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How to Become a Correctional Officer: A Step-by-Step Guide

Correctional Officer at Work.

Do you want a career that is both challenging and rewarding? Becoming a correctional officer might be a great career option for you. This article will discuss the various duties of this profession and the necessary steps in becoming a correctional officer.

What is a Correctional Officer?

A correctional officer is a person who oversees individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. Additionally, correctional officers oversee those serving time in jail, prison, or other law enforcement facilities for a convicted crime.

Correctional officers make sure the inmates follow all rules and regulations while incarcerated. They also monitor inmate behavior to prevent violent situations from occurring between inmates. The primary duty of correctional officers is to ensure safety for everyone involved – both inmates and staff members working at the facility.

How to Become a Correctional Officer in 5 Steps

  1. Meet Minimum Requirements
  2. Get a Degree and Experience
  3. Apply for a Position & Pass Entrance Exam
  4. Complete Training at an Accredited Program
  5. Graduate & Become a Sworn Correctional Officer

1. Meet the Minimum Requirements

Meeting the minimum requirements is the first step of becoming a correctional officer. However, the requirements can vary from state to state. The local, state and federal governments operate prisons and jails. Therefore, a norm in one state can be the opposite of what another state requires. Let’s break it down and look at some of the most common requirements aspiring correctional officers need to meet.

The Federal Minimum Standards

  • Candidates Should be U.S. Citizens – You must be a U.S. citizen to work in the federal prison system.
  • Minimum Age Requirement – 20-37 years is the age range for federal correctional officer applicants. You also have to be between 20-37 years when you graduate from a training academy and start working on probation.
  • Minimum Educational Requirements – Candidates must possess a bachelor’s degree or a combination of education, work experience, and training equivalent to three years.
  • Zero Criminal Convictions – Any criminal conviction records will automatically disqualify candidates from applying.
  • Good Financial History – Part of the requirements is passing a financial background check to ensure aspiring officers maintain good conduct while working for the government.

The State and Local Minimum Requirements

  • Be a U.S. Citizen – You must be a U.S. citizen to become a state or local correctional officer.
  • Minimum Age Requirement – The minimum age requirement is 18 years, but most jurisdictions require applicants to be between 21-25 years old. This specification means candidates can start applying right out of high school!
  • No Criminal Record – Almost every jurisdiction in the United States requires candidates to have a clean criminal record.
  • Valid Driver’s License – Most states and localities require a valid driver’s license.
  • Good Physical Condition – Most correctional officer positions require a physical fitness test, which measures your strength, endurance, and agility.
  • Good Mental Condition – Besides physicality, officers must also be mentally stable. They will often deal with difficult situations and be mentally ready to handle them.
  • Educational Requirements – The educational requirement can vary from having a high school diploma or GED equivalent to possessing an associate’s degree or completing 60 college credit hours.

2. Get a Degree and Experience

Most local and state municipalities require a high school diploma or GED from applicants. However, suppose you want to get the best chance of landing a job as a correctional officer. In that case, you should go to college or university. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, criminology, psychology, sociology, and counseling can help applicants get a foot in the door as correctional officers. Many colleges and universities offer criminal justice programs, some of which have online courses.

Additionally, internships are essential for those who want to become correctional officers. Many agencies allow candidates to intern for up to one year before being hired full-time. Internship experience can give candidates an idea of what to expect in the field and whether or not disciplinary work is right for them.

Experience working with individuals who have committed crimes and those with mental health issues can be beneficial when applying for correctional officer jobs. This experience could set such candidates apart during the interview process.

3. Apply for a Position and Excel in the Entrance Exam

The application procedure for a correctional officer includes:

  • Physical endurance tests
  • Background checks and medical screening
  • Written examination and psychological evaluation

Candidates need to pass all entrance exams to find jobs as correctional officers. The written examination tests your ability to read and understand written material. On the other hand, the psychological evaluation assesses a candidate’s personality and suitability for the job. Therefore, aspiring officers need to prepare for the entrance examination and all related tests.

