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What is a Correctional Officer and What do they do?

It’s no secret that the United States is the world’s leading incarcerator, which is supported by a large web of prisons and penitentiaries built to house, service, and reform inmates. According to, there are approximately 2 million individuals who are serving time in the United States’ prison systems, which constitutes a 500% increase in prisoners over the last 40 years. The large number of prison sentences means that many prison facilities work with a large number of individuals daily, and many are overcrowded. These realities mean that the job of correctional officers has become increasingly important, as these are the individuals who are shouldered with the responsibilities of maintaining prison facilities, dealing with inmates, upholding social justice, and even handling some tough situations with seasoned criminals and those with felony convictions. With specialized training, correctional officers are also important first responders to help those who have had brushes with the law heal from their ways and reintegrate back into society.

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Steps to Become a Correctional Officer

Correctional officers are important workers in the prison system who cooperate with law enforcement to supervise and work with sentenced inmates who are in the care of their particular prison or penitentiary. Given the large size of the United States’ criminal justice and prison system, correctional officers can work in a variety of facilities ranging from local jails to state prisons and federal penitentiaries. While correctional officers have been widely portrayed as prison guards by the media, their jobs are much more complex and important than that. Specifically, correctional officers are tasked not only with being the voice of authority in a prison establishment, but also simultaneously performing duties that include custodial, supervisory, and counseling responsibilities. These professionals will work with inmates day in and day out, becoming important resources for helping them rehabilitate, particularly for inmates who have been charged with lesser crimes and can be rehabilitated back into society.

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The job of a correctional officer can be stressful, as these professionals must deal with the dark side of society daily. In particular, correctional officers may need to work in close quarters with violent criminals, keeping them in line and ensuring the safety of other inmates within the facility. Other times, given the overcrowding of some prison facilities, correctional officers may find themselves needing to deal with making decisions with inadequate resources at hand, excess workloads, and working in the face of potential danger every day. Requirements will differ depending on whether an individual is looking to work for a state prison or at the federal level but all officers must be willing and able to continue receiving enforcement and emergency response training while on the job. Hiring requirements are usually more relaxed at the state level, with officers needing to be US citizens, older than 18 or 21 (depending on the state), have a high school diploma or GED, have no disqualifying criminal record, and be able to physically and emotionally handle the position. Working at the municipality or state level would be the easiest way to begin a career in the field, as state correctional facilities may not require applicants to have an associate degree or higher. However, at the federal level, on top of passing a background check and having a sound financial history, correctional officers must also be a US citizen, between the ages of 20-37, and also have either a bachelor’s degree or at minimum three years of experience in teaching, counseling, or emergency response. Clearly, federal minimum standards for building a career as a correctional officer are much more stringent. Upon passing an initial screening, candidates must also attend and pass a training program at an approved training academy.

  • Step 1: Education Requirements

  • Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

  • Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

  • Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance


Step 1: Education Requirements

Different educational requirements for becoming a correctional officer are required depending on the state that the applicant wishes to work in or if they wish to work for the federal prison system. Applicants looking to work at the municipal or state level must have at least their high school degree or GED and have a clean criminal record before they can be considered. Although postsecondary education is not required to be accepted as a correctional officer, applicants with experience, correctional officer training, or their associate degree or a partial college degree in criminal psychology, criminology, sociology, or counseling will find themselves at an advantage. They will often be hired with higher pay or advance into positions of leadership much more quickly than their counterparts who have only completed their high school degree or equivalent. Federal prisons have more stringent educational standards, requiring applicants to at least have a bachelor’s degree or three years of training in teaching or a counseling-related area. After candidates are accepted into a correctional officer position, most states will also require individuals to complete a training program at an approved training academy, where they will learn specialized skills that will help them respond to emergencies. Training programs can vary by state and can be a few weeks to a few months long, with the curriculum often modeled on police academy training procedures, with many correctional officers attending their training programs directly at state law enforcement academies.

Step 2: Internship or Apprentice

Aspiring correctional officers will, as part of their state’s mandated training program that must be completed before beginning work, complete practical skills training where they learn the best practices and legalities of how they should interact with inmates. Correctional officers will be taught the appropriate measures, moments, and methods of breaking up any altercations that may occur on their watch and to deal with any potentially violent inmates while protecting themselves and their teams. When they begin their state-approved training program, their employment with the state has already begun, which means that in the weeks or months that they are learning how to handle emergencies in the prisons, they are receiving a salary. Given the sensitive nature of the work, this field does not offer internships or apprenticeships before employment. However, new correctional officers are considered apprentices or employed on a probationary status for the first two years of their work after passing the training academy.

Step 3: Licensing & Certifications

Becoming a correctional officer will typically require no further certifications or licensing other than passing the minimum eligibility screen, which includes a background check, and completing the state-approved training program. However, since being a correctional officer can be physically and mentally demanding, many states will offer their employees monthly training to keep their skills sharp.

