctional Officer Role at a Glance
For those wondering how to become a correctional officer, understanding the key role they play within the criminal justice system is an important step. Correctional officers carry out several key functions in institutional facilities, as well as in other settings where inmates are involved.
History of Corrections
The correctional officer role goes back at least as far as 1891, when the Three Prisons Act established the first government-run corrections system. Prior to this, prisoners were held in military forts and monitored by soldiers. The development of the corrections system created the need for assigned officers and guards; over the years, this role has evolved to the point that it now requires specialized, on-the-job training in many facilities.
The goals of the first correctional institutions in the United States were to support reform. However, due to a variety of factors including overcrowding and limited resources, this goal quickly shifted to a focus on safety, security, and punishment. One of the most significant changes to the job of the correctional officer over the last several decades has been its shift from punishment back to rehabilitation.
Starting with progressive reformers in the late 19th century who pushed for a more restorative approach, reform advocates and researchers consistently highlighted the negative outcomes associated with poor prison conditions and a solely punitive approach. In particular, organizations such as the National Conference of Charities and Corrections and the American Prison Association (now known as the American Correctional Association) advocated for the corrections system as a way to prepare inmates for healthy reentry into society through an emphasis on humanity, justice, and accountability. This attitude remains influential among correctional leaders and prison reformers to this day.
Working with Inmates
The primary job of correctional officers is working with inmates. Inmates may be individuals convicted of crimes who are carrying out their sentences in prison. The correctional officer’s role is to ensure that these inmates are kept safe, secure and supervised at all times.
Specifically, the correctional officer job description may entail the following:
- Booking and processing both incoming and outgoing inmates, in accordance with stated rules and policies
- Keeping the facility secure by reinforcing perimeters and monitoring inmate activity
- Guiding specific inmates or groups of inmates through their daily routines and activities
- Enforcing the facility’s rules and working with other correctional officers to quell unrest or aggression among the inmates
- Resolving behavioral problems through effective problem-solving skills and counseling
- Facilitating communication between inmates and support staff including counselors, social workers, and teachers
- Reporting inmate behavior to counselors and other court officers
- Connecting inmates to available programs and resources
- Conducting regular patrols both inside and outside the corrections facility
- Providing direct inmate supervision during activities such as mealtimes, exercise, vocational training sessions and family visits
- Conducting inmate and cell searches
- Inspecting visitors and incoming packages, ensuring that no contraband, controlled substances or weapons are allowed into the facility
- Operating surveillance equipment, including cameras, to monitor activity in the prison and on the grounds
- Conducting fire or severe weather drills
These are just some of the ways correctional officers make sure that the inmates in their care are safe and that their time in correctional facilities is orderly and constructive.
Other Roles for Correctional Officers
Correctional officers are sometimes given duties outside a correctional facility. One example is in the courtroom; correctional officers are sometimes called upon to testify in court, offering firsthand insight into inmate behavior. They may prove valuable in determining whether an inmate is ready for parole or whether sentencing needs to be adjusted.
Correctional officers also escort inmates to off-site facilities, such as medical offices; officers are entrusted with keeping inmates safe and ensuring that inmates don’t escape or bring contraband into correctional facilities.
In rare instances, correctional officers may be tasked with helping police officers with routine duties, such as patrolling or providing security.
Helping Inmates with Mental Health Disorders
Another critical aspect of a correctional officer’s duties is assisting inmates who may be dealing with significant mental health or substance abuse disorders. In many prison facilities, correctional officers have a high level of direct contact with inmates who suffer from mental health needs and can have a positive impact on their rehabilitation process. Correctional officers can assist in inmates’ rehabilitation process by collaborating with mental health providers who treat inmates on-site and who learn about how they can play a role in deescalating tense situations, speaking to inmates compassionately, and using their discretion about how and when they can help inmates seek one-on-one care.
Steps to Becoming a Correctional Officer
The right education and experience help aspiring correctional officers hone the skills they need for professional success — and ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of those in their care.
Educational requirements vary, and some opportunities for correctional officers require only a high school diploma. However, those who obtain degrees or certificates in criminal justice-related fields may be at an advantage to obtain higher salaries and positions of increased responsibility, including managerial roles overseeing other correctional officers.