4. Complete Training at an Accredited Program

Correctional officer training features specialization at an accredited law enforcement academy. To become a correctional officer, you must complete your training at an accredited program. Upon completing their training, candidates will be certified as correctional officers. It is important to note that some states have additional requirements for certification. Therefore, it is vital to check for state-specific regulations.

Training for correctional officers is a rigorous program that will cover all aspects of the job, including:

  • Procedural Training – This will include learning about the agency’s policies and procedures.
  • Patrol Procedures – Officers will learn how to patrol the facility and respond to emergencies.
  • Restraint Techniques – Officers must safely restrain inmates who may become violent.
  • Firearms Training – Correctional officers must complete firearms training to carry a firearm.
  • First Aid – Correctional officers will learn how to respond to medical emergencies.
  • Crisis Intervention – Officers must be able to defuse volatile situations with inmates.
  • Basic-Fitness Training – Officers must maintain a high level of fitness to deal with the job’s physical demands.
  • Rehabilitative Methods – Correctional officers must encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs.
  • In-Service Training – Aspiring officers must participate in continuing education and training to keep up with changes in the law.
  • Legal Training – Officers must be familiar with the laws that govern corrections.
  • Annual training-This training will keep officers up-to-date on changes in policy and procedure.

5. Graduate and Become a Sworn Correctional Officer

Upon graduation, candidates will have to take an oath to become sworn correctional officers. Afterward, they will be placed on probation for one year. During this time, the department or agency will monitor their behavior and performance.

Beneficial Certifications to have as Correctional Officer

For certification, the American Correctional Association (ACA) offers four levels of certification: Adult, Juvenile, Healthcare, and Retirees Continuing in Corrections-Related Positions. To earn any certifications, interested individuals will have to apply for membership with ACA first. After receiving membership, they will also need to complete a training program before applying for their desired certification through the ACA. The application process includes submitting documentation, paying a filing fee, and passing an exam administered by the ACA. Officers must renew the certification every three years.

Adult Certifications

Certified Corrections Manager (CCM)

Individuals who oversee major units or programs within a correctional system are in this category. As managers, they help shape policy and procedures but aren’t directly involved in their implementation. Lastly, they have power over supervisory personnel.

Certified Correctional Executive (CCE)

The CCE certification involves a series of courses and examinations. Individuals in this category are at the top executive level. They are responsible for creating policies and procedures in agencies dealing with adult offenders.

Certified Corrections Officer (CCO)

Individuals who work directly with inmates and detainees are in this category. They have the skills to meet a correctional facility’s performance, conduct, and professional development standards.

Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS)

Certified Corrections Supervisors are individuals at the “mid-management” level who work with both staff and offenders in a corrections setting. CCS includes those responsible for implementing agency policies and procedures and supervising/evaluating personnel.

Juvenile Certifications

Certified Corrections Supervisor/Juvenile (CCS/JUV)

Individuals in this category work with staff and offenders in a juvenile justice facility at the “mid-management” level. Those in charge of putting agency regulations into action and supervising/grading employees are also a part of this category.

Certified Corrections Manager/Juvenile (CCM/JUV)

Individuals in this category control large sections or programs within the juvenile justice system. They are managers who may assist in developing policy and procedures and the implementation and enforcement of those policies. They have authority over managing personnel.

Certified Corrections Officer/Juvenile (CCO/JUV)

This certification is for individuals who work with juvenile offenders. They are responsible for a comprehensive understanding of the development and life skills needed to rehabilitate juveniles. They must also know juvenile law, psychology, and sociology.

Certified Corrections Executive/Juvenile (CCE/JUV)

Individuals in the CCE/JUV category are a subdivision of higher-level executives. They oversee the creation of legislation and procedures for juvenile offenders are at the top of their organizations.

Healthcare Certifications

Certified Corrections Nurse (CCN)

Staff nurses, who work in a correctional setting and deal with both staff and offenders, are included here. Those in charge of putting the organization’s policies and procedures into action are also in this certification category.

Certified Corrections Nurse/Manager (CCN/M)

Individuals who work as nurse managers in a correctional environment are CCN/Ms. Employees in these areas include management personnel who may assist in developing policy and procedures, are in charge of their implementation, and have command over nursing employees.

