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Corrections Officers

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Correctional Officers

Significant Points
  • The work can be stressful and hazardous.
  • Most correctional officers are employed in State and Federal prisons.
  • Job opportunities are expected to be excellent.
Nature of the Work

Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to serve time in a jail, reformatory, or penitentiary. Correctional officers maintain security and inmate accountability to prevent disturbances, assaults, and escapes. Officers have no law enforcement responsibilities outside the institution where they work. (For more information on related occupations, see the statements on police and detectives and on probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Police and sheriffs departments in county and municipal jails or precinct station houses employ many correctional officers, also known as detention officers. Most of the approximately 3,400 jails in the United States are operated by county governments, with about three-quarters of all jails under the jurisdiction of an elected sheriff. Individuals in the jail population change constantly as some are released, some are convicted and transferred to prison, and new offenders are arrested and enter the system. Correctional officers in local jails admit and process about 12 million people a year, with about 700,000 offenders in jail at any given time. When individuals are first arrested, the jail staff may not know their true identity or criminal record, and violent detainees may be placed in the general population. This is the most dangerous phase of the incarceration process for correctional officers.

Most correctional officers are employed in State and Federal prisons, watching over the approximately 1.4 million offenders who are incarcerated there at any given time. Other correctional officers oversee individuals being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service pending release or deportation, or work for correctional institutions that are run by private for-profit organizations. Although both jails and prisons can be dangerous places to work, prison populations are more stable than jail populations, and correctional officers in prisons know the security and custodial requirements of the prisoners with whom they are dealing.

Regardless of the setting, correctional officers maintain order within the institution and enforce rules and regulations. To help ensure that inmates are orderly and obey rules, correctional officers monitor the activities and supervise the work assignments of inmates. Sometimes, officers must search inmates and their living quarters for contraband like weapons or drugs, settle disputes between inmates, and enforce discipline. Correctional officers periodically inspect the facilities, checking cells and other areas of the institution for unsanitary conditions, contraband, fire hazards, and any evidence of infractions of rules. In addition, they routinely inspect locks, window bars, grilles, doors, and gates for signs of tampering. Finally, officers inspect mail and visitors for prohibited items.

Correctional officers report orally and in writing on inmate conduct and on the quality and quantity of work done by inmates. Officers also report security breaches, disturbances, violations of rules, and any unusual occurrences. They usually keep a daily log or record of their activities. Correctional officers cannot show favoritism and must report any inmate who violates the rules. Should the situation arise, they help the responsible law enforcement authorities investigate crimes committed within their institution or search for escaped inmates.

In jail and prison facilities with direct supervision cellblocks, officers work unarmed. They are equipped with communications devices so that they can summon help if necessary. These officers often work in a cellblock alone, or with another officer, among the 50 to 100 inmates who reside there. The officers enforce regulations primarily through their interpersonal communications skills and through the use of progressive sanctions, such as the removal of some privileges.

In the highest security facilities, where the most dangerous inmates are housed, correctional officers often monitor the activities of prisoners from a centralized control center with closed-circuit television cameras and a computer tracking system. In such an environment, the inmates may not see anyone but officers for days or weeks at a time and may leave their cells only for showers, solitary exercise time, or visitors. Depending on the offenders security classification within the institution, correctional officers may have to restrain inmates in handcuffs and leg irons to safely escort them to and from cells and other areas and to see authorized visitors. Officers also escort prisoners between the institution and courtrooms, medical facilities, and other destinations outside the institution.

Bailiffs, also known as marshals or court officers, are law enforcement officers who maintain safety and order in courtrooms. Their duties, which vary by location, include enforcing courtroom rules, assisting judges, guarding juries from outside contact, delivering court documents, and providing general security for courthouses.

Working Conditions

Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and hazardous. Every year, correctional officers are injured in confrontations with inmates. Correctional officers may work indoors or outdoors. Some correctional institutions are well lighted, temperature controlled, and ventilated, but others are old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy. Correctional officers usually work an 8-hour day, 5 days a week, on rotating shifts. Because prison and jail security must be provided around the clock, officers work all hours of the day and night, weekends, and holidays. In addition, officers may be required to work paid overtime.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most institutions require correctional officers to be at least 18 to 21 years of age and a U.S. citizen; have a high school education or its equivalent; demonstrate job stability, usually by accumulating 2 years of work experience; and have no felony convictions. Promotion prospects may be enhanced by obtaining a postsecondary education.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires entry-level correctional officers to have at least a bachelors degree; or 3 years of full-time experience in a field providing counseling, assistance, or supervision to individuals; or a combination of these two requirements.

