As of last count in 2019, there were more than 423,000 correctional officers at work in jails, reformatories and prisons in the United States. State government is by far the largest employer of correctional officers with more than 222,000 COs working in state penitentiaries that year. City, county and other municipal governments employed another 160,000 COs in local jails and secure treatment facilities, while the federal government employed 15,000 in federal penitentiaries across the country.
(Employment data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Jan 2021.)
The primary role of a correctional officer is to supervise inmates within correctional facilities at the local, county, state or federal level. In some instances correctional officers double as correctional treatment specialists, and may also provide some level of guidance to prisoners about life decisions or events in their past. The role of counseling in corrections has grown as more prison authorities recognize that the key to stopping the cycle of recidivism requires preventative measures, including a greater level of engagement and treatment options for at-risk offenders.
Correctional Officers in Minimum Vs Maximum Security Facilities
The majority of correctional officer jobs are found in adult detention facilities. In an October 2020 press release, the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the total prison population in the United States was 1,430,800 at the end of 2019. Though that marked a 2% decline from the previous year, and an 11% overall decline since 2009, it still represents by far the biggest prison population in the world.
Minimum Security Correctional Officer – While prisons designated as minimum security have been portrayed as resorts, the truth is these facilities require constant vigilance from staff to ensure that prisoners do not attempt escape.
The majority of prisoners in minimum security are white collar or petty criminals; however, they still present the risk of bodily injury due to constant confinement. Inmates of minimum-security prisons are allowed to work within the community, under constant attention from correctional officers. The security protocols are typically more lax at minimum-security facilities due to the reduced likelihood of escape.
Maximum Security Correctional Officer – Correctional officers in a high security facility utilize a wide range of behavior control procedures including physical barriers, checkpoints, contraband searches and strict scheduling of activities. Although officers who oversee prisoners do not carry firearms, they must be proficient in the use of unarmed combat, pepper spray and batons. Constant environmental awareness is a necessity when working with high-risk populations who are prone to violence, but all prison facilities have protocols that ensure an immediate response to violent outbursts and swift punishment for any threatening behavior towards officers. Lockdown of the facility is a common strategy to compartmentalize inmates and limit further involvement by others.
Unconventional Correctional Officer Career Options
Perimeter Prison Guards – While the majority of prison guards do not carry firearms, the perimeter prison guards who are stationed in the watchtowers do utilize rifles to stop any prisoners attempting to breach the fences and escape. These marksman also provide much needed protection for correctional officers involved in confrontations with inmates. During an attack they may warn other inmates to back off with warning shots, and, in some cases, attempt to stop an attacker with a well-placed shot.
Mobile Correctional Officers – Mobile correctional officers monitor the integrity of fences and assist local law enforcement in tracking and apprehending any fleeing prisoners. These officers provide a constant watch on the fences, grounds and facilities attached to the prison. They alert prison administrators to any disturbances on the grounds that may indicate a compromise in the security of the facility. In the case of an escape, these officers act as first line responders who immediately use dogs, infrared cameras and night vision equipment to search for and capture escaped prisoners.
Juvenile Correctional Officer
Juvenile detention can represents both a period of court-ordered secure housing and rehabilitation as well as the kind of long-term detention we would typically associate with criminal incarceration. Though the vast majority are housed in juvenile detention centers (16,800), long-term secure facilities (10,700), and residential treatment facilities (10,200), a significant number (4,500) are held in adult prisons and jails.
With almost 48,000 juveniles held in facilities across the United States on any given day, the role of the juvenile correctional officer is an important one. As public policy has shifted the focus to treatment and rehabilitation over punitive incarceration, the number of juveniles in detention facilities has made a dramatic 60% decline since its peak in 2000. While the primary role of correctional officers in both adult and juvenile facilities is to house and manage inmates away from the community as a way to keep our streets safe and crime free, juvenile correctional officers play a greater role in monitoring detainees as they participate in job training programs and counseling sessions designed to help them re-enter society and build productive, fulfilling lives for themselves.
Make no mistake, juvenile correctional officers are not expected to be psychologists and counselors; there are other dedicated professionals within the juvenile detention system responsible for the important work involved in helping kids get clean and transition to a productive life in society. But supervising a juvenile population does put COs in a unique position to be able to positively influence the lives of teens and adolescents by creating a safe environment where they can get the education, substance abuse and mental health treatment that is so crucial to reducing recidivism.
One of the greatest rewards of being a juvenile correctional officer is the knowledge that you have made a positive impact in the lives of young people.