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How to Work as a Correctional Officer: More About Criminal Justice Degrees

Correctional officers are a vital part of the criminal justice system. They work to protect inmates and civilians working in jails, prisons or other correctional institutes. A degree in criminal justice: corrections can also be used to pursue a position as a security guard, providing for safety and protection of buildings and grounds.

Corrections officers nowadays assume the roles of police officers, social workers, counselors, security specialists, managers, and teachers, all while frequently putting their lives on the line. A corrections officer in a small county jail or precinct station house may also act as deputy sheriff or police officer. In a large state and federal prison, a corrections officer will have specialized duties such as responsibility for prisoner transfers. [1]

With an in-person or online criminal justice degree, a graduate can also provide services to boot camps, halfway houses, treatment facilities or hospitals. [2]

Read on to find out more about the education and requirements to become a correctional officer.

Why Become a Correctional Officer

Corrections officers oversee inmates in jails, prisons and rehabilitation facilities. They might supervise those under arrest, waiting for or undergoing trial, or serving out sentences. Corrections officers keep strict schedules to ensure that their facilities remain safe. They also perform routine inspections, prevent fights or assaults and ensure that everyone follows facility rules. [3]

Becoming a correctional officer can be a good choice for people with a strong sense of justice. These officers are in facilities not to control or punish people, but to help oversee rehabilitation. When looking to fill correctional officer jobs, these are some of the traits that are desired in candidates:

  • A rehabilitative view of corrections
  • The ability to treat everyone with dignity, humanity, and respect
  • A sense of duty, honor, and justice. [4]

Working as a correctional officer can be dangerous and stressful. Jailers and correctional officers have among the highest rates of illnesses and injuries of all occupations, and often have to defend themselves from inmates. Officers can work all hours, day and night. They also work weekends and holidays. If you’re a bailiff, your hours are determined by when court is in session. [5]

Becoming a correctional officer can be a calling, with opportunities outside of jails and prisons. Criminal justice degree jobs include bailiff, security guard, probation officer, police officer, private detective, state trooper and more.[6] 

If you’re wondering what is a prison guard vs correctional officer, they are the same thing. Language has just evolved so that they are more often called correctional officers, which better encompasses the wide-ranging job duties of the role. 

Correctional Officer Salary

Pay for correctional officers can depend on the specialty they pursue. Bailiffs were paid the most by May 2019, earning $47,830 a year. Bailiffs in state government can expect a median salary of $69,130, and $42,610 in local government. [7] 

Correctional officers and jailers were paid $45,180 in May 2019 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [7] Prison guard salaries average of $58,020 in federal government, $46,020 in local government, $44,090 in state government and $39,410 in facilities support services. [7]

Best States to Work as a Correctional Officer 

California is one of the best places to work as a correctional officer. [6] The top five states for jobs in May 2019 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics are below.

State Employment
Texas 47,160
California 36,090
New York 35,420
Florida 33,040
Pennsylvania 17,590

The top five prison guard salaries as of May 2019 according to the BLS are listed below.

State Annual mean wage
California $78,510
New Jersey $71,190
Rhode Island $68,540
Massachusetts $68,270
New York $66,000

Start Your Career in Criminal Justice

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What Do Corrections Officers Do?

Correctional officers enforce rules and regulations inside prisons and jails. They maintain security by preventing assaults, disturbances and escapes. They check cells and other areas for contraband, unsanitary conditions, signs of a security breach and other rules violations. They also screen visitors and mail for prohibited items. Correctional officers write reports and fill out daily logs to report any incidents involving inmates or anything else of note that happened during their shift. [9]

Officers may have to restrain inmates to escort them safely to and from cells and to see authorized visitors. They may also accompany prisoners to courtrooms, medical facilities and other destinations.

correctional officer

Day in the Life of a Correctional Officer

A typical day for correctional officers will follow an established routine of patrolling and daily duties. These scheduled activities include:

  • Arranging daily schedules for prisoners including counseling appointments, family visits, library use and work assignments
  • Assigning duties to inmates while providing oversight
  • Counseling inmates, responding to legitimate questions, concerns and requests
  • Inspecting conditions of doors, gates, grills, locks and window bars to ensure security and help prevent escapes
  • Serving meals, dispensing prescribed medication to prisoners and distributing commissary items. [10]

There will also be unexpected events, such as fights and attempted escapes. Correctional officers must be ready to respond to events as needed.

