Although correctional officer jobs at the municipal, county and state levels typically require a high school diploma, correctional officers serving in federal penitentiaries are required to have a college degree. Even among the correctional officers that work in county jails and state prisons, a college education can contribute to a better starting salary, career longevity, and make it easier to ascend the ranks to a leadership position. A great many correctional officers complete their bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, psychology, sociology, counseling or another area of behavioral science.
Becoming a correctional officer in one of the dozens of federal penitentiaries across the United States managed by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons requires a bachelor’s degree at minimum. A college education also provides valuable skills that contribute to better job performance, including:
- Written and verbal communication
- Computer systems management
- Critical thinking
Many professionals who are committed to improving the lives of inmates seek out advanced degrees in social work, clinical psychology or human services. Prospective officers who wish to reach a leadership position often find the specialized knowledge that a graduate program provides helps speed the pace of promotion.
Preparing to Become a Correctional Officer
Physical Preparedness - Participating in a rigorous physical fitness regimen will provide the strength, agility and endurance necessary to satisfy the minimum standards of most corrections departments. Recruits will need to be reasonably fit to succeed in the intensive training programs that most departments mandate, but most importantly, it provides additional safeguards while dealing with an often-dangerous inmate population.
Military Experience - Many prospective correctional officers join the military in an effort to improve their readiness for corrections duties. Service in the military has several benefits for correctional officers. Many government agencies show preferenece to job candidates with a military background. Some organizations may even grant seniority or salary bonuses to veterans.
Candidates who have served in the military are usually in outstanding physical condition and are familiar with many of the combat skills that are utilized in corrections. Veterans who have served in combat are also more comfortable with the possibility of confrontation with prisoners. In many states, military service also satisfies any post-secondary educational or professional experience requirements.
Law Enforcement Experience - Law enforcement experience also offers advantages to those who wish to pursue a career in corrections. Similar to military service, many of the skills learned in law enforcement training are transferable to corrections work. Knowledge of interrogations, searches and seizures, investigations, and close quarters combat make those with prior law enforcement experience ideal candidates for correctional officer jobs. Many law enforcement professionals who transition to corrections often enjoy fewer training requirements, seniority benefits and faster promotions.
Requirements for Employment
Fitness Requirements - Although the exact requirements to serve as a correctional officer differ from agency to agency, the majority of employers seek candidates who are physically fit, who have the ability to endure stressful environments. Many organizations require candidates to demonstrate their fitness through a series of physical evaluations, which may include sprints, long distance runs, pushups, sit-ups, or flexibility tests.
Psychological Requirements - One of the primary skills correctional officers must master is the use of firearms. In order to authorize a candidate to carry and use firearms, most employers require that a candidate pass a psychological evaluation prior to training academy. A background check is also administered to ensure there are no felony convictions that would prohibit ownership of a firearm. If the candidate is authorized to use a firearm, they must demonstrate proficiency with pistols and long range guns during pre-employment training.
Cognitive Requirements - Most organizations require candidates to be U.S. citizens no less than 18 years of age. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons requires that candidates be younger than 37. Near normal vision and hearing are also required, with or without correction.
Candidates must complete a written basic skills test in order to join a department of corrections, so reading, writing and math skills at the high school level should be present.
Training Requirements - If hired, corrections officers must attend a comprehensive training academy. These programs may be several weeks or months long and include a variety of courses along with a rigorous physical conditioning program. In order to graduate from these programs, recruits must pass a written or practical exam, and also qualify in the use of firearms.