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How to Be a Correctional Officer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Even though the number of prisoners in the United States took a slight dip from around 2.1 million people in 2019 to about 1.8 million in 2020, that is still a massive population, especially when you realize that there are only about 400,000 currently employed as correctional officers in the entire country. 

The situation is made even more dire as the government mandates to build more correctional facilities, which means that there will likely be more prisoners and more prison guards. Contrary to these facts, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be a negative job outlook of -7% going towards 2029 in this sector of law enforcement. 

While that means that correctional officer jobs might be harder to come by, it doesn’t mean that they won’t exist. It only states the need for better and more precise qualifications if one wants to join this arm of criminal justice as a career path. 

  • So what does one need to become a corrections officer? 
  • What kind of qualifications are necessary? 
  • Will only a high school diploma do?
  • How about a bachelor’s degree? Does that make one’s chances better?
  • What kind of training is necessary to work in a correctional institution?

These are all questions that will be answered below. A career as a corrections officer in a correctional facility is tough, considering that dealing with some inmates won’t be easy; it’s also quite demanding and requires special training. 

That being said, it can be rather rewarding, and the pay can be quite good depending on the correctional facility. Here is all the information necessary to become a correctional officer or at least join a correctional officer trainee program. 

Qualities of Correctional Officers

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that correctional officers or prison guards have a rather high rate of non-fatal injuries when compared to most other professions. This is to say that working for this sector of the criminal justice department isn’t a walk in the park and, quite frankly, not for everyone.

To become a successful correctional officer, one needs to know how to navigate highly tricky situations when dealing with inmates who are dangerous and quite wild and often bored enough to want to see some action. It takes a special kind of character to join the prison staff and take up a correctional officer position. It takes an even more dedicated individual to rise through the ranks and become a correctional sergeant. 

Here are some of the most important qualities of successful corrections officers:

1. Excellent Communication Skills

Good communication skills are a prerequisite for most professions, but it’s quite important for people such as police officers and prison officers who work in law enforcement. That’s mostly because these people often face highly volatile situations that could turn violent with a second’s notice. 

Corrections officers tasked with protecting inmates in a correctional facility in particular need to be excellent communicators. These professionals not only act as security guards for the facility but also chaperons for the inmates within. 

Being able to give clear and concise instructions and write down reports, keep records and talk to everyone involved in the appropriate manner is key to their success. They should also be able to listen, understand and follow through on instructions by their superiors without any kind of miscommunication taking place. This level of diplomacy is necessary when communicating with peers as well as with inmates. 

2. Excellent Problem-Solving Skills

While most correctional facilities have a handbook with instructions on how to handle the most extreme situations and how to deal with the inmates from day to day, not everything is covered in those books. Whenever dealing with human beings, situations can be fluid, and events occur in real-time. This is especially true when dealing with hardened criminals who are often up for mischief. 

According to statistics, about 100 prisoners are killed each year by their fellow inmates. This is not to mention the sheer number of prisoners who get assaulted and violently attacked each day. While there are many different reasons for prison violence, including poor correctional facility management, gang activity, and drugs, one of the biggest contributors is a predisposition to violence. 

About 54% of all prisoners are incarcerated due to crimes that categorize them as violent offenders. Whether it’s gang-related or not, the fact that a vast majority of inmates are predisposed to violence makes a correctional officer’s job description quite difficult. 

Without the right conflict resolution or problem-solving skills, what is an already dangerous job becomes near life-threatening. 

3. Ability to Remain Level-Headed 

Because correctional officers deal with some of the most hardened criminals in the country, their propensity for stress is more heightened than in most professions. On a day-to-day basis, prison guards are faced with situations that are not only stressful but sometimes also provocative. Couple that with the kind of authority that their job gives them over inmates, and it’s easy to see why someone could misuse their correctional officer position.

