Corrections officers guard people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been tried, convicted, and sentenced to serve time in a penal institution. They search prisoners and their cells for weapons, drugs, and other contraband; inspect windows, doors, locks, and gates for signs of tampering; observe the conduct and behavior of inmates to prevent disturbances or escapes; and make verbal or written reports to superior officers. Corrections officers assign work to inmates and supervise their activities. They guard prisoners who are being transported between jails, courthouses, mental institutions, or other destinations, and supervise prisoners receiving visitors. When necessary, these workers use weapons or force to maintain discipline and order. There are approximately 383,000 corrections officers employed in the United States.
For centuries, punishment br criminal behavior was generally left in the hands of the injured individual or his or her relatives, This resulted in blood feuds, which could carry on for years and which eventually could be resolved by the payment of money to the victim or the victim’s family When kingdoms emerged as the standard form of government, certain actions came to be regarded as an affront to the king or the peace of his domain, and the king assumed the responsibility for punishing the wrongs committed by a subject or his clan. In this way crime became a public offense. The earliest corrections officers were more likely to be executioners and torturers than guards or jailers.
Early criminals were treated inhumanely They were often put to death for minor offenses, exiled, forced into hard labor, given corporal punishment, tortured, mutilated, turned into slaves, or left to rot in dungeons. Jailing criminals was not considered a penalty in and of itself, but rather as a temporary measure until punishment could be carried out. More often, prisons were established to punish debtors or to house orphans and delinquent youths. One of the earliest debtor’s prisons was Bridewell, in London, England, which was established in 1553. Other European countries built similar institutions.
During the Enlightenment of the 18th century the belief that punishment alone deters crime began to weaken. The practice of imprisonment became more and more common as attempts were made to fit the degree of punishment to the nature of the crime. Societies looked to deter crime with the promise of clear and just punishment. Rehabilitation of offenders was to be achieved through isolation, hard labor, penitence, and discipline. By 1829, prisoners in most prisons were required to perform hard labor, which proved more cost-effective for the prison systems. Before long, the rehabilitation aspect of imprisonment became less important than the goal of simply isolating prisoners from society and creating respect for authority and order. Prisoners were subjected to harsh treatment from generally untrained personnel.
By 1870, calls for prison reform introduced new sentencing procedures such as parole and probation. It was hoped that providing opportunities for early release would provide prisoners with more incentive toward rehabilitation. Prisons evolved into several types, providing minimum, medium, and maximum security. The role of the prison guard at each institution evolved accordingly. The recognition of prisoners’ rights also provided new limitations and purposes for the conduct and duties of the prison guard. Corrections officers began to receive specialized training in the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners.
Until the 1980s, corrections officers were employees of the federal, state, or local government. A dramatic increase in the numbers of prisoners, brought on by the so-called War on Drugs, led to overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. At the same time, the system, itself, came under attack, especially the concepts of parole and reduced sentencing. Many states began to contract private companies to build and operate additional correctional facilities. Today, corrections officers are employed at every level of government and often by these private companies.
To prevent disturbances or escapes, corrections officers carefully observe the conduct and behavior of the inmates at all times. They watch for forbidden activities and infractions of the rules, as well as for poor attitudes or unsatisfactory adjustment to prison life on the part of the inmates. They try to settle disputes before violence can erupt. They may search the prisoners or their living quarters for weapons or drugs and inspect locks, bars on windows and doors, and gates for any evidence of tampering. The inmates are under guard constantly while eating, sleeping, exercising, bathing, and working. They are counted periodically to be sure all are present. Some officers are stationed on towers and at gates to prevent escapes. All rule violations and anything out of the ordinary are reported to a superior officer such as a chief jailer. In case of a major disturbance, corrections officers may use weapons or force to restore order.
Corrections officers give work assignments to prisoners, supervise them as they carry out their duties, and instruct them in unfamiliar tasks. Corrections officers are responsible for the physical needs of the prisoners, such as providing or obtaining meals and medical aid. They assure the health and safety of the inmates by checking the cells for unsanitary conditions and fire hazards.
These workers may escort inmates from their cells to the prison’s visiting room, medical office, or chapel. Certain officers, called patrol conductors, guard prisoners who are being transported between courthouses, prisons, mental institutions, or other destinations, either by van, car, or public transportation. Officers at a penal institution may also screen visitors at the entrance and accompany them to other areas within the facility From time to time, they may inspect mail addressed to prisoners, checking for contra band, help investigate crimes committed within the prison, or aid in the search for escapees.