Health Services Administrator (HSA)

People with this certification report to the warden over many health-related responsibilities or programs in a correctional environment. Their primary roles are to supervise, coordinate, plan, and direct the health system.

Retirees Continuing in Corrections-Related Positions

Those who have retired in the last three years and who still work for a company associated with corrections may apply for certification. Trainers and academicians are examples of such professionals. Candidates can only earn certification in one category (adult, juvenile, health care, or security threat group) and level.

Education Requirements for Correctional Officers

Correctional officers need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, many employers prefer to hire candidates who have some post-secondary education. This preference could include an associate’s degree or certification in criminal justice or law enforcement from an accredited institution. Candidates who have a college degree in another field will likely need prior work experience in a related field.

High School Diploma or GED

A high school diploma or a GED are the basic requirements for this career path. To be successful in this career, you must have the proper education and training. Therefore, candidates should obtain a high school diploma or GED to pursue additional training if needed. Many correctional officers start their careers as detention officers or prison guards before moving up the ladder.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is not always a requirement. Still, it can give aspiring officers an advantage when competing for a job. A college education will provide candidates with the knowledge and skills needed to work in this field. In addition, many employers prefer to hire officers who have some post-secondary education. Earning a bachelor’s degree is also one way of preparing for advancement in this career.

Related Resource: What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

Master’s Degree

Although it is not a requirement to have a master’s degree, several benefits can come with having one. Some of these benefits include the following:

  • A higher salary – correctional officers who hold degrees may earn more than their coworkers who do not have degrees.
  • Experience – most individuals stay in their positions long enough to be promoted and earn a higher salary.
  • More respect – an individual with a degree is often viewed as more trustworthy than those without degrees. They may rise in rank faster.
  • Better benefits – individuals with degrees usually have better insurance, vacation packages, and retirement plans.

Related Resource: What is a Master’s Degree?

Beneficial Degrees for Correctional Officers

Although degrees are not always required to become a correctional officer, they can help immensely. For aspiring candidates, degrees show potential employers their efforts to improve and learn something worthwhile. Here is a list of degrees that will make your application stand out:

Criminal Justice Degree

One of the essential degrees for correctional officers is criminal justice. This degree gives a strong understanding of the American criminal justice system, from policing to corrections. It is also an excellent foundation for other law enforcement careers.

Many colleges and universities offer criminal justice programs accredited by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). ACJS is the largest and most respected organization of criminal justice professionals in the United States. Earning an ACJS-accredited degree shows that a candidate has met the highest standards in education and training for correctional officers.

Psychology Degree

A degree in psychology is also vital for correctional officers. Many offenders have mental health issues, diagnosed through psychological evaluations. A criminal justice background combined with a psychology degree helps provide inmates with the best possible treatment and care.

This training will be helpful when dealing with inmates who need special assistance, such as those facing the death penalty or mentally ill. A degree in psychology helps correctional officers understand the behavior of inmates. Inmates’ behaviors can be understood and treated, improving their overall rehabilitation process.

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Sociology Degree

A degree in sociology is also helpful for correctional officers. Sociology teaches how to understand groups of people and their behaviors. This education helps correctional officers deal with inmates with similar needs. It can also assist officers in doing their jobs effectively because they can understand the social structure of prisons and jails. This understanding can help prevent and address riots, gangs, and other social problems in correctional facilities.

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Counseling or Behavioral Science Degrees

Correctional officers often work with inmates who have mental health issues. Many correctional officers pursue degrees in counseling or behavioral science to assist these inmates properly. These degrees teach how to diagnose and treat mental health problems. They also give correctional officers the skills they need to work with inmates one-on-one.

How to Become a Correctional Officer Online

Post-secondary education is now more readily available to students who would otherwise be unable to access it, thanks to online learning. Online education has significantly influenced most areas of study, including corrections. Entirely online and hybrid programs are available at various institutions with several majors available.

When candidates learn online, they have the chance to access the same courses and resources as those enrolled in traditional brick-and-mortar programs. However, they are not required to attend classes on campus or sit through lectures.