This is particularly true when it comes to “teaching inmates a lesson.” The right kind of person who can successfully work at a correctional facility needs to be extremely level-headed. This not only means remaining calm under life-threatening situations but also having the good sense not to get drawn into unnecessary confrontations with inmates. 

4. Excellent Observation Skills

Most inmates will want to continue their wayward ways even within prison walls. This means that they will devise plans and schemes to get away with criminal activity right under the prison guards’ noses. 

Correctional officers who don’t have the right kind of observation skills will completely miss this kind of activity. Worse still, they might miss any major warning signs that could help them avert a crisis and even keep themselves safe. 

Part of the job description is to oversee the criminal rehabilitation process and ensure that these convicted felons don’t continue their criminal activity within the correctional facility. 

5. Excellent Interpersonal Skills

Correctional officers work in teams and shifts. To keep each other safe, corrections officers need to work well within their own team and work well with inmates. This calls for excellent interpersonal skills. Being able to communicate with fellow guards and inmates could help avert potential issues and maybe even save lives. It definitely makes the job much easier. 

Requirements to Become a Correctional Officer

A corrections officer is technically a law enforcement officer in their own right. This means that people considering a career in this sector of the criminal justice system need formal training and certification before gaining employment. 

Every state has its own requirements, both educational and professional, which means that what it takes to get a correctional officer job mainly depends on the state in which one intends to work. 

In some cases, a high school diploma would be enough to get a correctional officer trainee position at an academy. In others, having a bachelor’s degree gives one a leg up on the competition. 

Here are some typical requirements to become a correctional officer in most states:

Like most of the requirements on this list, the state in which one intends to work fully determines the requirements to get a job as a corrections officer. This is regardless of whether the individual has chosen a career as a federal correctional officer, a probation officer, or a parole officer. Either way, candidates MUST be legal US citizens before considering a career in this field. 

While some states are lenient enough to accept and actually consider applications from individuals who are becoming legal citizens, some require the applicant to be a citizen and be a resident of the home state. Every jurisdiction, however, won’t consider applications from illegal or undocumented individuals. 

2. Must Be at Least 18 Years of Age

This has become such a common requirement that many correctional facilities don’t even include this requirement in their job adverts or application process. It’s always safe for the candidate to simply assume (unless specifically stated otherwise) that they have to at least 18 years and above to apply for a job as a correctional officer. However, some jurisdictions require one to be slightly older. In many cases, at least 21 years of age. 

However, there is a maximum entry age limit of 36 years established by the government for new applications. This means that individuals wishing to work in an institution governed by the Bureau of Prisons need to be at least 36 years or younger. That is unless said individual has prior federal law enforcement experience. In which case, such as individual must provide an SF-50 to verify their prior coverage. 

Furthermore, Qualified Preference Eligible Veterans who received an honorable discharge are exempt from this age limit. 

3. Must Have at Least a High School Diploma or GED

Much like the age requirement of 18, most jurisdictions don’t even list this on their application forms anymore. It’s safe for the candidate to assume (unless specifically stated otherwise) that either a high school diploma or a GED is required to qualify or to be considered for a correctional officer job in many jurisdictions. 

There are, however, a few exceptions. These include:

  • People with a military background
  • People who can demonstrate an exceptional work history within the same industry

In some cases, institutions may place a higher requirement and demand that applicants have some kind of formal training and certification after high school. In very few cases, this might even mean a bachelor’s degree, although this is often reserved for candidates seeking higher managerial or supervisory positions. 

4. Must Pass a Background Check

Assume that every potential employer in this field will run a background check on every potential candidate. In many cases, if not all, a felony conviction will get candidates disqualified from the running. However, in some cases, candidates who have either received a pardon or had their criminal records expunged can still successfully apply. 

Furthermore, it should be noted that in many cases, employers will choose to ignore misdemeanors provided the candidate has completed their sentences and/or paid the necessary restitution or fines. However, misdemeanors that are drug-related and domestic violence charges regardless of severity are increasingly disqualifying candidates from these positions. 