The uncertainty of what a correctional officer may encounter, or the reality of what they do deal with, can be highly stressful. Correctional officers are reported to have one of the highest rates of job injuries in the U.S. [5]  

Correctional Officer Jobs 

Although correctional officer and prison guard jobs are expected to drop, positions are available at the local, state and federal levels. Privately run prisons also hire corrections officers.

Overall, the incarceration rate is dropping for federal and state inmates, down 9% from 2008 to 2018, with about 1.5 million behind bars. [11] Because of this, the field is in a slight decline, expected to lose 7% of corrections jobs from 2019 to 2029, according to the BLS. Apart from the incarceration rate, state and local budget constraints also affect the number of jobs available. But prospects are still good due to the need to replace correctional officers retiring, transferring to other occupations or leaving the labor force. [12]

Private prisons housed 8% of the U.S. prison population as of 2018.[2] These prisons usually house less serious offenders, mostly for non-violent drug-related offenses.[13]  

These five states housed more than 20% of their prison population in private facilities as of the end of 2018: [2]

State Percentage of inmates in private prisons
Montana 53%
New Mexico 29%
Tennessee 29%
Hawaii 28%
Oklahoma 26%

How to Become a Correctional Officer

Most state correctional institutions have some minimum requirements for employment. In general, candidates must be at least 18 years old (21 in some states and jurisdictions), have a high school diploma or equivalent, have no felony convictions, be a U.S citizen and have a driver’s license. [14]

The federal Bureau of Prisons has additional requirements to become a correctional officer. The bureau requires candidates to have either a four-year degree from an accredited college or university, or three years of full-time general experience, or one year of specialized experience. [15]  

Correctional Officer and Private Security Certifications

Correctional officers often carry several different certifications for employment. At Carrington College, Criminal Justice: Corrections graduates will earn an Associate of Science degree and the following certifications:

  • Standards and Training for Corrections (STC) Adult Core Academy, which includes 8-hour Baton
  • Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) certified training in Powers to Arrest, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Firearms, Baton, Chemical Agents, Public Relations, Observations and Documentation, Communications and its Significance, and, Liability and Legal Aspects – resulting in (BSIS) Security Guard Care and (BSIS) Security Guard Exposed Weapons permits*.

* Effective January 1, 2020, BSIS Exposed Firearms Permits may only be issued to applicants who are 21 years of age or older.

Students also earn certification in CPR/first aid.

Other Careers with a Criminal Justice: Corrections Degree

One other career choice you could make with a Criminal Justice: Corrections degree is security guard. Security guards work in a wide variety of places, including stores, office buildings and public spaces. Most security guards are on their feet almost constantly, at a post or on patrol around buildings and their grounds. Others may sit behind a counter or in a guardhouse.[16]  

Depending on whether your shift is daytime or nighttime, you could either have extensive contact with the public or almost none at all.

How to Become a Security Guard

Although most employers train new security guards, the amount of teaching varies. However, most security guards learn their job in a few weeks. Correctional officer training typically covers emergency procedures, detention of suspected criminals and proper communication.

Most states require that security guards be registered in the state in which they work. Registration requirements vary by state, but security guards typically must:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Pass a background check
  • Complete training

Armed guards must usually be registered before they can carry a weapon. They must pass more stringent background checks and entry requirements than unarmed guards, along with criminal and fingerprint checks in most states.[17]

Armed security guards in California must be 21 years of age.