Students enrolled in corrections programs will have the opportunity to gain valuable skills, such as conflict resolution, communication, and critical thinking. They will also learn about correctional facility leadership and operations management. The curriculum focuses on theorizing correctional practices, program evaluation, research methods, and policy analysis. The course will also introduce students to criminology and penology. As for in-person training, students can access them in either of the following options:

  • Community colleges
  • Four-year schools
  • Training academies
  • Trade/vocational schools

Critical Skills for Correctional Officers

Being a correctional officer involves dealing with inmates, and you’ll need to have good interpersonal and communication skills. Correctional officers also have to be physically fit because the work can be stressful and require chasing or subduing prisoners. Other qualities include:

  • Critical Thinking – Correctional officers must think on their feet and make quick decisions in difficult situations.
  • Problem Solving – Officers need to find solutions to big and small problems.
  • Patience – Dealing with inmates can often be challenging, so correctional officers need patience when dealing with them.
  • Integrity – Officers need to maintain their integrity and professionalism at all times.
  • Leadership – Officers must be able to provide leadership and direction when needed.
  • Good Observers – Officers need to observe their surroundings and notice inmate behavior or conditions changes.
  • Strong Communication Skills – Correctional officers need strong verbal and written communication skills because they have to write detailed reports on what has occurred during their shift.

Tasks and Duties of a Correctional Officer

Every career has its own unique set of tasks and duties. When it comes to correctional officer jobs, the main focus is maintaining security within the prison or jail facility. Officers are responsible for overseeing inmates, preventing violence, and ensuring that all rules and regulations are followed. In addition to this, officers also play a role in rehabilitating offenders by providing guidance and counseling. Correctional officers are responsible for several tasks within the prison or jail facility, which can include:

Maintain Order and Ensure All Parties Involved Follow Rules and Regulations

Ensuring that inmates, other correctional officers, and staff members involved in the prison or jail facility follow all rules and regulations is essential for correctional officers. Inmates can be challenging to deal with at times; hence it’s necessary to have patience and maintain control of the situation. Additionally, correctional officers must enforce rules without resorting to violence. To effectively carry out this task, it’s essential to be familiar with the prison or jail facility’s policies and procedures. Officers should also be aware of the inmates’ criminal histories to anticipate potential problems better.

Oversee and Support the Inmates’ Counseling and Rehabilitation

Correctional officers provide guidance and support to inmates who are working towards rehabilitation. This support may include providing counseling, assisting with educational programs, or connecting them with resources in the community.

Officers also monitor inmates’ behaviors and ensure they comply with program rules. In some cases, officers may need to intervene when inmates display disruptive or violent behavior. By providing support and guidance, officers help inmates make positive changes in their lives.

Supervise Inmates’ Activities and Create Conduct Reports

Supervision is one of the primary responsibilities of a correctional officer. They monitor inmates as they go to school, participate in leisure activities, and work on community projects. Correctional officers are also responsible for writing reports about the inmate’s incarceration conduct.

Written reports help keep track of an inmate’s behavior and can be used as evidence in future court proceedings. Supervision is an integral part of maintaining order in a correctional facility because it helps to ensure the safety of both inmates and staff.

Physical Searching of Inmates

As a measure of ensuring the safety and security of both inmates and correctional officers, all inmates are subject to a physical search. Searches occur before and after admittance into the facility and visits with family members or friends. The physical search process involves searching for contraband, weapons, and other prohibited items. The search takes place in a private area and may require inmates to remove all their clothes.

Ensure Safety and Integrity of Prison Facilities

Another essential responsibility of correctional officers is ensuring the safety and integrity of prison facilities. Correctional officers prevent and respond to incidents and maintain security within the prison. Officers must also be aware of potential security risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them. Correctional must keep the facility where inmates reside in a safe condition at all times, and they must take steps to prevent escapes. That’s not all. The facilities should also be conducive to rehabilitation, one of the main goals of the correctional system.

