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Prison Guard: Career Guide

Prison guards maintain the safety and security of prisoners in jails or prisons. They secure the facility and are the first to respond to any problems that arise. This guide provides information about what prison guards do, requirements for the position, and the career outlook for prison guards.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Prison guards are responsible for enforcing rules, preventing assaults and escapes, and maintaining the general order of the facilities to which they are assigned. Guards respond to emergency situations, such as riots, fires, and confrontations. More specific responsibilities often depend on the prison guard’s assignment. For example, guards at maximum security prisons work with the most violent offenders in the US corrections system and are regularly asked to control extreme situations. The offenders that these guards supervise generally are not permitted to leave their cells except under supervision and are rarely permitted to participate in group activities. On the other hand, while guards at minimum security facilities may also face violent confrontations, these guards supervise low-risk inmates who are generally permitted to congregate in groups and are frequently allowed freedom of movement through designated areas of the facility. More specific prison guard duties can include:

  • Contraband searches for drugs and weapons
  • Control and transport of inmates
  • Inmate conduct reporting
  • Enforcing the rules and providing discipline, as needed
  • Inspecting incoming mail and visitors

Steps for Becoming a Prison Guard

Prison guards must possess at least a high school diploma. However, some college experience may be necessary to earn a position at certain correctional facilities. Corrections officers who aspire to work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, must earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and have an additional three years of related professional experience. While the process for becoming a prison guard will depend largely on the particular position and employer, you can expect a process similar to the one below:

  1. Apply for an open position as a prison guard.
  2. Be interviewed.
  3. Pass a criminal background check.
  4. Take and pass a physical exam.
  5. Get hired as a prison guard.
  6. Be trained on the job.

Please note that a degree cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Additional academy training or education may be required for law enforcement jobs.

Prison Guard Job Training

Training requirements vary for prison guards depending on the requirements of the corrections agency, but many facilities will require new hires to spend time at an academy. Guidelines for training often follow those outlined by the American Correctional Association. After the academy, on-the-job training specific to the facility will be provided.

Trainees learn self-defense, firearms, first aid, and the use of restraint. It is also important for a guard to know legal restrictions, institutional policies, and custody and security procedures. There is also specialized training available for more specialized jobs. For example, a guard who is a member of a tactical response team will be trained to respond to disturbances, riots, hostage situations, and any other dangerous situation that may arise. Guards also receive specific training in disarming and neutralizing prisoners and maintaining the safety of other inmates and guards. Annual in-service training may be provided for guards to help them to stay current on skills, standards, and procedures.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

In addition to education requirements and professional experience, prison guards also need to possess good judgment, self-discipline, effective verbal and written communication skills, negotiation skills, physical strength, and be resourceful in unpredictable situations.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Corrections Officer
  • Prison Guard
  • Prison Officer

Career Opportunities

There are a variety of advancement opportunities for well-qualified guards. Experienced guards may advance into supervisory or administrative positions, such as correctional sergeant or prison warden. Guards may also transfer to correctional work outside of their facilities and work as a probation officer, parole officer, or correctional treatment specialist.

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar to a prison guard? Check out these related careers:

Prison Guard Salary and Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median wage for a correctional officer was $40,580 per year in 2015.1 The BLS projects employment growth for correctional officers of 4% through 2024, though many opportunities for employment will become available as current officers leave their positions due to retirement.1

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Are there any dangers associated with being a guard in a prison?

Answer: Yes. Prison guards often deal with violent offenders. In addition to work-related injury, work-related illness is common due to contagious diseases spreading through prison populations. Correctional officers also experience significant work-related stress.

Question: What type of work schedule does a prison guard generally work?

Answer: Corrections officers typically work a full-time schedule of 40 hours per week, although they may be required to work rotating shifts and overtime.

Question: In what kind of environment do prison guards typically work?

Answer: Candidates should be prepared and physically able to work in various conditions, including excessive heat and cold, and in areas that are not well-ventilated. Guards must also be able to stand for long periods of time and to deal with daily stress.

Question: How many prison guards work in the US?

Answer: According to the BLS, in 2015 an estimated 474,800 guards were employed in US jails and prisons.1

Additional Resources

  • American Correctional Association – A professional organization that provides professional development opportunities, hosts conferences, and publishes journals for those who work in corrections.
  • Corrections.com – The self-proclaimed largest internet community for corrections professionals, this website offers resources, career leads, and community forums.
  • Corrections USA – A nonprofit association that represents corrections officials employed by local, state, and federal government agencies.
  • National Institute of Corrections – A government resource for corrections officers that provides the latest news, training, and educational opportunities.

References:
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Correctional Officers and Bailiffs: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/correctional-officers.htm