Correctional officers must be in good health. Candidates for employment are generally required to meet formal standards of physical fitness, eyesight, and hearing. In addition, many jurisdictions use standard tests to determine applicant suitability to work in a correctional environment. Good judgment and the ability to think and act quickly are indispensable. Applicants are typically screened for drug abuse, subject to background checks, and 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 that are available to local agencies. At the conclusion of formal instruction, all State and local correctional agencies 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. However, specific entry requirements and on-the-job training vary widely from agency to agency.

Academy trainees generally receive instruction in a number of subjects, including institutional policies, regulations, and operations, as well as custody and security procedures. New Federal correctional officers must undergo 200 hours of formal training within the first year of employment. They also must complete 120 hours of specialized training at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center at Glynco, GA, within 60 days of their appointment. Experienced officers receive annual in-service training to keep abreast of new developments and procedures.

Some correctional officers are members of prison tactical response teams, which are trained to respond to disturbances, riots, hostage situations, forced cell moves, and other potentially dangerous confrontations. Team members practice disarming prisoners wielding weapons, protecting themselves and inmates against the effects of chemical agents, and other tactics.

With education, experience, and training, qualified officers may advance to the position of correctional sergeant. Correctional sergeants supervise correctional officers and usually are responsible for maintaining security and directing the activities of other officers during an assigned shift or in an assigned area. Ambitious and qualified correctional officers can be promoted to supervisory or administrative positions all the way up to warden. Officers sometimes transfer to related jobs, such as probation officers, parole officers, and correctional treatment specialists.


Bailiffs, correctional officers, and jailers held about 484,000 jobs in 2004. About 3 of every 5 jobs were in State correctional institutions such as prisons, prison camps, and youth correctional facilities. About 16,000 jobs for correctional officers were in Federal correctional institutions, and about 15,000 jobs were in privately owned and managed prisons.

Most of the remaining jobs were in city and county jails or in other institutions run by local governments. Some 300 of these jails, all of them in urban areas, are large: they house over 1,000 inmates. Most correctional officers who work in jails, however, work in institutions located in rural areas with smaller inmate populations.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for correctional officers are expected to be excellent. The need to replace correctional officers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the labor force, coupled with rising employment demand, will generate thousands of job openings each year. In the past, some local and State corrections agencies have experienced difficulty in attracting and keeping qualified applicants, largely because of low salaries, shift work, and the concentration of jobs in rural locations. This situation is expected to continue.

Employment of correctional officers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Increasing demand for correctional officers will stem from mandatory sentencing guidelines calling for longer sentences and reduced parole for inmates, and from expansion and new construction of corrections facilities. However, mandatory sentencing guidelines are being reconsidered in many States because of a combination of budgetary constraints, court decisions, and doubts about their effectiveness. Instead, there may be more emphasis on reducing sentences or putting offenders on probation or in rehabilitation programs in many States. As a result, the prison population, and employment of correctional officers, will probably grow at a slower rate than in the past. Some employment opportunities also will arise in the private sector, as public authorities contract with private companies to provide and staff corrections facilities.

Layoffs of correctional officers are rare because of increasing offender populations. While officers are allowed to join bargaining units, they are not allowed to strike.


Median annual earnings of correctional officers and jailers were $33,600 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $26,560 and $44,200. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,630, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $54,820. Median annual earnings in the public sector were $44,700 in the Federal Government, $33,750 in State government, and $33,080 in local government. In the facilities support services industry, where the relatively small number of officers employed by privately operated prisons is classified, median annual earnings were $21,490. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the starting salary for Federal correctional officers was about $26,747 a year in 2005. Starting Federal salaries were slightly higher in areas where prevailing local pay levels were higher.

Median annual earnings of first-line supervisors/managers of correctional officers were $44,720 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $33,070 and $60,550. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,770, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $70,990. Median annual earnings were $41,080 in State government and $49,470 in local government.

Median annual earnings of bailiffs were $33,870 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,710 and $44,240. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,930, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $54,770. Median annual earnings were $30,410 in local government.

In addition to typical benefits, correctional officers employed in the public sector usually are 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 50 after 20 years of service or at any age with 25 years of service.