Instantly Respond to Incidents in their Facilities

Correctional officers must always be on the lookout for any potential incidents in the prison facilities. When an incident does happen, correctional officers need to respond instantly and take control of the situation. Officers must think quickly and have a solid understanding of handling different situations. Therefore, correctional officers need to be well-trained in crisis intervention. In addition, they should always stay up-to-date on the latest policies and procedures related to emergency response.

The Work Environment for Correctional Officers

Work Locations

Most correctional officers work in government-run jails, prisons, or juvenile detention facilities. Correctional officers may also find employment in privately owned and operated correctional institutions.
The officers working for the federal government often work in large prisons that house offenders convicted of federal crimes such as drug trafficking and white-collar crime.

Most state correctional officers work in medium to maximum security state prisons that house inmates convicted of state crimes. County jails are often overcrowded and employ a high percentage of correctional officers.

Correctional officers have one of the lowest job turnover rates in the country. Plus, it’s a decent opportunity to contribute to a positive change. Something beautiful and unique about this job is that you can make a difference in somebody’s life if they are ready to work with you.

The Working Hours

Most correctional officers work full time, including weekends and holidays. They may also need to spend shift changes or meal periods on duty. The majority of those working in state facilities must work overtime, which is often mandatory.

Officers in private correctional institutions usually have a regular schedule that includes weekends and holidays but no mandatory overtime. Overall, correctional officers work five days a week, or more, in shifts of eight hours. This will, of course, vary depending on the correctional facility, among other factors.

The Working Conditions

The working conditions vary considerably depending on whether you work at a county jail, state penitentiary, or federal prison. The security level of the facility also influences the working environment and conditions.

Some correctional officers work in very relaxed environments. In contrast, others are subjected to high levels of stress as they face violent situations and must always be on their guard against assaults by inmates.

How Much Do Correctional Officers Earn on Average?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), correctional officers and bailiffs earned median pay of $47,440 per year as of May 2020. Overtime pay and benefits, such as health insurance, are common among correctional officers.

Related Resource: Highest Paying Criminal Justice Careers by Education Level

Pros & Cons of Being a Correctional Officer

Most corrections officers feel that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of the job and are happy with their chosen profession. More importantly, correctional officers have the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others.

Pros:

  • Good pay: Correctional officers are paid well, especially compared to other law enforcement positions.
  • Job security: With a high demand for correctional officers, this career can be a good choice for those seeking job stability.
  • Varied duties: The work of these professionals is diverse and allows them to perform many different responsibilities within their jobs.
  • Career advancement opportunities: Correctional officers have the chance to advance in their careers through promotions or transfers to other facilities.
  • Pension: Many correctional officers receive a pension after retiring, providing a stable income stream.

Cons:

  • The work can be dangerous.
  • Stressful environment.
  • The work can be emotionally draining.

How to Advance as a Correctional Officer

Obtain an Associate’s Degree in Corrections

An Associate’s degree in corrections can also help officers move up the ladder. This degree can provide you with the necessary knowledge to work in advanced positions in a correctional setting. The curriculum for this degree often includes courses in criminal justice, criminology, and sociology. Earning an Associate’s degree can also help officers move up the ladder within their department and lead to promotions.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice

Higher education is a great way to show your dedication to the field and lead to advancement opportunities. Promotions may be available for those with a higher level of education. Some colleges have partnerships with correctional agencies and allow officers to complete their degrees while still working. This option can help officers stay in the know of current policies and procedures while advancing their careers.

Get a Master’s in Criminal Justice

A Master’s degree in criminal justice can give correctional officers a competitive edge when it comes to promotion. It shows that you are serious about your career and want to continue learning. Many agencies will pay for their employees to get a higher education. Therefore, this is something to look into if you’re looking to move up the ladder.

Take the Next Step to Become a Correctional Officer

Studying online requires an in-depth understanding of the programs available before enrolling. It’s essential to know the school you’re interested in is accredited. At GetEducated, we’ve simplified the process of finding, comparing, and enrolling in online correctional officer programs. We’ve evaluated dozens of the top online corrections degree programs. Now it’s up to you to take the next step in your career!

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