CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a correctional officer.
Is becoming a correctional officer right for me?
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For some correctional jobs, a high school diploma or equivalent is the only educational requirement. While in high school, aspiring correctional officers should pay particular attention to the following courses:
Physical Education Courses
Correctional officers need to be able to physically defend themselves. Get in shape from a young age and take physical education courses.
Communication and Writing Courses
Working in corrections involves constant interaction with both colleagues and inmates. Public speaking and debate classes will help to build a foundation in this area. Writing classes will prepare students for the work of completing inmate and incident reports.
Prison populations consist of multiple ethnic groups. A second language will facilitate communicating with inmates and potentially ease tensions that may arise.
Meet the minimum requirements
The minimum standards for correctional officers working in federal prisons
• Be a U.S. citizen
• Be between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven
• Have no disqualifying criminal convictions
• Have a stable financial history
• Have a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline
The minimum standards for correctional officers working in state and local prisons
• Be a U.S. citizen
• Be at least eighteen, in some states twenty-one, years old
• Be physically and mentally capable of doing the job
• Have no disqualifying criminal convictions
• Have a valid driver’s license
• Have a high school diploma or GED
Visit the Department of Corrections website for the state in which you wish to work, to ensure that you meet eligibility standards.
While a high school diploma or GED will open the door to some jobs, earning a postsecondary certificate or degree will widen opportunities. To work in the federal prison system in the United States, a bachelor’s degree or significant experience in a related field is required.
A certificate program is a popular choice for students who wish to follow up their high school education with some formal, albeit minimal, corrections training. Individuals with experience in a related legal, teaching, or counseling role may also elect to complete one of these curricula, to supplement their knowledge with some corrections-specific skills.
These programs do not typically comprise the physical training necessary to serve as a correctional officer. They generally last between three and six months and include the following classes:
Introduction to Criminology
• Concepts, theories, and definitions relating to criminal behavior
• Identification of recent crime trends
Introduction to Corrections
• A broad interpretation and explanation of police within society
• Penal policies
• Recognizing applicability of specific policies and regulations
• Issues that normally arise in corrections
Introduction to Law Enforcement
• Basic theories and ideas behind criminal punishment and rehabilitation
• Theories and concepts underlying police activity
• Relationship and collaboration between police and community
• Historical and future trends in law enforcement and police policies
Associate degree programs, such as an Associate Degree in Applied Science in Corrections, typically last two years. They include some of the courses listed below:
Supervision and Control
• Fundamental concepts and tools for proper and safe supervision of inmates
• Application of control methods in a wide range of settings
• Relationship between crowding of inmates and violence
• Consequences of abusive control methods
Counseling and Interviewing
• Comprehensive overview of counseling and interviewing techniques
• Modification of inmate behavior using counseling methods
• Creation of positive relationships to improve outcomes
• Using advanced counseling methods such as transactional analysis
Conflict Resolution Strategies
• Conflict resolution techniques within the abnormal behavioral context
• Identification of many different causes of conflict
• Use of crisis management techniques
• Effects of incarceration on human psychology
Individuals who wish to work in the federal corrections system typically need to have a bachelor’s degree. This requirement can sometimes be rescinded for job candidates with correctional or related experience. In general, earning a bachelor’s expands opportunities to include higher-level, supervisory, and management positions.
Addiction within the Criminal Justice System
• Rehabilitation and intervention tools and methods commonly used in a criminal justice system
• Addiction diagnoses and treatment methods
• Cultural and diversity factors to consider in treating addictions within a criminal justice system
• Clinical diagnosing protocols and definitions with respect to addiction
Background and overview of prison laws and regulations in the United States
• History of U.S. penal law
• Landmark court cases regarding inmate rights
• Application of prison laws to properly treat, supervise, and guard inmates
• How prisons operate
• How and why certain types of inmates are treated differently
• Inmate traits that can affect how they are/should be treated
Pass the required examination
Many jurisdictions require that job candidates pass an entrance exam.
These exams commonly include a written portion that focuses on the legal issues related to incarceration, a physical component to ensure that potential officers can handle the rigors of working in a prison environment, and a psychological test to assess applicants’ mental and emotional capacity to work with inmates.
Additional / On-the-job Training
Regardless of any formal education taken by newly hired correctional officers, they will generally start their jobs with some level of additional training, either on the job or at an academy determined by their employer. These programs can last a few weeks to a few months and generally cover the following topics:
The failure of a correctional officer to follow established procedures can jeopardize safety of inmates and staff and potentially lead to legal ramifications for the institution. Many states’ training programs use mock prison environments and prisoners to emulate various scenarios.
They all teach the following procedures:
• Restraint techniques
• Identifying/locating contraband
• Searches and strip search
• Cell extraction
• Riot control
• Inmate transport
• Emergency operations; fire safety
• First aid and CPR
Correctional officers also are trained in the use of a variety of firearms, and must demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate. Almost all states require requalification on an annual basis.
Most correctional officers who work in close proximity with inmates do not carry weapons; however, they must still be proficient in case of an emergency or if they are assigned to guard the perimeter of the institution. Typically, this training includes the use of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.
Almost all states have adopted in-service probationary training for new-hires, during which they work under the close supervision of senior correctional officers, often in a minimum-security population. Depending on the state, this probation period can last for a few months or up to two years.
Basic Fitness Training
All states require recruits to pass physical fitness testing. Exercises included in the test are:
• Ladder climb
• Quarter mile run
• Grip strength
• Dynamic arm power
Rehabilitative Methods Training
Federal and state governments have implemented mandates which target lowering recidivism rates through the implementation of treatment and rehabilitative programs within prisons and jails. These programs are designed to remedy substance abuse, mental health issues, and lack of education or vocational skills.
Correctional officers are expected to obtain a basic understanding of these programs in order to identify as worthy candidates for programs within their institution.
A basic knowledge of key areas of the law are necessary to ensure the smooth operation of a correctional facility. Most programs focus on these concepts:
• Criminal law
• Constitutional law
• Arrest procedures
• Civil rights law
• Rules of evidence
• Use of force
Become a Sworn Officer
While it differs from state to state, the oath of office is a sworn verbal and written statement to uphold the duties of a correctional officer. In general, the oath is a pledge to:
• Enforce rules and keep order
• Supervise the activities of inmates
• Search for contraband Items
• Inspect facilities to ensure that they meet standards
• Report on inmate conduct
• Aid in rehabilitation and counseling of offenders
Certification & Advancement
The American Correctional Association administers several voluntary corrections credentials. The first level certification – the Certified Correctional Officer (CCO) – is valid for three years and officers can become recertified by earning ACA-approved continuing education credits.
As officers advance in their career, they may opt to pursue the ACA’s high-level certifications:
• Certified Corrections Supervisor (CCS)
• Certified Corrections Manager (CCM)
• Certified Corrections Executive (CCE)
The ACA also administers specific certifications in the areas of Juvenile Justice, Security Threat Groups, Health Care, and Provisional Certification.
Other related credentials – also voluntary – are available from the National Sheriffs’ Association.