A career in Corrections can be a demanding yet rewarding pursuit. On the one hand, the pay may be modest, depending on the location, the hours long, and the position carries little prestige. On the other hand, the benefits, especially time-off provisions and the pride in serving the public in this way make this a career of choice for many.
What Does a Correctional Officer Do?
Corrections Officers guard prisoners in a Jail, State, or Federal Correctional Facility (Prison). The Corrections Officer has a responsibility to ensure that the prisoners are properly cared for and controlled at all times while also preventing escape. The role requires maintaining order and any daily operations needs of the Prison facility. Additionally, Corrections Officers conduct searches of prisoners and cells according to the rules of the correctional facility and Warden.
At times, the Corrections Officer must intervene when one prisoner attempts to harm self and others as well as supervising activities of the inmates under his or her care. This includes guarding trustees in work crews outside the correctional facility. Thus, Corrections Officers wear many hats in the conducting of their duties.
The Role of Corrections Officers in Criminal Justice Law
The Corrections Officer plays a vital role in criminal justice and social order (law). Without Corrections Officers, prisons would rapidly decay into disorder and chaos. Criminals are placed into prisons (correctional facilities) because they have been found guilty of a crime for which society has determined they must be incarcerated. However, this does not mean that they are to be left to their own.
In most civilized nations, society has determined that although lawless outside of the prison walls, convicts must be forced to accept a life of structure. This forced structure is two-fold.
One, it attempts, through conditioning, to strengthen social structure in individuals incarcerated. This is in part in harmony with the original concept of Penitentiaries, which sought to create penitent, or remorseful/repentant individuals. As a moral concept, prisons/correctional facilities have largely abandoned most of the original concept, but from a social standpoint, the element of conditioning a convict back to living in an ordered society remains.
The second element of the forced structure is that it maintains order in the correctional facility. This is important because for starters, if left to themselves, many convicts would destroy the property. Too, in many prisons, some low-level offenders are incarcerated alongside those who may never be released. To leave the prisoners to themselves without any means of defense against those who would harm them is considered cruel and unusual punishment under the ruling of the United State Supreme Court. Indeed, the punishment must fit the crime so a person who is only slated to serve two years should not get a death sentence at the hands of other prisoners. This would be unjust and not fitting of a civilized society.
Thus, the Corrections Officer fulfills a very important role in the criminal justice field and for the sake of the larger social purposes for which correctional facilities serve. It is not a position to be taken lightly as it carries considerable responsibility.
Training and Preparation for a Career as a Corrections Officer
In general, training and preparation for a career as a Corrections Officer is minimal, though some states are beginning to change this. The minimum education in most cases is a High School diploma or GED. For a Federal Correctional Officer position, a degree plus three-year’s experience is required.
However, some states, while not directly requiring higher education are placing an emphasis on encouraging degree programs. For example, in Texas, if a graduate of a Criminal Justice program applies for a position as a Corrections Officer, the applicant receives preferred status for hiring and starts out with a higher pay grade. Many states are today doing likewise such that while not requiring a degree, those with degrees are paid better and have a better likelihood of being hired. In addition, those with a degree in Criminal Justice or a related field have a higher rate of promotions, though the general pay grade increases are standardized across the board for all Corrections Officers equally.
One of the biggest things the person interested in a career as a Corrections Officer can do to prepare of the position, is to either take courses or enroll in a university program. Some of the courses of study which may be undertaken, whether in a structured teaching environment or as an individual include:
- Criminal Law and Procedures
- Hostage negotiations
- Understanding Gang mentality/Intervention procedures
- Correctional Law and Procedures
- Writing Reports
- Testifying in Courts
- Interpersonal Communications and Behavioral Psychology
- First Aid/CPR
- Self-defense and the use of restraints
- Proper and safe use/control of weapons including non-lethal
- Drug Abuse Awareness Training
- Law Enforcement practices
- Stress Management
- Crisis Intervention/Dealing with Suicidal Individuals
In addition to pre-employment preparation, there will be on-the-job training and often a certain number of hours in the first year of specialized training is required, depending on the state and Warden.
There are many other possible subjects with which a Corrections Officers may want to be familiar with or better, develop proficiency/expertise in, but this gives a good ideal of the broad range of skills needed to be a Corrections Officer.
Of course, the downside to all this is that and individual Corrections Officer can take all the training and make every possible preparation and still face a situation which can get him/herself and others killed or wounded. Thus, a cool head with good judgment is needed and this cannot be taught in any course.
How to Apply for a Position as a Corrections Officer
The application process for becoming a Corrections Officer varies only slightly with every location or jurisdiction. In the case of State Correctional Officer positions, there is generally a process of applying as a civil servant in conjunction with a more specific application. There are also often physical tests which must be passed and at times written exams and even psychological testing may be performed. Expect a urinalysis (Drug Screen/test) and sometimes a Lie Detector test as well.
The requirements often vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but the best place to start is with the state prison website. For a complete listing of these websites, visit the Prisons Pages. Under each state page will be the official website link for that State Correctional Department. On the Correctional Department website, you will find a link for employment and there will virtually always be additional information related to which locations are in need and what specific positions are available. The job requirements will be listed along with any paperwork and/or testing to be performed pre-employment.
The requirements for private prison companies differ as well. In the case of many of these, simply contact the company and apply as you would for any other job. The only difference will be that these too will have some of the same requirements as applying with the state, though the initial application process may differ slightly.
Just be prepared to write considerably for the applications are extensive and while Corrections Officers are not required to be in the same physical condition as Law Enforcement Officers in most cases, you do need to be able to handle yourself physically.
Following is a brief recruiting video from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Additional Information Related to a Career as a Corrections Officer
Corrections Officers are called by many names in various locations around the world, though in the United States, the term Correctional or Corrections Officer is quite standard today. In fact, throughout much of the Western World (Europe and Australia) the term is one of these two. However, in Jamaica and some portions of the U.S., the term Detention Officer or Penal Officer is also used.
Some of the other terms used in the past include Guard, Jailer, Prison Guard, and in Canada, Turnkey, because the guard was the one who held the keys to the cells.
Over the course of the last thirty years as America has implemented tougher laws, the demand for Corrections Officers has grown considerably and is expected to continue to grow as many long-time officers retire and additional correctional facilities continue to be built in some states. In others, community corrections programs and increased probation use is resulting in a decrease in demand. Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor expects a 10% increase in demand through 2018.
Average Salary of a Corrections Officer
The average salary of a Corrections Officer may vary considerably from state to state, but according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Mean Annual Wage is $44,350 and the Mean Hourly is $21.32. However, this does not account for first line correctional officers versus those who have been on the job for years. In addition, this information also includes deputy sheriffs and local police jailers.
For example, in the state of Texas, a first-time Correctional Officer will receive a pay rate of just over $2600 per month (Pay Level 1) whereas with a degree, the pay is slightly below $3000 per month (starts out at Pay Level 3). Within six (6) months of hiring the initial pay in increased to Level 2 and a year and a half later to Level 3. After this, there are regular increases based on time on the job.
However, in the state of California, the pay scales are considerably higher, especially when working for a private prison company such as Corrections Corporation of America. Also, in some cases, when applying with a private company, the Corrections Officer can often negotiate based on experience and training.
Thus, the wages on the low end of the scale for a Correctional Officer is around $26K per year whereas on the top end of the scale, some make better than $70K annually. In addition, hourly versus salary combined with the needs of the Correctional facility can make a considerable difference. As an example, there are some Corrections Officers making six figures because they have been working long enough to be on the high end of the pay scale, are hourly, and in a facility where labor shortages allow them to put in considerable overtime.
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