Step 4: Continuing Education and License Maintenance

While on the job, correctional officers are likely to separate into two general specialty areas, with some officers focusing more on maintaining safety and reducing physical confrontations and others specializing in counseling and guidance. Those whose work focuses on counseling will often need to acquire training in psychology, education, counseling, or a similar field, but may find themselves taking on more managerial roles and moving up within the facility that they work for or in the field as a whole. Specialized training can take on the form of completing one’s associate degree in a criminal justice-related field or counseling and possibly finishing a 4-year college degree.

Where Do Correctional Officers Work?

Correctional officers will work in a detention facility operated at the local, state, or federal level. Both governmentally operated prisons and private prisons will employ correctional officers. Additionally, facilities can range from light to maximum security, and correctional officers’ responsibilities for keeping inmates and law enforcement teams safe means that they are a vital piece of the criminal justice system. Typically, correctional officers will work five days a week in 8-hour shifts, though their workdays may not be consecutive like many office jobs. Some officers may work weekends and several weekdays, while others may have a different schedule. Additionally, some detention facilities prefer to utilize 12-hour rotation schedules, in which case most correctional officers will work three days and take the next two days off. Given the fact that prisons will require correctional officers to be present all hours of the day, some individuals will work evenings and early mornings as well.

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Why Become a Correctional Officer?

While those looking to become correctional officers should be aware of the difficulties and potential dangers of the job, they should also make note of the many benefits of this job. In particular, correctional officers serve a critical role in the criminal justice system, keeping order in detention facilities and ensuring safety, which are priorities for helping inmates rehabilitate and hopefully eventually leave their old life of crime behind them. Other important benefits include the fact that many facilities hire correctional officers as young as 18 or 21 years old and, at the local and state level, do not require applicants to have completed an associate or bachelor’s degree. Given the physical demands of the job, becoming a correctional officer can be a great fit for individuals who enjoy staying active and who do not think pursuing post-secondary education is necessarily the right fit for them. Once hired into the system, correctional officers can begin making a stable salary almost immediately after graduating from high school, though those who are looking to work at the federal level should invest more time in pursuing more training. More importantly, correctional officers are in high demand all over the country, meaning that there are plenty of job opportunities in every city, which could be a good fit for someone who wishes to move to a new area.

Professional Organizations

Given the highly demanding nature of the correctional officer job, it can be very helpful to join a professional organization focused on careers in the criminal justice system. These organizations are best suited for individuals who are already in the field, as they provide important training resources and networking opportunities for correctional officers to maintain their edge and stay up to date about important legal procedures in the field.

Some organizations that correctional officers can consider joining include:

  • The American Correctional Association:
    Founded in 1870, this organization is a place for those who work in the criminal justice system to come together to learn about and improve correctional practices. The ACA stands out in particular for its Standards and Accreditation Department, which is in charge of establishing the nationwide fundamental correctional practices that ensure staff and inmate security. Additionally, the ACA holds an annual Congress of Correction and Winter Conference, two highly respected and well-attended events for corrections professionals.

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  • The National Institute of Corrections:
    The National Institute of Corrections is part of the US Department of Justice, providing technical assistance, training, policy development, and information services for those who work in correctional services. This is the only agency that has a federal legislative mandate to provide services to the corrections field nationwide.
  • The National Commission on Correctional Health Care:
    The NCCHC is the only US organization that is focused solely on improving healthcare services in jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. The NCCHC has published a set of standards developed by health professionals in hopes of providing the best and most cost-effective outcomes for healthcare services in prison facilities.

Correctional Officer Career and Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), correctional officers are paid a median annual wage of $47,410, though this will differ significantly depending on the geographical location and the type of facility that the officer is working in. The overall salary range for the 10%-90% of this job is $32,830-$81,940. Payscale breaks down salaries for this field in more detail, stating that correctional officers can expect to earn an average hourly wage of $18.74. However, roles with simpler responsibilities, like jailer roles, will pay an average of $14.82 an hour, while senior corrections officers can expect an average annual income of around $51,100. While there is demand for correctional officers in every state, BLS data does show that demand for this field is in decline, with the number of total jobs in this field projected to decline by 7% between 2019-2029.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the job duties of a correctional officer?

A correctional officer may work with individuals with misdemeanor convictions. A correctional officer may need to restrain inmates and enforce rules. They may also be part of a crisis response team.

What are the minimum qualifications to become a correctional officer?

Each state will have different minimum qualifications to become a correctional officer. Postsecondary education is not required for the hiring process but successful completion of an associate degree or training academy will create better job opportunities.

How much do correctional officer careers pay?

According to the Federal Bureau of Labor statistics, the annual wages for correctional officer careers are around $47,000 annually.

What is the job outlook for a correctional officer?

The job outlook for a correctional officer will decline by 7% by 2030.

What is the work environment for correctional officers?

The work environment for correctional officers can be dangerous and stressful. A correctional officer may suffer on the job injuries due to the dangerous nature of the job. Correctional officers will need to work nights, weekends, and holidays.

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