Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to serve time in a jail or prison.


Correctional officers typically do the following:

  • Enforce rules and keep order within jails or prisons
  • Supervise activities of inmates
  • Aid in rehabilitation and counseling of offenders
  • Inspect facilities to ensure that they meet standards
  • Search inmates for contraband items
  • Report on inmate conduct 

Inside the prison or jail, correctional officers enforce rules and regulations. They maintain security by preventing disturbances, assaults, and escapes. Correctional officers supervise the daily activities of inmates, ensuring that inmates obey the rules. They must also ensure the whereabouts of all inmates at all times.

On any given day, officers search inmates for contraband, such as weapons and drugs, settle disputes between inmates, and enforce discipline. Officers enforce regulations through effective communication and the use of progressive sanctions, which involve punishments, such as loss of privileges. Sanctions are progressive in that they start out small for a lesser offense but become more severe for more serious offenses. In addition, officers may aid inmates in their rehabilitation by scheduling work assignments, counseling, and educational opportunities.

Correctional officers periodically inspect facilities. They check cells and other areas for unsanitary conditions, contraband, signs of a security breach (such as tampering with window bars and doors), and any other evidence of violations of the rules. Officers also inspect mail and visitors for prohibited items. They write reports and fill out daily logs detailing inmate behavior and anything else of note that occurred during their shift.

Correctional officers may have to restrain inmates in handcuffs and leg irons to escort them safely to and from cells and to see authorized visitors. Officers also escort prisoners between the institution and courtrooms, medical facilities, and other destinations.

Correctional officers must report any inmate who violates the rules. If a crime is committed within their institution or an inmate escapes, they help law enforcement authorities investigate and search for the escapee.

Correctional officers have no responsibilities for law enforcement outside their place of work. Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists work with counseling offenders outside of prison.

Bailiffs, also known as marshals or court officers, are law enforcement officers who maintain safety and order in courtrooms. Their duties, which vary by location, include enforcing courtroom rules, assisting judges, guarding juries, delivering court documents, and providing general security for courthouses.

Work Environment

Correctional officers held about 469,500 jobs in 2012. Almost all worked for federal, state, and local governments. The remainder were employed by private companies that provide correctional services to prisons and jails.

Correctional officers may work indoors or outdoors. Some correctional institutions are temperature controlled and ventilated; but others are old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy.

Correctional officers may be required to stand for long periods of time. Bailiffs generally work in courtrooms.

Work Schedules

Correctional officers usually work 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, on rotating shifts. Because jail and prison security must be provided around the clock, officers work all hours of the day and night, weekends, and holidays. Some correctional facilities have longer shifts and more days off between scheduled workweeks. Many officers are required to work overtime.

Injuries and Illnesses

Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and dangerous. Every year, correctional officers are injured in confrontations with inmates, and some are exposed to contagious diseases. As a result, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. 

The job demands that officers be alert and ready to react throughout their entire shift. As a result, some officers experience anxiety.

Because offenders typically stay longer in state and federal prisons than in county jails, correctional officers in prisons come to know the people with whom they are dealing. Officers know what offenders need in terms of security and being taken care of.

Education and Training

Correctional officers go through a training academy and then are assigned to a facility for on-the-job training. Although qualifications vary by state and agency, all agencies require a high school diploma. Some federal agencies also require some college education or previous work experience.

Correctional officers usually must be at least 18 to 21 years of age, must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and must have no felony convictions. New applicants for federal corrections positions must be appointed before they are 37 years old.


Correctional officers must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Some state and local corrections agencies require some college credits. Law enforcement or military experience may be substituted for this requirement.

For employment in federal prisons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires entry-level correctional officers to have at least a bachelor's degree; 3 years of full-time experience in a field providing counseling, assistance, or supervision to individuals; or a combination of the two.


Federal, state, and some local departments of corrections, as well as some private corrections companies, provide training for correctional officers based on guidelines established by the American Correctional Association (ACA). Some states have regional training academies that are available to local agencies. Academy trainees receive instruction in a number of subjects, including self-defense, institutional policies, regulations, operations, and custody and security procedures. Although most correctional officers do not carry firearms when on duty, they may receive training in the use of firearms.

After formal academy instruction, state and local correctional agencies provide on-the-job training, including training on legal restrictions and interpersonal relations. Trainees typically receive several weeks or months of training under the supervision of an experienced officer. However, on-the-job training varies widely from agency to agency.

New federal correctional officers must undergo 200 hours of formal training within the first year of employment, including 120 hours of specialized training at the Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center. Experienced officers receive annual in-service training to keep up on new developments and procedures.

Correctional officers who are members of prison tactical response teams are trained to respond to disturbances, riots, hostage situations, and other potentially dangerous confrontations. Team members practice disarming prisoners, wielding weapons, and using other tactics to maintain the safety of inmates and officers alike.


Qualified officers may advance to the position of correctional sergeant. Sergeants are responsible for maintaining security and directing the activities of other officers. Qualified officers also can be promoted to supervisory or administrative positions, including warden. Officers sometimes transfer to related jobs, such as probation officer, parole officer, and correctional treatment specialist

Important Qualities

Good judgment. Officers must use both their training and common sense to quickly determine the best course of action and to take necessary steps to achieve a desired outcome.

Interpersonal skills. Correctional officers must be able to interact and effectively communicate with inmates and others to maintain order in correctional facilities and courtrooms.

Negotiating skills. Officers must be able to assist others in resolving differences to avoid conflict.

Physical strength. Correctional officers must have the strength to physically subdue inmates.

Resourcefulness. Correctional officers often encounter dangerous and unpredictable situations that require a quick response. They must determine the best practical approach to solving a problem and follow through with it.

Self discipline. Correctional officers must control their emotions when confronted with hostile situations.


The median annual wage for correctional officers and jailers was $39,040 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $69,610.

The median annual wage for bailiffs was $36,840 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,700, and the top 10 percent earned more than $66,860.

In addition to receiving typical benefits, correctional officers employed in the public sector usually are provided with uniforms or with a clothing allowance to buy their own uniforms. Many departments offer retirement benefits, although benefits vary.

Correctional officers usually work 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, on rotating shifts. Because jail and prison security must be provided around the clock, officers work all hours of the day and night, weekends, and holidays. Some correctional facilities have longer shifts and more days off between scheduled workweeks. Many officers are required to work overtime.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, correctional officers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2012. 

Job Outlook

Employment of correctional officers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. 

Although some demand for correctional officers will occur over the coming decade, anticipated budget constraints and a general downward trend in crime rates in recent years will likely mitigate employment growth.

Faced with growing costs for keeping people in prison, many state governments have moved toward laws requiring shorter prison terms and alternatives to prison. Community-based programs designed to rehabilitate offenders and limit their risk of repeated offenses, while keeping the public safe, may also reduce prison rates.

Job Prospects

Job prospects should be good in the private sector as public authorities contract with private companies to provide and staff corrections facilities. A growing number of state and federal corrections agencies are using private prison services.  

Some local and state corrections agencies experience high job turnover because of job-related stress and shift work. The need to replace correctional officers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the labor force—coupled with rising employment demand—should also generate some job openings.

For More Information

For more information about correctional officers, visit

American Correctional Association

American Jail Association

For information about career opportunities for correctional officers at the federal level, visit

Federal Bureau of Prisons

Information on obtaining a position as a correctional officer with the federal government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the federal government's official employment information system.