Some of the qualities that employers look for in security guards include:

  • Communication skills. Security guards are expected to communicate well with others, especially in stressful situations.
  • Good judgment. Security guards and officers should be able to quickly size up a dangerous situation and determine the best course of action.
  • Observation skills. Security guards must be alert and aware of their surroundings, able to quickly recognize anything out of the ordinary.
  • Patience. Security guards spend long periods standing and observing their environment, and they must do so without distractions.[17]

Benefits of Working in Security

Security guards can work in a range of environments, including office buildings, public buildings and retail stores. They might patrol the grounds or building floors, or might spend time behind a desk monitoring audio and video equipment. Guards might work shifts around the clock. 

Jobs for security guards are expected to grow 3% from 2019 to 2029, about the same as the average for all occupations. [18

The annual median wage for security guards in May 2019 was $29,710. Pay varied by the industry worked by guards. Here is a list of the top pay by employers: [19]

Employer Annual pay
Government $34,730
Educational services; state, local and private $34,460
Health care and social assistance $34,330
Accommodation and food services $30,260
Investigation, guard and armored car services $28,470

There are some drawbacks to working as a security guard, however. Security guards are expected to confront any threat they encounter, and they might not have a firearm for protection. The work requires constant vigilance and extensive paperwork. Continuous training may be required to get up to speed and maintain the skills needed to be effective. Finally, the pay is comparatively low compared to other professions. [20]  

For those interested in taking a step into criminal justice, however, becoming a security guard may be a good move. It could be the beginning of a journey into a wider variety of criminal justice opportunities.

Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?

Entry into the criminal justice field is available to people without degrees, but higher pay and opportunities for advancement are predicated on obtaining a degree. 

Also, by networking, joining an association and working as an intern or volunteer, you can make the kind of connections that will help you obtain the right job for the right compensation.

Do I Need any Special Qualifications to Be a Correctional Officer?

Admission to the Carrington College Criminal Justice: Corrections program may require some additional background information including:

  • Must be age 18 by program start date
  • Must be in good health and physically fit
  • No felony criminal convictions
  • No legal conditions that would prohibit an applicant from possessing a firearm
  • No misdemeanor convictions that would prohibit an applicant from possessing a firearm
  • U.S. citizenship
  • Valid California driver’s license

These qualifications are also typical of those applying for correctional or security guard positions.

What to Look for in Correctional Officer Training

The two main areas of training you’ll receive when pursuing a criminal justice degree are classroom training and practical training. [21]

Classroom Training

Legal training – Basic legal concepts necessary to serve as correctional officers will need to be learned. Among these are:

  • Arrest procedures
  • Civil rights law
  • Constitutional law
  • Criminal law
  • Rules of evidence
  • Use of force

Rehabilitative methods training – Correctional officers encourage participation in programs intended to lower recidivism among offenders. Correctional officers will be expected to obtain a basic understanding of those programs and identify candidates.

Practical Skills Training 

Basic fitness training – Most states require an emphasis on upper body and core strength, which is considered extremely crucial for self-protection. Entry and exit exams typically include:

  • Dynamic arm power
  • Grip strength
  • Ladder climb
  • Push-ups
  • Quarter-mile run
  • Sit-ups
  • Squats

Firearms training – This training is necessary whether or not corrections officers typically carry weapons. This may include use of pistols, shotguns and rifles. Firearm proficiency must be demonstrated regularly through qualifying tests, with annual requalification in most states.

In-service training – New hires often work through a probationary period during which they would be instructed in the details of their responsibilities. These new officers may work with minimum-security populations to get acclimated.