Related Occupations

A number of options are available to those interested in careers in protective services and security. Security guards and gaming surveillance officers protect people and property against theft, vandalism, illegal entry, and fire. Police and detectives maintain law and order, prevent crime, and arrest offenders. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists monitor and counsel offenders and evaluate their progress in becoming productive members of society.

Sources of Additional Information

Further information about correctional officers is available from:

  • American Correctional Association, 4380 Forbes Boulevard, Lanham, MD 20706. Internet:
  • American Jail Association, 1135 Professional Ct., Hagerstown, MD 21740.

Information on entrance requirements, training, and career opportunities for correctional officers at the Federal level may be obtained from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Internet:

Information on obtaining a position as a correctional officer with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Governments official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Correctional Officers, on the Internet at (visited April 06, 2006).

According to the book description of Corrections Officer Exam, Hundreds of thousands of candidates apply each year to become Corrections Officers in municipal, county, state, federal, and private departments nationwide. The written exam is the tool typically used to make "the first cut" passing with the highest score is critical to moving forward in the selection process, and to landing one of these coveted jobs. This book includes three complete tests based on official exams, with full answer explanations, and hundreds of additional practice questions; as well as insider advice on preparing for the physical ability test, oral interview board, background investigation, and psychological assessment.


According to the book description of Corrections Officer Exam Secrets, it helps you ace the Corrections Officer Exam, without weeks and months of endless studying. Our comprehensive Corrections Officer Exam Secrets study guide is written by our exam experts, who painstakingly researched every topic and concept that you need to know to ace your test. Our original research reveals specific weaknesses that you can exploit to increase your exam score more than you've ever imagined. Corrections Officer Exam Secrets includes: The 5 Secret Keys to Corrections Officer Test Success: Time is Your Greatest Enemy, Guessing is Not Guesswork, Practice Smarter, Not Harder, Prepare, Don't Procrastinate, Test Yourself; A comprehensive General Strategy review including: Make Predictions, Answer the Question, Benchmark, Valid Information, Avoid 'Fact Traps', Milk the Question, The Trap of Familiarity, Eliminate Answers, Tough Questions, Brainstorm, Read Carefully, Face Value, Prefixes, Hedge Phrases, Switchback Words, New Information, Time Management, Contextual Clues, Don't Panic, Pace Yourself, Answer Selection, Check Your Work, Beware of Directly Quoted Answers, Slang, Extreme Statements, Answer Choice Families; Comprehensive sections including: Male Inmate Population Commonalities, Private Corrections Industry, The Auburn System, Unit Management Approach, Responding to a Food Strike, Six Components to a Housekeeping Plan, Five Elements of a Bomb Plan, Escape and Hostage Plans, Prison Chaplains, Correct Procedure for a 'Pat-Down', In-Take Procedures, Strategies for Handling Occupational Stress, Rights of Correctional Officers, Code of Ethics, Duties of a Supervisor, Supermax and Maximum Security Facilities, Control Centers and Safety Vestibules, Sentencing Guidelines, Classifying Inmates, Constitutional Rights of Inmates, Son of Sam Law, First Amendment Issues, Common Double Jeopardy Issues, Two Elements of 'Deliberate Indifference', Excessive Force Issues, Common Failure-To-Protect Claims.


According to the book description of Master the Corrections Officer, Now includes a real exam used in previous test administrations. Written by the Director of South Carolina Department of Correction, who has more than 30 years of experience as an employee trainer and a prison auditor, this versatile guide addresses all federal, state, municipal and private correction officer exams. Features:  6 full length practice exams; Intensive subject review and a sample physical fitness course; and, Career planning advice and information, including salaries, working conditions, and job eligibility requirements.


According to the book description of Barron's Correction Officer Exam, Updated to reflect the most recent requirements for correction officers in jurisdictions across the country, including sheriff's departments, this manual presents practice in reading comprehension, math, memory retention, and ability to fill out and process official forms. The authors, both highly experienced retired law enforcement officers, also present an overview of correction officers' duties and requirements. A general brush-up review covers all test topics. New in this edition is a review of an additional question type that appears on many regional exams, dealing with coding (i.e., understanding of forms). Also new is addition of the Correctional Officers' Creed, issued by the international Association of Correctional Officers, as well as updated guidelines for the oral interview. A diagnostic test and five full-length practice exams come with answer keys, diagnostic charts, and answer explanations. All exams are similar in content to those given across the country.

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