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Careers in Criminal Justice: Corrections

Careers In Jails And Correctional Institutions

Nature of the work. Correctional officers are responsible for supervising persons who have been arrested and detained in jails pending trial. They also supervise individuals who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in jails, reformatories, and prisons. Comprising over 60 percent of most institutional staff, they are responsible for maintaining order and institutional discipline. Officers enforce institutional rules and regulations. They monitor and control inmates throughout their incarceration twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Officers must periodically search inmates and the prison environment for contraband, such as weapons or drugs. Officers are in charge of internal and perimeter security. They must periodically inspect locks, window screens, grilles, doors, and gates to prevent escapes or other malfeasance. Officers also inspect inmate mail, control visitors, and escort inmates within the facility or transport them to outside locations, such as court hearings, facilities transfers, or hospitals for medical care. Officers bear responsibility for maintaining safe, sanitary, and secure conditions in prisons and jails. Unlike police officers, they do not have any law enforcement responsibilities outside their institutions. By the same token, correctional officers are expected to function as change agents in the correctional process. They are informal counselors in charge of the health, safety, and general welfare of their inmates by providing guidance and tracking an inmate's life and behavior in the institution.

Correctional officers report orally and in writing on inmate activities and conduct. This includes reports on security breaches, disciplinary infractions, and violence. Similar to role call in policing, officers attend short briefings before the beginning of their shifts to learn about events, problems, and inmates with special needs. Logs are kept for each shift, reflecting inmate counts, unusual occurrences, and incidents, if any. At times, officers must deal with inmates who may be self-destructive, violent, or uncooperative. They must write citations for behavior infractions and attend disciplinary hearings during which incidents are reviewed and adjudicated. Unlike police, corrections officers work unarmed in prisons and jails. Exceptions to this rule are special prisons designed for holding highly dangerous offenders and prisons in lock-down conditions due to collective violence incidents, and similar emergencies. In lieu of weapons, officers are equipped with communications devices with which they can summon help if needed. Depending on the shift or available manpower, correctional officers may work on a tier or cell block alone, or with another officer. In direct supervision facilities, an officer may be in the midst of fifty to one hundred inmates or more. Officers must rely on their intelligence, training, and interpersonal communications skills to maintain order and control over their inmates. Their only other means for motivating inmates are a series of progressive sanctions involving a small number of privileges, such as visits to the canteen, time spent in day rooms, visitation, and so on.

There are approximately 450,000 workers in the nation's correctional agencies (Camp and Camp). Of these, the vast majority is uniformed (or line) staff, located throughout roughly fifteen hundred correctional facilities spanning many security levels. The latter range from maximum, medium, minimum, community-level, intake, multi-level, to high/close. Line staffing patterns follow a paramilitary and highly hierarchical structure: correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and major. There are fifty state-level correctional agencies, controlled by directors or commissioners. These positions are usually gubernatorial appointments. Only a few are a part of a state's civil service structure. Penal facilities are operated by wardens. They generally serve at the pleasure of the director or commissioner of corrections. By contrast, most, but not all, jails are under the control of popularly elected sheriffs. Police and sheriffs' departments in county and municipal jails, as well as large precinct station houses, also employ large numbers of correctional (or detention) officers. There are approximately thirty-three hundred jails in the country. They hold and process more than twenty-two million arrestees a year. On any given day, jails detain and hold about half a million inmates. Given the nature of jail operations, they have a high turnover of their inmate populations. Jail clientele vary much, ranging from petty criminals to highly dangerous felons.

Pay. Salaries for line staff have greatly improved in recent years, with annual starting pay ranging from a low of $15,324 in Louisiana to a high of $34,070 in New Jersey (Camp and Camp). The national average starting salary for a correctional officer was pegged at $22,500 in 2001. A combination of annual pay increases and pay incentives for post-secondary education, hazardous duty, or overtime can easily raise pay above $50,000 for line staff, with lieutenants and captains earning as much as $70,000 to $75,000. Salaries for agency directors reflect their many responsibilities and range from a low of $32,000 to $130,000.

