Most correctional officers are employed in State and Federal
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
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
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
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
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 bachelor’s 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
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.
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
Sources of Additional Information
Further information about correctional officers is available
American Jail Association, 1135 Professional Ct., Hagerstown,
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: http://www.bop.gov/
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 Government’s official
employment information system. This resource for locating and
applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet
at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ 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.
Source: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook
Handbook, 2006-07 Edition