Correctional Officer Requirements

What Are the Minimum Requirements to Become a Correctional Officer?

If you are considering a career as a correctional officer, it is essential that you become familiar with the minimum requirements of the system in which you wish to work.  The Federal Prison System and each state all have different employment standards.  The federal government and some states become very selective in their recruitment and hiring. Others have very minimal requirements.

The Most Common Requirements

In almost every jurisdiction you can expect the following:

  1. You must be a United States citizen.  Some jurisdictions will accept individuals in the process of citizenship application or otherwise eligible to work in the U.S., but undocumented workers have no chance at employment.  Some state correctional systems require that you be a resident of that state to be eligible for employment.
  2. You must be at least 18 and in some states 21.  This is such a common practice that some states no longer include it in their written basic requirements.  Assume the minimum is 18 unless the state has a written policy requiring you be older.  The federal system requires you be between 20 and 37.
  3. You must have either a high school diploma or a GED.  Some states also don’t have this as a written requirement.  A few of those states require you have some post high school classes which would of course require you to have either a high school diploma or a GED.  Unless you have a military background or a prior extraordinary work history, assume you will be required to have a diploma or GED.
  4. You must have a “clean” criminal record.  You can assume a felony conviction will end your chances; however, some states do accept applicants who have received pardons or had their records expunged.  Misdemeanors are handled differently.  Some states will accept applicants with minor offenses if the sentence and/or probationary periods have been finalized and all fines and restitutions have been paid.  Drug related crimes, whether they were a felony or misdemeanor, will probably make you ineligible to be a correctional officer.  There is a growing trend of denying applicants with any convictions for crimes related to domestic violence regardless of the severity.
  5. The majority of states require you have a valid driver’s license.  Interestingly only a few require you have a clean driving record.  Some states require that you have had no more than two DUI’s or DWI’s.
  6. You must be physically capable of doing the job.  At some point during the recruitment process you will be required to have a physical exam and pass a physical fitness test.  The exam is fairly standard from state to state.  The requirement is basically are you physically capable to do the job, or do you have a pre-existing condition that will prove to be a problem. The fitness exam varies vastly from state to state with some states merely accepting the results of the doctor’s physical exam.

The Bonuses

  1.  A solid prior work history is a huge plus.  This applies in any employment situation.  Employers like to see that a perspective employee is worth the time and investment to train.
  2. College is always a plus.  Even if you never finished your associates degree or bachelors, college is something for which most correctional employers now give credit.  In some states, college degrees or credits are accepted in place of prior work experience.  If you are interested in employment in the Federal Correctional System a bachelor’s degree is required.
  3. Military service is almost always given preference.  Under federal law, there are mandates in place which give veterans hiring preference.  If you have a good military duty record, it will almost certainly count in your favor.  Also be aware, a dishonorable discharge will almost certainly end your chances at employment as a correctional officer.

Background Checks

Almost every state now does a background check.  The types of background checks vary, but include:

  1. Fingerprinting to assure that you are who you say you are.  Fingerprint checks are used to both verify identity, and to make sure you have not attempted to conceal anything regarding your own criminal history.
  2. It is almost certain you will have to take a drug test.  This is typically true when you apply for the job, and as a condition of employment going forward.
  3. Your references will be verified.  Make sure to put whomever you list as a reference on notice that they will be receiving a phone call or visit from a law enforcement officer to verify the reference.  A reference that is not aware this call or visit is coming may panic, and actually be harmful to your chances.
  4. Your credit report may be fair game.  It is become standard practice for potential employers to ask for permission to obtain your credit report.  Be proactive, if you have credit issues which can be cleaned up, do that prior to seeking employment.  If an employer asks for permission to run your report and you know you have issues you can’t address, be candid with the interviewer about what they will see on the report.

Other Requirements and the Selection Process

Some states have gotten very specific with pre-application screening and will require you to undergo testing prior to making a formal application for a correctional officer position.  Some of these tests involve video simulations or real life correctional situations.   Others require literacy and English fluency testing.  Some, but interestingly not all, require you be eligible to carry a concealed weapon under your state’s laws.

If you are considering training or applying for a correctional officer position, take the time to review the requirements of the state in which you want to work.  These requirements can almost always be found on the department of corrections’ website for your state. Below you will find a list of the web links for each state’s department of corrections.

Other Frequently Asked Questions