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 when having a college education isn’t required for CO positions in county jails and state prisons, it can still give you some valuable skills that will serve you well on the job and contribute to your qualifications. A great many correctional officers complete their bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, psychology, sociology, counseling or another area of behavioral science.
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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 may also provide valuable skills that contribute to better job performance as it relates to things like:
- 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. Officers who wish to reach leadership positions might even find the specialized knowledge that comes from graduate studies to be really beneficial.
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 come from a military background and find that experience only adds to their readiness for corrections duties. Candidates who have served in the military are often in outstanding physical condition and are familiar with some of the close combat skills that are sometimes necessary when working 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.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons recognizes veterans preference eligibility standards as described by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Military service by itself doesn’t provide any guarantee that you’ll get the job you are applying for and it does not apply to promotions.
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. Law enforcement professionals who transition to corrections will likely find much of the training to be similar to what they went through when getting hired on with a law enforcement agency.
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.