There are approximately 455,000 correctional officers in the United States. Job-growth indicators suggest that the occupation is likely to grow by 9 percent over the next ten years, about the average rate for all jobs combined.
Correctional officers supervise criminal suspects awaiting trial or those who are serving time in a prison, jail, or reformatory. Those who work in local jails process a total of 13 million individuals annually. Federal and state prison correctional officers are responsible for around 1.6 million incarcerated offenders at any specific time. Their most important work is maintaining control and accountability in order to minimize conflict and attempted escapes. They enforce rules and regulations, supervise activities and work assignments, search cells or inmates for fire hazards, sanitary conditions, drugs, weapons, or other contraband, and apply discipline. Doors, bars on windows, grilles, locks, and gates are checked on a daily basis for indications of tampering. They also open and review packages and letters as well as search visitors for contraband. Inmate work efforts and behaviors are documented both in writing and orally. Any rule violations, breaches in security, or conflicts are reported to a superior. In the event of an escape or known criminal activity within the institution, correctional officers aid law-enforcement investigations. In prison facilities where correctional officers can directly oversee cellblocks, they carry radios to call for help if needed, but are not issued firearms. Typically in such facilities, one or two officers monitor up to 100 inmates.
In high-security institutions where dangerous inmates are incarcerated, inmate activities are monitored from a control center via cameras and computer tracking. These inmates are permitted out of cells only for exercise, showers, or visitations. Some high-security inmates are handcuffed and attached to leg irons when under escort.
Correctional officers also accompany prisoners to hospitals and courtrooms. Correctional officers working in the courtroom are bailiffs, who preserve order and safety. Their duties, which vary by location, include enforcing regulations, assisting judges, guarding juries from outside contact, and delivering court documents.
The work done by correctional officers is both dangerous and highly stressful. Attacks or confrontations with inmates can result in injury or even death. Correctional officers must maintain a calm but very firm demeanor in the face of conflict, must demonstrate leadership abilities, must be very clear communicators as well as observant and quick thinking, and must able to respond to a known or suspected danger immediately. Because prison populations are more stable in that inmates are incarcerated for longer periods of time, they are safer.Prison correctional officers are more familiar with their charges, and understand the security issues specific to certain inmates.
Newer correctional facilities are well- lit and well ventilated, and climate controlled. Older facilities can be poorly lit, loud, and lacking air conditioning. Most correctional officers work rotating eight-hour shifts. Some institutions schedule longer shifts, but give officers more days off between work periods. Officers may work day, evening, or night shifts, or a combination, as well as weekends and holidays.
Becoming a correctional officer requires graduation from a training academy. Once an officer is assigned a position, on-the-job training offers specific instruction for the type of work the officer will be doing. A high school diploma or the equivalent is required by all facilities, and some may also require postsecondary instruction. The Federal Bureau of Prisons seeks officers with bachelor’s degrees or three years of work experience in an appropriate area. Some state and local facilities require postsecondary coursework; in most cases, military or law enforcement experience can apply instead. Training guidelines created by the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association are followed by many federal, state, and local agencies.
Some agencies require competence with firearms as well as self-defense. Newly hired federal correctional officers are given 200 formal training hours during their first year of employment. Another 120 hours devoted to specialized training at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center must be completed within the first 60 days of work. Annual in-service training gives officers information on new techniques, approaches, or theories.
Prison tactical response team officers receive special training to respond to disturbances, riots, hostage situations, forced cell moves, and other potentially dangerous confrontations.
Career advancement can involve stepping into a correctional sergeant position to supervise correctional officers. Promotions through administrative positions up the ladder to warden are other ways to advance. Some officers return to school for a degree or transfer to a related job with more responsibility and higher pay.
The median annual salary for correctional officers is around $40,000. Those in the midrange earn between $30,000 and $51,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $65,000 a year.