Some police officers specialize in guarding juvenile offenders being held at a police station house or detention room pending a hearing, transfer to a correctional institution, or return to their parents. They often investigate the backgrounds of first offenders to check for a criminal history or to make a recommendation to the magistrate regarding disposition of the case. Lost or runaway children are also placed in the care of these officers until their parents or guardians can be located.
Immigration guards guard aliens held by the immigration service awaiting investigation, deportation, or release. Gate tenders check the identification of all persons entering and leaving the penal institution.
In most correctional institutions, psychologists and social workers are employed to counsel inmates with mental and emotional problems. It is an important part of a corrections officer’s job, however, to supplement this with informal counseling. Officers may help inmates adjust to prison life, prepare for return to civilian life, and avoid committing crimes in the future. On a more immediate level, they may arrange for an inmate to visit the library, help inmates get in touch with their families, suggest where to look for a job after release from prison, or discuss personal problems. In some institutions, corrections officers may lead more formal group counseling sessions. As they fulfill more rehabilitative roles, corrections officers are increasingly required to possess a college-level education in psychology, criminology, or related areas of study
Corrections officers keep a daily record of their activities and make regular reports, either verbal or written, to their supervisors. These reports concern the behavior of the inmates and the quality and quantity of work they do, as well as any disturbances, rule violations, and unusual occurrences that may have taken place.
Head corrections officers supervise and coordinate other corrections officers. They perform roll call and assign duties to the officers; direct the activities of groups of inmates; arrange the release and transfer of prisoners in accordance with the instructions on a court order; maintain security and investigate disturbances among the inmates; maintain prison records and pre pare reports; and review and evaluate the performance of their subordinates.
In small communities, corrections officers (who are sometimes called jailers) may also act as deputy sheriffs or police officers when they are not occupied with guard duties.
To work as a corrections officer, candidates generally must meet the mini mum age requirement—usually 18 or 21—and have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Individuals without a high school education may be considered for employment if they have qualifying work experience, such as probation and parole experience.
Many states and correctional facilities prefer or require officers to have post- secondary training in psychology, criminology or related areas of study. Some states require applicants to have one or two years of previous experience in corrections or related police work. Military experience or related work experience is also required by some state governments. On the federal level, applicants should have at least two years of college or two years of work or military experience.
Training for corrections officers ranges from the special academy instruction provided by the federal government and some states to the informal, on- the-job training furnished by most states and local governments. The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates a training center in Glynco, Georgia, where new hires generally undergo a three-week program of basic corrections education. Training academies have programs that last from four to eight weeks and instruct trainees on institutional policies, regulations, and procedures; the behavior and custody of inmates; security measures; and report writing. Training in self-defense, the use of firearms and other weapons, and emergency medical techniques is often provided. On-the-job trainees spend two to six months or more under the supervision of an experienced officer. During that period of time, they receive in-house training while gaining actual experience. Periodically corrections officers may be given additional training as new ideas and procedures in criminal justice are developed.
Certification or Licensing
A few states require passing a written examination. Corrections officers who work for the federal government and most state governments are covered by civil service systems or merit boards and may be required to pass a competitive exam for employment, Many states require random or comprehensive drug testing of their officers, either during hiring procedures or while employed at the facility.
Other requirements include good health and physical strength, and many states have set minimum height, vision, and hearing standards. Sound judgment and the ability to think and act quickly are important qualities for this occupation. A candidate must have a clean police record. The ability to speak foreign languages is often a plus when applying for corrections jobs.
Because of age requirements and the nature of the work, there are no opportunities for high school students to gain actual experience while still in school. Where the minimum age requirement is 21, prospective corrections officers may prepare for employment by taking college courses in criminal justice or police science. Enrollment in a two- or four-year college degree program in a related field is encouraged. Military service may also offer experience and training in corrections. Social work is another way to gain experience. You may also look into obtaining a civilian job as a clerk or other worker for the police department or other protective service organization. Related part-time, volunteer, or summer work may also be available in psychiatric hospitals and other institutions providing physical and emotional counseling and services. Many online services also have forums for corrections officers and other public safety employees, and these may provide opportunities to read about and communicate with people active in this career.
Corrections officers work for the government at the local, state, and federal levels in penal institutions and in jobs connected with the penal system. Of the approximately 383,000 corrections officers employed in the United States, roughly 60 percent work in state-run correctional facilities such as prisons, prison camps, and reformatories. Most of the rest are employed at city and county jails or other institutions, while a few thousand work for the federal government. An increasing number are employed by private corrections contractors.
To apply for a job as a corrections officer, contact federal or state civil service commissions, state departments of correction, or local correctional facilities and ask for information about entrance requirements, training, and job opportunities. Private contractors and other companies are also a growing source of employment opportunities. Many officers enter this field from social work areas and parole and probation positions.