5. Must Be Physically Capable

Correctional officers need to be physically able and capable enough to do the job. That’s why most states require candidates to take a pass a physical exam or fitness test before proceeding further. This particular part of the interviewing process is quite standard across all jurisdictions. 

The idea is to prove that candidates can physically do the job and that they don’t have any hidden issues that may prove problematic. This ties back to the fact that many incarcerated inmates are violent offenders, and more still are predisposed to violence. 

Prison guards are occasionally called upon to end physical altercations among inmates, which in itself requires the guard to be physically capable of doing so. 

Some bonuses would put the candidate ahead of other applicants. These include:

  • Military service or background: Thanks to several mandates under Federal Law, veterans are often given preference in certain professions such as law enforcement or any other that would make good use of their training.
  • Prior law enforcement experience: People who have already had work experience or training in law enforcement require less on-the-job training to become correctional officers. They also often have the necessary qualities successful prison guards need, such as situational awareness and conflict resolution.
  • Bachelor’s degree: While not always necessary, candidates who have any kind of formal education other than a high school diploma or GED often get preference. 
  • An excellent work history: This simply goes to shows a candidate’s work ethic and character.

Different jurisdictions require the candidate to have a valid driving license; however, this isn’t always a strict requirement in many states. 

What Should Candidates Study to Become a Correctional Officer?

Although most jurisdictions only require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED for candidates to gain employment as corrections officers, the truth is that these candidates tend to start at the lowest rank. 

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree or at least a partial college education has a better chance to start at a much higher position with better pay and working conditions. Also, these candidates can fast-track their rise to leadership positions.

What should these candidates study to become a correctional officer?

  • Criminal Justice
  • Psychology
  • Counseling
  • Criminology

Ideally, most fields of behavioral science or anything that touches on law and order should suffice. Furthermore, candidates who have graduate-level education in human services, psychology, and social work often have a much easier time fitting into the correctional industry. 

What is the Application Process for Becoming a Correctional Officer?

Because every jurisdiction has its own hiring standards and, therefore process, candidates looking to become correctional officers typically go through the following hiring process:

  • Apply for the position: Candidates can send in their applications through their desired state’s Department of Corrections, job sites, or simply logging on to the specific correctional facility website to see any available positions. 
  • Take and pass a written exam: This is one of the most important parts of the process. This is where the hiring managers determine whether or not a candidate has the basic know-how and skills to function as a correctional officer. While this test varies from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it often comprises multiple-choice questions, basic math, and in some cases, verbal reasoning. This exam is almost always scheduled, and candidates who miss out on their slot often get disqualified without further notification, at least for one year. 
  • Take and pass a physical fitness test: Correctional officers must be physically capable of doing the job. This test is designed to test not only their physical fitness but also their mental fitness under duress. It often involves running a 500-yard course, carrying a 90-pound load through a 500-yard course, push-ups, sit-ups, and a 1.5-mile run. For the most part, this test is modeled after activities required of the candidate should they make it to the correctional officer academy. 
  • Pass a background investigation: Convicted felons are often automatically disqualified. The candidate’s past behavior, integrity, character, and even debt management skills often come under scrutiny at this stage. 
  • Enter a correctional officer training academy: In many cases, candidates who don’t have prior experience in the Criminal Justice Department or, depending on the correctional facility itself, applicants may be required to enter and go through a correctional officer training academy before getting hired. 

Once the application has gone through this entire process, the candidate is then required to go through pre-employment assessments, which often include a medical examination, drug screening, psychological evaluation, etc. 

From this point on, their application is processed mostly through the regional employment office of the Criminal Justice Department, and then they are taken through orientation and basic training. 

Entrance Exams for Correctional Officers

The entrance exams for correctional officers are one of the most crucial parts of the entire interview process. Candidates who don’t pass this exam are often disqualified and only allowed to retake it after a period of one year. 

