Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to serve time in a jail, reformatory, or prison.
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Inside the prison or jail, correctional officers enforce rules and regulations. They maintain security by preventing any disturbances, assaults, or escapes. They supervise the daily activities of inmates, ensuring that inmates obey the rules and finish their work. They also ensure that they know where all inmates are. Officers must search inmates for contraband such as weapons or drugs, settle disputes between inmates, and enforce discipline. They also:
Correctional officers enforce regulations through effective communication and the use of progressive sanctions, which involve punishments such as loss of privileges. Sanctions are progressive in that they start out small for a lesser or single offense but become more severe for more serious offenses or when repeat offenses occur. In addition, officers may aid inmates in their rehabilitation by scheduling work assignments, counselling, and educational opportunities. Correctional officers periodically inspect facilities. They check cells and other areas for unsanitary conditions, contraband, signs of a security breach such as any tampering with window bars or doors, and any other evidence of violations of the rules. Officers also inspect mail and visitors for prohibited items. They write reports or fill out daily logs detailing inmate behavior and anything of note that occurred during their shift.
Correctional officers may have to restrain inmates in handcuffs and leg irons to escort them safely 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. Correctional officers cannot show favoritism and must report any inmate who violates the rules. If a crime is committed within their institution or an inmate escapes, they help the responsible law enforcement authorities investigate or search for the escapee. Correctional officers have no responsibilities for law enforcement outside of their place of work.
Correctional officers must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. They then go through a training academy and then are assigned to a facility for on-the-job training. Qualifications vary by agency, but all agencies require a high school diploma or equivalent. Some also require some college education or work experience. Some corrections agencies require some college credits, but law enforcement or military experience may be substituted for this requirement.
Correctional officers may complete a variety of certifications that provide additional resources for their daily work. These certifications also are a means to further the officers’ careers because they may lead to promotions. Qualified officers may advance to the position of correctional sergeant, who is responsible for maintaining security and directing the activities of other officers. Qualified officers also can be promoted to supervisory or administrative positions, including warden. Officers sometimes transfer to related jobs, such as probation officer, parole officer, or correctional treatment specialist.
Correctional officers must determine the best practical approach to solving a problem. Officers must use both their training and common sense to quickly determine the best course of action and to take necessary steps to achieve a desired outcome.
Correctional officers must be able to interact and effectively communicate with inmates and others to maintain order in correctional facilities and courtrooms. They must be able to assist others in resolving differences to avoid conflict. They must have the strength to physically move or subdue inmates. They must control their emotions when confronted with hostile situations. Officers must be able to understand and learn training materials and write reports regularly. They usually must be at least 18 to 21 years of age and must have no felony convictions.
The vast majority of correctional officers work for the government. Most of the remainder are employed by private companies that provide correctional services to prisons and jails. Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and dangerous. Every year, correctional officers are injured in confrontations with inmates. Correctional officers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal on-the-job injuries.
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. Because offenders typically stay longer in federal prisons than in county jails, correctional officers in prisons come to know the people with whom they are dealing. They know what they need in terms of security and being taken care of. Therefore, federal prisons tend to be safer places to work than county jails.
The median annual wage of correctional officers was $39,040 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,040, and the top 10 percent earned more than $67,250.
In addition to receiving typical benefits, correctional officers employed in the public sector usually are provided with uniforms or with a clothing allowance to buy their own uniforms. Many departments offer retirement benefits, although benefits vary. Unionized correctional officers often have slightly higher wages and benefits.