With additional education and training, experienced officers may qualify for promotion to head corrections officer or advancement to some other supervisory or administrative position, and eventually may become prison directors. Some officers transfer to related fields, such as law, law enforcement, or probation and parole.
There is a wide variation in wages for corrections officers, depending on which level of government employs them. According to a 1999 national survey in Correction Compendium, salaries ranged widely from one state to another. In California, for example, corrections officers started at $14,600, while New Jersey corrections officers could earn $34,100.
The Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that median annual earnings of corrections officers were $28,540 in 1998. The salaries of top earners were more than $46,320 and the lowest salaries were less than $18,800.
Beginning corrections officers at the federal level are generally rated GS 6, with a salary range of $21,900 to $24,000 depending on the location of service. Sergeants and other supervisors generally start at $42,000. The aver age for all federal corrections officers and sergeants is $39,500 per year, and supervisors average more than $52,000. Overtime, night shift, weekend, and holiday pay differentials are generally available at most institutions.
Benefits may include health, disability, and life insurance; uniforms or a cash allowance to buy their own uniforms; and sometimes meals and housing. Officers who work for the federal government and for most state governments are covered by civil service systems or merit boards. Some corrections officers also receive retirement and pension plans, and retirement is often possible after 20 years of service.
Because prison security must be maintained around the clock, work schedules for corrections officers may include nights, weekends, and holidays. The workweek, however, generally consists of five days, eight hours per day, except during emergencies, when many officers work overtime.
Corrections officers may work indoors or outdoors, depending on their duties. Conditions can vary even within an institution: some areas are well lighted, ventilated, and temperature-controlled, while others are overcrowded, hot, and noisy Officers who work outdoors, of course, are subject to all kinds of weather. Correctional institutions occasionally present unpredictable or even hazardous situations. If violence erupts among the inmates, corrections officers may be in danger of injury or death. Although this risk is higher than for most other occupations, corrections work is usually routine.
Corrections officers need physical and emotional strength to cope with the stress inherent in dealing with criminals, many of whom may be dangerous or incapable of change. A correctional officer has to remain alert and aware of the surroundings, prisoners’ movements and attitudes, and any potential for danger or violence. Such continual, heightened levels of alertness often create psychological stress for some workers. Most institutions have stress-reduction programs or seminars for their employees, but if not, insurance usually covers some form of therapy for work-related stress.
The prison population has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and this growth is expected to be sustained for the near future. The increasing number of prisoners means there will be a strong need for new corrections officers.
Employment in this field is expected to increase much faster than the average for all jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The ongoing war on illegal drugs, new tough-on-crime legislation, and increasing mandatory sentencing policies will create a need for more prison beds and more corrections officers. The extremely crowded conditions in today’s correction al institutions have created a need for more corrections officers to guard the inmates more closely and relieve the tensions. A greater number of officers will also be required as a result of the expansion or new construction of facilities. As prison sentences become longer through mandatory minimum sentences set by state law, the number of prisons needed will increase. In addition, many job openings will occur from a characteristically high turnover rate, as well as from the need to fill vacancies caused by the death or retirement of older workers. Traditionally, correction agencies have difficulty attracting qualified employees due to job location and salary considerations.
Because security must be maintained at correctional facilities at all times, corrections officers can depend on steady employment. They are not usually affected by poor economic conditions or changes in government spending. Corrections officers are rarely laid off, even when budgets need to be trimmed. Instead, because of high turnovers, staffs can be cut simply by not replacing those officers who leave.
Most jobs will be found in relatively large institutions located near metropolitan areas, although opportunities for corrections officers exist in jails and other smaller facilities throughout the country. The increasing use of private companies and privately run prisons may limit somewhat the growth of jobs in this field as these companies are more likely to keep a close eye on the bottom line. Use of new technologies, such as surveillance equipment, automatic gates, and other devices, may also allow institutions to employ fewer officers.
For More Information
For information on training, conferences, and membership, contact:
American Correctional Association
4380 Forbes Boulevard
Lanham, MD 20706-4322
The CCN bills itself as the “Largest Online Resource for News & Information in Corrections:”
The Corrections Connection Network (CCN)
159 Burgin Parkway
Quincy, MA 02169
American Probation and Parole Association c/o Council of State Governments
P.O. Box 11910
Lexington, KY 40578-19 10
Contact the FBP for information on entrance requirements, training, and career opportunities for corrections officers at the federal level.
Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP)
National Recruitment Office
320 First Street, NW, Room 460
Washington, DC 20534
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