For example, those with a bachelor’s- or master’s-level degree in criminal justice will develop key skill sets related to maintaining order, providing guidance to diverse communities and directly interacting with different professionals in the criminal justice system. A certificate program focused on corrections can equip individuals to ensure the safety of the inmates in their care, as well as to assume the lead on innovating new policies or regulations that facilitate the rehabilitation of their prison population.
Students who enroll in correctional officer certificate programs will take classes covering the administration of justice, policy analysis, basic ethics and the nature of crime itself. Such courses can prepare students to take a more well-rounded approach to their chosen discipline.
Some correctional officer positions don’t require prior experience; however, these roles typically require training from a local police academy or within the prison system itself. More experienced officers will typically command higher salaries and positions of greater responsibility.
Critical Skills for Correctional Officers
Through a combination of education and experience, correctional officers can hone the following essential skills:
- Interpersonal skills. Being able to clearly communicate with inmates as well as other correctional officers is an important part of the job.
- Self-discipline skills. A correctional officer must be prepared to abide by rules and protocols even when inmates are disrespectful.
- Negotiation skills. Negotiation skills can help correctional officers as they seek to mediate or resolve conflict.
- Decision-making skills. Correctional officers are on the front line and generally take the first step toward addressing problems in a facility. Strong decision-making skills are imperative.
Correctional Officer Salary
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for correctional officers was $45,300 in 2019. Numerous factors can influence the salary, including education level, experience and location.
Correctional officers with criminal justice (or related field) degrees or certificates may be offered more competitive salaries. Meanwhile, more seasoned correctional officers typically receive higher salaries. Finally, salary may also depend on the region, as some areas may have a higher need for correctional officers at any given moment.
Because correctional facilities are staffed 24/7, those seeking correctional officer positions may have to work unusual hours, including night shifts and holidays. Correctional officers can work in both state and federal facilities, and the level of required experience may differ between low- and maximum-security facilities.
Leadership Careers in Corrections
Correctional officers who achieve distinguished levels of academic enrichment may qualify for leadership positions, including roles such as correctional officer supervisor, program counselor and program director.
Correctional Officer Supervisor
Those in supervisory positions lead teams of correctional officers, ensuring adequate staffing throughout facilities and coordinating the duties and schedules of the officers under their command. To be a correctional officer supervisor requires strong leadership skills, as well as analytical thinking, communication skills and problem-solving abilities. Ultimately, it falls to supervisors to ensure the safety of all inmates, officers, and visitors within a corrections facility and to maintain the proper discipline and orderliness among officers, including appropriate interactions with the inmates in their charge.
Counselors work closely with inmates, helping to identify their needs and resources that may assist them. For example, they may help them work toward earning a GED diploma, learn a skilled trade, or other credential, and more.
Program counselors may also play a key role in advocating for inmates to receive early release or parole and preparing them for reentry into the community. In this role, program counselors may collaborate directly with mental health and behavioral health therapists, as well as with parole officers, judges and others who make key decisions about the rehabilitation of inmates. Strong interpersonal skills, including empathic listening, are a must.
Program directors develop counseling, rehabilitation and continuing education programs for inmates, as well as collect data on program enrollment. They can play a significant role in securing funding and other resources for their facility, and they may also work with judges and prosecutors to ensure that inmates who are brought into a facility are connected with the needed services. Leadership, communication and interpersonal skills are crucial.
Learn How to Become a Correctional Officer
Anyone interested in a corrections career should consider UCF Online’s online criminal justice program, which offers specialized degrees and certificates in a range of justice disciplines:
- Bachelor of Art or Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. Learn the foundational skills needed to build strong communities and offer protection to local citizens.
- Master of Science in Criminal Justice. Develop leadership skills needed to assume positions of greater responsibility and to exert influence over law enforcement programs and protocols.
- Corrections leadership certificate. Hone the skills necessary to become a successful correctional officer.
- Juvenile justice certificate. Prepare to enter the criminal justice system as an advocate for juvenile offenders.
- Police leadership certificate. Further refine skills and technological competencies needed for real-world law enforcement work.
Each of these programs is designed to help aspiring law enforcement professionals advance their careers for the good of the populations they serve. Join UCF Online today to become the future of law enforcement.