Overview

Prisons and jails are operated by federal, state, and local governments. Because each branch of government has different hiring standards and practices, the requirements to become a correctional officer can vary dramatically.

Generally, applicants must be at least eighteen to twenty-one years old and hold a high school diploma or equivalent. Some institutions seek job candidates with armed forces experience and/or some college training.

Regardless of their pre-employment education, correctional officers typically receive on-the-job training mandated and administered by the government corrections department that hires them. Classes often include communication, law, criminal rights, firearms use and safety, inmate restraint, prisoner transportation, use of force, and facility polices and security procedures.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has particularly stringent requirements. Correctional officers at federal prisons are required to have a Bachelor’s Degree – often in criminology, criminal justice, psychology, sociology, or education – and relevant experience in a supervisory or counseling role. They must also complete two hundred hours of general institutional education at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia.

In all cases, individuals who apply to work in the corrections field are subject to citizenship verification; as well as a criminal record check, a credit check, a personal references check, and a drug test.

The American Correctional Association awards the voluntary Certified Correctional Officer (CCO) credential to candidates who fulfill its education and experience requirements and pass a qualifying examination.

How long does it take to become a Correctional Officer?

The length of time required to become a correctional officer varies depending on the chosen educational track, the intended career trajectory, and jurisdictional requirements:

• Correctional Officer Certificate Program – three to twelve months
• Associate’s Degree Program in Applied Science in Corrections – two years
• Bachelor’s Degree Program in Corrections, Criminology, Criminal Justice, or a related field – four years

Steps to becoming a Correctional Officer

The decision to become a correctional officer is a decision to hone many different kinds of skills; to develop considerable physical ability; and to exhibit mental strength and emotional stability.

1 High School

For some correctional jobs, a high school diploma or equivalent is the only educational requirement. While in high school, aspiring correctional officers should pay particular attention to the following courses:

Physical Education Courses
Correctional officers need to be able to physically defend themselves. Get in shape from a young age and take physical education courses.

Communication and Writing Courses
Working in corrections involves constant interaction with both colleagues and inmates. Public speaking and debate classes will help to build a foundation in this area. Writing classes will prepare students for the work of completing inmate and incident reports.

Language Courses
Prison populations consist of multiple ethnic groups. A second language will facilitate communicating with inmates and potentially ease tensions that may arise.

2 Meet the minimum requirements

The minimum standards for correctional officers working in federal prisons
• Be a U.S. citizen
• Be between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven
• Have no disqualifying criminal convictions
• Have a stable financial history
• Have a Bachelor’s Degree in a related discipline

The minimum standards for correctional officers working in state and local prisons
• Be a U.S. citizen
• Be at least eighteen, in some states twenty-one, years old
• Be physically and mentally capable of doing the job
• Have no disqualifying criminal convictions
• Have a valid driver’s license
• Have a high school diploma or GED

Visit the department of corrections website for the state in which you wish to work, to ensure that you meet eligibility standards.

3 Education

While a high school diploma or GED will open the door to some jobs, earning a postsecondary certificate or degree will widen opportunities. To work in the federal prison system in the United States, a Bachelor’s Degree or significant experience in a related field is required.

Certificate
A certificate program is a popular choice for students who wish to follow up their high school education with some formal, albeit minimal, corrections training. Individuals with experience in a related legal, teaching, or counseling role may also elect to complete one of these curricula, to supplement their knowledge with some corrections-specific skills. These programs do not typically comprise the physical training necessary to serve as a correctional officer. They generally last between three and six months and include the following classes:

Introduction to Criminology
• Concepts, theories, and definitions relating to criminal behavior
• Identification of recent crime trends

Introduction to Corrections
• A broad interpretation and explanation of police within society
• Penal policies
• Recognizing applicability of specific policies and regulations
• Issues that normally arise in corrections

Introduction to Law Enforcement
• Basic theories and ideas behind criminal punishment and rehabilitation
• Theories and concepts underlying police activity
• Relationship and collaboration between police and community
• Historical and future trends in law enforcement and police policies

Associate’s Degree
Associate degree programs include some of the courses listed below:

Supervision and Control
• Fundamental concepts and tools for proper and safe supervision of inmates
• Application of control methods in a wide range of settings
• Relationship between crowding of inmates and violence
• Consequences of abusive control methods

Counseling and Interviewing
• Comprehensive overview of counseling and interviewing techniques
• Modification of inmate behavior using counseling methods
• Creation of positive relationships to improve outcomes
• Using advanced counseling methods such as transactional analysis

Conflict Resolution Strategies
• Conflict resolution techniques within the abnormal behavioral context
• Identification of many different causes of conflict
• Use of crisis management techniques
• Effects of incarceration on human psychology

Bachelor’s Degree
Individuals who wish to work in the federal corrections system typically need to have a Bachelor’s Degree. This requirement can sometimes be rescinded for job candidates with correctional or related experience. In general, earning a Bachelor’s expands opportunities to include higher-level, supervisory, and management positions.

While some institutions offer a Bachelor’s Degree program in corrections, a degree in criminal justice with a specialization in corrections is more common. These four-year programs comprise the following courses:

Addiction within the Criminal Justice System
• Rehabilitation and intervention tools and methods commonly used in a criminal justice system
• Addiction diagnoses and treatment methods
• Cultural and diversity factors to consider in treating addictions within a criminal justice system
• Clinical diagnosing protocols and definitions with respect to addiction

Penal Law
Background and overview of prison laws and regulations in the United States
• History of U.S. penal law
• Landmark court cases regarding inmate rights
• Application of prison laws to properly treat, supervise, and guard inmates

Detention Basics
• How prisons operate
• How and why certain types of inmates are treated differently
• Inmate traits that can affect how they are/should be treated

4 Pass the required examination

Many jurisdictions require that job candidates pass an entrance exam. These exams commonly include a written portion that focuses on the legal issues related to incarceration, a physical component to ensure that potential officers can handle the rigors of working in a prison environment, and a psychological test to assess applicants’ mental and emotional capacity to work with inmates.

5 Additional / On-the-job Training

Regardless of any formal education taken by newly hired correctional officers, they will generally start their jobs with some level of additional training, either on the job or at an academy determined by their employer. These programs can last a few weeks to a few months and generally cover the following topics:

Procedural Training
The failure of a correctional officer to follow established procedures can jeopardize safety of inmates and staff and potentially lead to legal ramifications for the institution. Many states’ training programs use mock prison environments and prisoners to emulate various scenarios. They all teach the following procedures:
• Restraint techniques
• Identifying/locating contraband
• Searches and strip search
• Cell extraction
• Riot control
• Booking/receiving
• Inmate transport
• Ethics
• Emergency operations; fire safety
• First aid and CPR

Firearms Training
Correctional officers also are trained in the use of a variety of firearms, and must demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate. Almost all states require requalification on an annual basis. Most correctional officers who work in close proximity with inmates do not carry weapons; however, they must still be proficient in case of an emergency or if they are assigned to guard the perimeter of the institution. Typically, this training includes the use of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

In-Service Training
Almost all states have adopted in-service probationary training for new-hires, during which they work under the close supervision of senior correctional officers, often in a minimum-security population. Depending on the state, this probation period can last for a few months or up to two years.

Basic Fitness Training
All states require recruits to pass physical fitness testing. Exercises included in the test are:
• Push-ups
• Sit-ups
• Squats
• Ladder climb
• Quarter mile run
• Grip strength
• Dynamic arm power

Rehabilitative Methods Training
Federal and state governments have implemented mandates which target lowering recidivism rates through the implementation of treatment and rehabilitative programs within prisons and jails. These programs are designed to remedy substance abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education or vocational skills. Correctional officers are expected to obtain a basic understanding of these programs in order to identify worthy candidates for programs within their institution.

