How to Become a Correctional Officer: Career Guide


Updated May 17, 2024 · 4 Min Read

Learn how to become a correctional officer with this in-depth career guide. Discover educational requirements, career tracks, job outlook data, and more. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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In criminal justice, the corrections system includes the processes related to offender rehabilitation. Correctional officers work in these institutions as frontline criminal justice professionals. Their main duties involve maintaining order, enforcing rules, and protecting people's safety and property.

Federal, state, county, and municipal custodial institutions have ongoing needs for correctional officers. This guide explains how to become a correctional officer, covering the process from initial education to career advancement.

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What Is a Correctional Officer?

Correctional officers mainly perform supervisory and administrative duties relating to criminal offenders serving prison sentences. Their work includes maintaining order in prison facilities and ensuring that inmates follow the rules.

Importantly, correctional officers also safeguard the integrity of prison facilities, preventing unauthorized entries and exits. If inmates become involved in violent confrontations, frontline correctional officers intervene.

Daily Tasks and Responsibilities

  • Ensuring inmates follow all applicable rules and regulations
  • Accounting for the presence of all inmates
  • Performing inspections and searches as needed
  • Patrolling the interiors and exteriors of prison facilities
  • Supervising inmates' indoor and outdoor activities
  • Assisting and facilitating offender rehabilitation and counseling
  • Maintaining the safety and security of the prison environment
  • Documenting and reporting on inmate conduct

How to Become a Correctional Officer

Correctional Officer Career Path Overview

  1. Meet the minimum age guidelines, which range from 18-21 depending on the state and authorizing agency.
  2. Obtain a high school diploma and complete any other educational requirements that may apply in the jurisdiction or agency where you plan to work.
  3. Complete specialized academy-based training in professional best practices, security procedures, regulatory standards, and self-defense.
  4. Earn state-level certification, if required.
  5. Apply for open positions or seek job placement assistance from your training academy.


Educational requirements vary among states and law enforcement or corrections agencies. In some jurisdictions, you can become a correctional officer with only a high school diploma. Others require an undergraduate degree. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' entry-level hiring standards include a bachelor's degree.

Even if a degree is not a hard requirement, completing a formal education program may still benefit you. College training can help you build a stronger and deeper knowledge base. Employers may also evaluate your application more favorably if your education exceeds minimum standards.

Relevant college majors include criminal justice, criminal justice administration, criminology, and related social science fields. Some schools offer corrections concentrations, which make an ideal match.

Job Training

Correctional officer training involves enrolling at specialized academies for peace officers. In some cases, government agencies run these academies. Others are privately operated.

If you attend a private academy, make sure it is accredited or recognized by your state's law enforcement authorities. You can also consult the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training to find an approved program in your state.

Training programs vary in duration. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recognizes academy programs as short as four weeks. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates a 13-week academy.

At the high end, academy training programs may cover up to 20 weeks, with instructional sessions totaling 400 hours or more. You will need to meet physical fitness requirements to enroll. With more training, you can become better prepared for your career.

Your academy training will typically cover:

  • Professional conduct standards, legal regulations, and best practices for handling common and uncommon situations
  • Conflict management, de-escalation, and resolution
  • Strategies and techniques for interacting with special-needs prison populations, such as gang members and mentally ill or suicidal offenders
  • Self-defense and firearms training


Employers generally look favorably on candidates whose backgrounds include military service or law enforcement. If you meet the educational and training requirements, you may qualify for entry-level roles without additional work experience.

Note that some training academies allow enrollees to shadow senior professionals. These opportunities provide excellent practical training on the path to becoming a correctional officer.

Other Requirements

Beyond meeting age minimums, which range from 18-21, most states require correctional officers to hold U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency. Additional standards and requirements may also include:

  • Background and criminal record checks
  • Psychological and physical health assessments
  • Drug tests

You may also need a valid driver's license and a clean driving record. Some states, like New Jersey and Florida, require correctional officers to hold state certifications. To earn these credentials, you may need to pass a certification exam.

What Skills Do Correctional Officers Need?

Employers may look for work experience or soft skills when hiring corrections officers. Related more to personality than education or experience, desirable soft skills for corrections officers include communication, social perceptiveness, and decision-making skills. Corrections officers must also maintain their physical condition and demonstrate the strength required to restrain inmates.

Corrections officers must possess strong communication skills to safely interact with coworkers and prisoners. Additionally, these professionals need written communication skills for filing reports. Employers also expect knowledge of Microsoft Office programs, particularly Word and Excel.

Corrections officers must also demonstrate social awareness. They watch for potential problems, help solve conflicts, and make quick decisions when necessary. Emotional control is required to remain calm under pressure.

Correctional Officer Salary and Career Outlook

According to May 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), correctional officers and jailers earn a median salary of $53,300 per year. Correctional officers at the 10th percentile of earnings made about $38,340 per year, while those at the 90th percentile made more than $87,000 per year.

The BLS identifies federal, state, and local government agencies (excluding schools, hospitals, and postal facilities) as the top-paying work setting for correctional officers. As of May 2023, the BLS reports a mean average annual salary of $69,000 per year for correctional officers employed by these agencies.

Earning potential also varies by state, with the BLS citing the following top-paying states for the profession:

The BLS projects an overall employment decline of 8% from 2022-2032 for correctional officers and jailers. Even so, the BLS still expects nearly 31,000 jobs for correctional officers and bailiffs to open annually during that time.

Career Advancement for Correctional Officers

As you gain experience and develop a strong performance record, you may qualify for advancement opportunities. These include senior and supervisory roles overseeing the work of junior-level officers. For example, prison wardens hold the highest-ranking positions in prison systems and are responsible for all aspects of facility operations and security.

High-level supervisory roles offer significant earning potential. As of May 2023, the BLS reports an average annual salary of $76,840 per year for correctional officer supervisors.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Correctional Officer

How long does it take to become a correctional officer?

It depends on state educational and training requirements. At the low end, you could qualify with a high school diploma and a multi-week training course. On the higher end, requirements include a bachelor's degree and intensive academy training. Together, these components may take about 4-5 years to complete.

What disqualifies you from being a correctional officer?

It depends on the state, but in general, you may be disqualified if you are a convicted felon or received a dishonorable discharge from military service. Some states also disqualify candidates with histories of domestic violence or workplace disciplinary problems. You must also pass mental and physical fitness checks.

Where do most correctional officers work?

According to BLS data from May 2023, more than half (51%) of correctional officers and jailers work for agencies of state governments. Other major employment settings include federal governments, local governments, and external support services for correctional facilities.

What is the hardest part of being a correctional officer?

The job can be unpredictable and highly stressful, as emergencies can occur without warning. Given the current state of the U.S. prison system, correctional officers sometimes work in understaffed conditions, making them more likely to experience potentially dangerous situations.

What are the differences between a jailer and a correctional officer?

Jailers and correctional officers perform similar duties in different settings. Jailers typically work in settings where individuals under investigation or facing pending charges are held as they await court proceedings. Correctional officers work in prisons, where individuals convicted of criminal offenses serve their sentences.

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