The applicant needs to know what to expect in an entrance exam for correctional officers. 

For the most part, the entrance exams for correctional officers often covers about five parts:

  1. Memory and Observation Skills 
  2. Situational Reasoning
  3. Deductive Reasoning or Reading and Comprehension
  4. Verbal Reasoning
  5. Arithmetic

The Correctional Officer Exam Format

In many cases, candidates can take this exam online, but some jurisdictions require it to be a physically written exam or even a video test. If the exam is a video test, candidates will be required to watch a video. The examiner will ask them how they would respond to whatever scenario is presented in the video. There may be multiple-choice options based on the same video. 

Candidates should expect to face and answer anything from 80 to 100 multiple-choice questions. The entire exam typically takes about 3 hours to complete. 

In any case, candidates can prepare for this exam by taking several test runs online. This should give them an idea of the kind of questions to expect and how to tackle them successfully. 

Types of Training Institutions for Correctional Officers

Apart from the correctional officer training academy that most correctional facilities require their recruits to go through, candidates can take many other educational paths. It should be noted that while there is no specific degree or field of study that potential correctional officers should take, there are some courses that are simply in line with this field of work. 

Degree programs such as criminology, psychology, and counseling could help. That being said, each and every jurisdiction has its own requirements, and it’s best to confirm these requirements before applying or joining any training institutions to become a corrections officer. 

Here is some type of training institutions correctional officers could join:

Trade or Vocational School

For the most part, Vocational and Trade Schools such as Williamson College of Trades, Western Iowa Tech Community College, and Western Technical College offer some of the best opportunities at becoming a correctional officer. This is mostly because these educational and training institutions are set up to equip students with practical labor skills necessary for this kind of job. 

Some of these schools provide programs such as associate degrees where the applicants can take on courses in criminal justice and related subjects. The best part is that most of these vocational schools allow students to take classes to get a full degree should they choose to do so. A step that will put candidates on the right path towards management. 

Community College

Community colleges are perfect for correctional officers looking to get their certificate or even associates degree while on the job or before applying. One of the main reasons community colleges such as Lake Area Technical College are a crucial part of this system is that they allow for better training and certification at a much lower cost and shorter time. 

Correctional officers can improve their chances of getting promotions and better pay by completing a 2-year associate degree course. This will cost far much less at a community college than it would anywhere else, and it can be taken part-time and, in some cases, fully online. This allows for the guards to keep their normal schedules and shifts. 

Military

As discussed earlier, a Federal mandate makes it easier for veterans to get jobs that are in line with their training. Having a military background is one of the best ways for potential correctional officers to get a leg up on their competition. 

Servicemen and women simply possess the kind of institutional discipline, physical fitness, and specialized training that this job requires. In some cases, these applicants may not even have to go through correctional officer academy training. In these cases, an extensive orientation period, as well as periodic on-the-job training, will suffice. 

Correctional Officer Training Academy

Almost, if not all, states and jurisdictions have their own specialized correctional officer training academy. These facilities are privately owned, state-run, or locally operated by the community within which the prison is located. 

Either way, this is probably one of the best options when it comes to getting special training that is tailored toward this specific job. 

Most correctional facilities require their recruits to go through a training academy before getting hired. The best part is that these facilities are open to anyone who passes the initial interview stages and qualifies to become a correctional officer. 

The kind of education imparted here includes everything that a correctional officer will need to do their job properly. This often includes classes such as:

  • Custody and control
  • Laws and regulations
  • Mental health issues

Physical training might involve qualifications for crowd control weapons and firearms.

Finally, there are institutions of higher learning such as Universities where any degree would work but most preferably, those that touch on the criminal justice system or on how to deal with people in general. 

With a mean annual wage of about $52,000, working as a correctional officer is an excellent career path for those who qualify and have the right kind of mentality for this job. The best part is that joining this force isn’t that difficult but will require dedication.

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