In 2012, there were approximately 469,500 correctional officers in the United States according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The majority of these workers are employed by federal, state or local governments, and work in our country’s prisons and jails. It is estimated that inmate populations currently exceed 1.6 million incarcerated adults in the United States. It is the duty of the correctional officers to oversee the vast population of individuals who have been arrested, are awaiting trial, or who have been sentenced to serve time.
Correctional Officer Duties
Typically, correctional officers are responsible for the following job duties:
- Enforce Rules and Keep Order: Enforce Rules and Keep Order: Inside the prison or jail, correctional officers enforce rules and regulations. They maintain security by settling disputes between inmates, preventing disturbances, assaults, and escapes. Officers enforce regulations through effective communication and the use of progressive sanctions, which involve punishments, such as loss of privileges.
- Supervise the Activities of Inmates: Correctional officers supervise the daily activities of inmates, ensuring that inmates obey the rules. They must also ensure the whereabouts of all inmates at all times. Officers also escort prisoners between the institution and courtrooms, medical facilities, and other destinations.
- Search for Contraband Items: Officers search inmates and their living quarters for contraband, such as weapons and drugs. In addition officers are responsible for screening visitors and incoming mail to ensure contraband is not brought into the prison or jail.
- Inspect Facilities to Ensure That They Meet Standards: Correctional officers periodically inspect facilities. They check cells and other areas for unsanitary conditions, contraband, signs of a security breach (such as tampering with window bars and doors), and any other evidence of violations of the rules.
- Report on Inmate Conduct: Correctional officers must report any inmate who violates the rules. If a crime is committed within their institution or an inmate escapes, they help law enforcement authorities investigate and search for the escapee. Correctional Officers are responsible for writing reports and filling out daily logs detailing inmate behavior and anything else of note that occurred during their shift.
- Aid in Rehabilitation and Counseling of Offenders: As many prisons and jails are often incredibly understaffed, correctional officers with advanced training or college educations are often utilized in the rehabilitation and counseling of offenders. In addition, correctional officers also participate in the rehabilitation efforts by scheduling work assignments, counseling, and educational opportunities.
Working in Corrections
The work environment for U.S. based correctional officers varies dramatically based upon several factors. First, is the age of the facility in which the correctional officer works. The population explosion in the prison system has caused a building boom of new prison facilities. These facilities tend to be temperature controlled, less crowded, and able to better accommodate inmates in a controlled and orderly environment. The older facilities tend to be poorly ventilated, hot and noisy.
The second factor is the ownership of the institution. Traditionally, prisons and jails have been owned by the federal, state, and local governments. A trend which is likely to grow in the future is the private ownership of institutions. The quality of the work environment ties directly to the amount of money expended by the governmental unit or private corporation operating the institution. Traditionally, the federal correctional institutions have received better funding, and are considered better work environments. Conversely, the hiring requirements tend to be more stringent for these positions. A college education, military training, or other law enforcement experience is almost always required.
The third factor is the level of security of the institution. Typically, prisons and jails are categorized as maximum, medium, or minimum security. In addition, there are other programs such as the federal camp program and halfway type houses that employ correctional officers. Jobs in maximum security prisons tend to involve more conflict and violence. This leads to a far greater stress level for the correctional officer. The more violent the inmate population, the more stressful the position is likely to be.
Other factors should also be considered regarding the work conditions. Correctional officers are typically required to work rotating shifts. Given the shortage of correction officers, overtime is almost a given. In addition, correctional officers are often required to stand for long periods of time, and work both outdoors and indoors. The need for constant vigilance causes some correctional officers heightened anxiety in addition to stress issues. Also, there is the possibility of being injured in a confrontation, or being exposed to contagious diseases.
Correctional Officer Salary and Benefits
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for correctional officers and jailers was $39,040 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $69,610. When the correctional officer is employed in a government run facility, they are eligible to participate in the benefit programs sponsored by that level of the government. For federal and state workers this usually means excellent health insurance and retirement benefits. The predicted job growth rate between 2012 and 2022 is 5%.