This is no day at the beach. Ever. Modern corrections officers, aside from frequently putting their lives on the line, are a combination of police officers, social workers, counselors, security specialists, managers, and teachers. A corrections officer oversees individuals who have been arrested, are awaiting trials, or who have been convicted and sentenced to jail. While many think all corrections officers do is observe inmate behavior to prevent fights or escapes, their responsibilities reach far beyond this. A corrections officer in a small county jail or precinct station house may also serve as deputy sheriff or police officer, whereas an officer in a large state and federal prison will have highly specialized duties, such as overseeing prisoner transfers. Working conditions can either be indoors or outdoors, depending on an officer’s duties, and indoor environments can range from perfectly acceptable to overcrowded, hot, and noisy. Corrections officers tend to work a five-day week, in eight-hour shifts, but because prison security must be provided around the clock, shifts aren’t always Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., officers may be expected to work overtime, weekends, and holidays.
Although it is potentially dangerous work, officers primarily enforce regulations through communications skills and moral authority, attempting to avoid conflict at all costs. Most corrections officers attend to their duties unarmed, while a few officers (mostly with military backgrounds) hold positions in lookout towers with the companionship of high-powered rifles. The majority of a corrections officer’s work leads toward the mundane (or as mundane as you can get under the circumstances). Duties such as checking cells and other areas for unsanitary conditions, weapons, drugs, fire hazards, and any evidence of infractions of rules are part of a normal day on the job. The officers also must inspect security measures, such as locks, window bars, and gates for any signs of tampering. They also inspect mail for contraband, and they allow entrance for, possibly search, and accompany visitors who are seeing inmates. Even the most senior officers will perform any and all of these tasks. Officers are also responsible for escorting inmates to and from cells, recreation, visiting, and dining areas.
Corrections officers also aid in the rehabilitation, and not simply the incarceration, of inmates by arranging daily schedules that include library visits, work assignments, family visits, and counseling appointments. Some institutions give officers specialized training so that they may engage in a more formal counseling role. Still, helping inmates can take its toll on the officers, whose routines also include checking to see that inmates aren’t preparing for a suicide attempt due to emotional trauma. “The hardest part to this job,” says corrections officer Sherry Lane, “is being able to separate yourself from some of the inhumanities that you see inside of the prison. Like for instance . . . there was this young guy of about nineteen that had been raped . . . The trauma you could see in his face . . . just being able to deal with it . . . separate yourself from it . . . when you go home.”
To be a corrections officer, most institutions require that you have a high school education or its equivalent, be at least eighteen or twenty-one years of age, be a U.S. citizen, and have no felony convictions. As the trend moves toward having corrections officers function in a wider range of capacities, many institutions are seeking applicants with post-secondary education in the fields of psychology, criminal justice, police science, and criminology. A potential corrections officer must also be in excellent health and meet formal standards of physical fitness, eyesight, and hearing. Drug testing and background checks of applicants are the norm.
The most obvious alternate law enforcement career choice is the police force, but courtroom bailiffs supervise offenders in a way quite similar to corrections officers. Probation and parole officers monitor and counsel offenders, following their reintegration into society in ways that can be equally as satisfying and as frustrating. Corrections officers also perform investigative work within the prison walls, assisting police in investigation of inmates or dissecting the events of crime that have occurred within the walls of the institution. For this reason some corrections officers find careers as in-house or store detectives rewarding. Other popular alternative careers are private security officers and recreational leaders.