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A Day in the Life of a Corrections Officer

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.”

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Corrections officers today have many more responsibilities than they did even thirty years ago, with counseling and mentoring roles becoming more common in institutions. It is sad to say that this is a growth industry, but it is. Prison populations have climbed steadily in the past ten years, and the number of new prisons built to accommodate the burgeoning population increased 17 percent between 1990 and 1995. Corrections officer is one of the fastest growing careers of the 1990s, and job opportunities are expected to be plentiful through 2005. Finding qualified applicants is also tough, thus ensuring highly favorable job prospects in this field and making layoffs.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

“I distinctly remember the first day I went into the unit and they slammed the door behind me. And it was a feeling that just raised all the hairs on your person,” says a corrections officer from Texas. Just getting used to one’s surroundings can be the hardest part of the first years in this profession. Experienced officers spend a lot of time with new officers showing them the ropes. All state and local departments provide on-the-job training at the conclusion of formal instruction that can last anywhere from a period of weeks to months in the actual job setting. Training includes instruction in the following areas: institutional policies, regulations, and operations; constitutional law and cultural awareness; crisis intervention; contraband control; custody and security protocol; self-defense and firearms training; fire and safety; administrative training for dealing with institutional paperwork. There is a lot to learn and salaries are relatively low at the outset.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Experienced corrections officers have the opportunity to join prison tactical response teams to train to respond to riots, hostage situations, forced cell moves, and other dangerous situations. Tactical and weapons training comes with this terrain. Officers who have both experience and this kind of training can expect to see their salaries increase notably as they become instructors themselves and valuable assets to their, or any other, institution. Officers sometimes transfer to related jobs at this point in their career, such as probation and parole officers.

TEN YEARS OUT

Education, experience, and training can gain qualified officers advancement to correctional sergeant and other supervisory and administrative positions. Ambitious correctional officers can be promoted to assistant warden, a high-paying job in the field of corrections.


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