Legal Training
A basic knowledge of key areas of the law are necessary to ensure the smooth operation of a correctional facility. Most programs focus on these concepts:
• Criminal law
• Constitutional law
• Arrest procedures
• Civil rights law
• Rules of evidence
• Use of force

6 Become a Sworn Officer

While it differs from state to state, the oath of office is a sworn verbal and written statement to uphold the duties of a correctional officer. In general, the oath is a pledge to:

• Enforce rules and keep order
• Supervise the activities of inmates
• Search for contraband Items
• Inspect facilities to ensure that they meet standards
• Report on inmate conduct
• Aid in rehabilitation and counseling of offenders

7 Certification & Advancement

The American Correctional Association administers several voluntary corrections credentials. The first level certification – the Certified Correctional Officer (CCO) – is valid for three years and officers can become recertified by earning ACA-approved continuing education credits.

As officers advance in their career, they may opt to pursue the ACA’s high-level certifications:
• Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS)
• Certified Corrections Manager (CCM)
• Certified Corrections Executive (CCE)

The ACA also administers specific certifications in the areas of Juvenile Justice, Security Threat Groups, Health Care, and Provisional Certification.

Other related credentials – also voluntary – are available from the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Should I become a Correctional Officer?

Correctional officers almost always find themselves in stressful and dangerous situations. This fact alone demands that they bring a particular and varied skill set to the job every day.

Observation Skills
Many harmful encounters or serious events that correctional officers face occur without obvious warning. Keen observational skills can help an officer spot these events before they happen.

Perceptiveness & Sound Judgement
Correctional officers work in close proximity to inmates every single day. A seemingly normal event can become an emergency situation if an officer is unable to distinguish a potential threat from innocent behavior and take the right steps.

Interpersonal & Negotiating Skills
Correctional officers are in constant communication with both colleagues and inmates. They must be able to develop rapport, command respect, and effectively convey directions and orders. Especially in stressful situations, they must be able to resolve differences to avoid conflict.

Ethical Decision-making Skills
The ability to quickly determine the best course of action is vital in achieving desired outcomes.

Attention to Detail
Correctional officers are called upon to enforce strict procedures in correctional facilities and courts to ensure the safety of everyone present in those environments.

Mental Health / Emotional Strength / Self-discipline
Composure and discipline are critical when confronted with stressful, hostile situations and antagonistic inmates.

Physical Fitness & Strength
Excellent eyesight and hearing are prerequisites of the job. There will also be times when a correctional officer’s brute strength is the only thing keeping an inmate in check and secure.

What are Correctional Officers like?

Investigative

Based on our pool of users, correctional officers tend to be predominately investigative people. Take our career test to see what career interest category best describes you.

The two strongest interest archetypes for correctional officers are investigative and social. This finding is both expected and encouraging, given the focus of the role on constant intense observation of and interaction with inmates.

Correctional Officers by Strongest Interest Archetype

Based on sample of 531 Sokanu users

Are Correctional Officers happy?

3%Happy

Correctional officers rank among the least happy careers. Overall they rank in the 2nd percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

This strikingly low career satisfaction quotient, especially evidenced in the work environment dimension, may be rooted in the inherently stressful and dangerous nature of the work that correctional officers do every day.

Correctional Officer Career Satisfaction by Dimension

Percentile among all careers

Education History of Correctional Officers

The most common degree held by correctional officers is Criminal Justice. 10% of correctional officers had a degree in criminal justice before becoming correctional officers. That is over 8 times the average across all careers. Psychology graduates are the second most common among correctional officers, representing 4% of correctional officers in the Sokanu user base, which is 0.5 times the average.

Correctional Officer Education History

This table shows which degrees people earn before becoming a Correctional Officer, compared to how often those degrees are obtained by people who earn at least one post secondary degree.

Degree % of correctional officers % of population Multiple
Criminal Justice 10.5% 1.4% 7.7×
Psychology 3.7% 6.8% 0.5×
Business Management And Administration 1.5% 6.5% 0.2×
Political Science 1.5% 2.9% 0.5×
Liberal Arts 1.3% 1.9% 0.7×
Criminology 1.3% 0.4% 3.1×

Correctional Officer Education Levels

89% of correctional officers have a high school diploma. 11% of correctional officers have an associate's degree.

No education 0%
High school diploma 89%
Associate's degree 11%
Bachelor's degree 0%
Master's degree 0%
Doctorate degree 0%

How to Become a Correctional Officer

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