Procedural training – New recruits also instructed in common procedures used in prisons or jails, often through mock prison practicum instruction. This training includes:

  • Booking/receiving
  • Cell search
  • Emergency operations
  • Ethics
  • First aid and CPR
  • Identifying/locating contraband
  • Prisoner transport
  • Restraint techniques
  • Riot control
  • Searches and strip search

Carrington College’s skilled faculty will prepare you with hands-on training, the technical coursework and career development to help you learn the skills needed to begin your new career in jails and prisons. In as little as 16 months, you can be able to:  

  • Analyze criminal cases using knowledge of rules of investigation, interrogation and evidence. 
  • Apply definitions and theories of crime and criminal codes to the criminal justice systems.
  • Demonstrate critical thinking, communication, collaboration and professionalism.
  • Examine the concepts of morality, ethics, and law and apply the philosophies within the criminal justice system. 
  • Explain the history, theories and relationship of corrections and the criminal justice system.
  • Handle inmates both verbally and physically as appropriate, while incorporating Title 15 regulations.
  • Incorporate appropriate interpersonal interaction, communication, critical analysis, ethical behavior and reasoning to your career and personal life.
  • Use a firearm safely and demonstrate appropriate arrest, search and seizure techniques. 
  • Write a complete, competent and relevant report. 

Get comprehensive information on Carrington’s accreditation and approvals.

Why Get a Criminal Justice Associate Degree

A criminal justice: corrections associate degree can help graduates begin their careers as correctional officers or security guards. With a background in the American criminal justice system, crime scene investigation techniques and instruction in other law enforcement techniques, graduates can move along the career path toward becoming police officers, private detectives or investigators, or game wardens.

Can I Study Criminal Justice Online?

Criminal justice degrees may be available online, offering flexibility for students who are also working professionals. These programs typically follow the same classes and training as brick-and-mortar options, leading to similar advancement opportunities for graduates. 

As with most degree plans, an online criminal justice associate degree format offers students the flexibility to pursue additional commitments, such as child or family care, on top of their work and class schedules. [22]

What Will I Learn in a Criminal Justice: Corrections Program?

Carrington College’s Criminal Justice: Corrections program prepares students for a career in many different law professions. The program includes instruction in criminal law, defensive tactics, evidence collection and preservation, institutional corrections, physical agility training, report writing and weaponless defense. Initially, many graduates find work in security and develop entry-level skills while they pursue corrections jobs in jails and prisons, and in other states.

Students will learn about industry standards for effective written and oral communication while gaining the technical skills required for success in today’s criminal justice careers. 

Courses in the Criminal Justice: Corrections online program include:

  • Ethics in Contemporary Society 
  • Community and Human Relations 
  • Introduction to Investigations 
  • Writing for Criminal Justice 
  • Introduction to Corrections 
  • BSIS Security Officer Academy 
  • Introduction to Sociology 
  • Criminal Law 
  • Introduction to Psychology 
  • Juvenile Law 

The program culminates in an Associate of Science degree in Criminal Justice: Corrections.

Carrington College’s faculty is well-prepared and experienced to teach you all you need to know about corrections, criminal justice and how to prepare yourself for a new career.

For complete information on current tuition costs, please see the Academic Catalog.

Criminal Justice: Corrections Programs by Carrington College

Carrington College’s Criminal Justice: Corrections program offers a helpful way to prepare for a job as a correctional officer or jailer in less than two years. 

This program combines technical coursework and career development to teach the skills needed to work in jails and prisons. This program is certified by the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS). 

The Criminal Justice: Corrections degree is offered at the Sacramento, San Jose and San Leandro campuses.

Get more information about Carrington College today. Call (602) 492-1086 to set an appointment with Carrington’s Student Finance Department to develop your personalized financial plan to achieve your educational goals.

Discover Your Career as a Correctional Officer

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Sources

1 https://www.princetonreview.com/careers/175/corrections-officer

2 https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p18.pdf

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16 https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/security-guards.htm#tab-3

17 https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/security-guards.htm#tab-4

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19 https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/security-guards.htm#tab-5

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21 https://www.correctionalofficeredu.org/training/

22 https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/criminal-justice-associate-degree