Qualifications and education. Historically, correctional officers were white males from rural areas with low-level education. However, due to the previously discussed quickening process of professionalization, this dismal picture is changing rapidly. Employment criteria for entry-level positions require that candidates be at least eighteen to twenty-one years of age and have a high school education (or equivalent). Applicants must be in good health, of good moral character, meet fairly strict physical fitness requirements, and undergo a psychological assessment. Additional criteria include U.S. citizenship and the absence of a criminal record. These entry-level requirements resemble those for policing. Although relatively modest when compared to other professions, there is a distinct trend in the profession favoring educational attainments beyond high school. This salutary development is attributable to a number of factors. First, with increases in professionalization, the field has become more attractive to better-educated individuals looking for a career in corrections. This development is reinforced by the fact that most corrections agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP), have made time spent as a correctional officer the cornerstone of a correctional career. Second, equal employment opportunity has opened the field to a more diverse workforce, including people of color and women, many of whom have post-secondary education experience. And third, post-secondary education, such as the acquisition of an associate's, bachelor's, or master's degree, are becoming increasingly important in promotion considerations and leadership selections. In sum, the ideal officer candidate will be highly motivated, with a good education. Above all, the individual will be have good judgment, maturity, a strong sense of fairness, and the ability to think and act quickly and decisively.

Selection. The vast majority of today's correctional agencies follow well-established and mostly nondiscriminatory selection processes. Nonetheless, a majority of jurisdictions do give preference points to veterans. The underlying rationale is to reward veterans for their military service and to assist them in the readjustment to civilian life. Another reason for favoring veterans is the assumption that a military background will be of advantage in corrections due to the paramilitary nature of the work. While the military model is now considered out of place by many national organizations, such as the FBP and the American Correctional Association, veteran's preference remains in place. Once selected, candidates must pass a written examination and a physical fitness test. They must undergo drug testing, a medical examination, a psychological assessment, and extensive background checks. Following successful completion of this process, candidates are given oral interviews by a selection board representing management, security, human services, and corrections officers. Successful candidates will then be offered employment, contingent upon successfully completing academy training (ranging from six to twelve weeks), and a probationary period (ranging from six to twenty-four months).

Pre-service and in-service training. Federal, state, and a majority of local corrections agencies provide pre-service training in training academies. The training follows the guidelines established by the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association. Academies are paramilitary in nature and teach a variety of topics. Subjects include: the legal parameters under which the agencies operate; rules and regulations; security procedures, team work, and self-defense; firearms proficiency; search and seizure; inmate characteristics and needs; inmate management, counseling, and supervision; suicide prevention and emergency medical aid; disciplinary procedures and report writing; inmate rights and responsibilities.

Regular in-service training is now a staple in all corrections agencies. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) is in a leadership position by requiring at least 200 hours of additional training to occur during the first year of employment. On top of this requirement is another 120 hours of specialized training at the FBP's residential training center at Glynco, Georgia, within the first sixty days of employment. State and local corrections agencies have annual in-service programs ranging from forty to one hundred hours. Given the potential for violence in corrections institutions, each agency trains and assigns correctional officers to tactical response teams (better known as Special Weapons and Tactics Teams, or SWAT). It is the responsibility of these teams to respond to prison and jail disturbances, riots, hostage situations, forced cell moves, escapes, and similarly dangerous situations. SWAT teams emphasize physical and mental fitness, training, and teamwork.

Job outlook. The U.S. Department of Labor notes highly favorable job opportunities for correctional officers in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This is due to a number of factors. First, the number of juvenile and adult offenders under some form of correctional supervision is rising. Prisons and jails are expanding, and more juvenile delinquents are waived into adult court than ever before. Second, the adoption of mandatory sentencing laws, such as three strikes, has increased the time offenders spend in prisons and jails. Third, reduced usage of parole, coupled with a tightening of parole violation procedures, is spurring demand for more manpower. Fourth, there is an ongoing need to replace correctional officers due to retirement, transfer to other occupations, such as policing, and internal promotion. The totality of these effects will generate thousands of job openings in the foreseeable future.

Career development. With experience, further education, and in-service and skills training, qualified correctional officers have excellent opportunities for advancement to higher ranks. They may be promoted to supervisory positions, such as shift commanders, unit or program supervisors, training or tactical commanders, or some combination. Additional opportunities exist for qualified and enterprising officers to be promoted to administrative posts, assistant superintendent, superintendent or warden.

Most federal, state, and local corrections agencies provide career development incentives for their employees. For example, many increase an officer's pay upon completion of post-secondary education degrees. There is also support for professional development, such as pursuing additional training and skill development programs, and for attending professional association meetings. Many agencies also look favorably on extracurricular activities, such as volunteer work with schools, youth development programs, such as sports or the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, or similar activities that serve to enhance the agency's image in the community.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCareers in Criminal Justice: Corrections - Corrections, Probation, And Parole, Careers In Jails And Correctional Institutions, Careers In Probation And Parole