Job Requirements for State and Federal Correctional Officers

Individuals considering correctional officer careers likely know that this profession is reserved for those with sharp critical thinking skills, excellent judgment, a good moral character, and a degree of physical strength.

Jobs in corrections can be mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding and are often arduous, fatiguing, and even dangerous at times. However, for the right people these jobs can be highly rewarding and satisfying, opening the door to a number of advanced careers in corrections. The best candidates for correctional officer jobs are those who fully understand the scope of this career and the challenges that exist within it.

State Correctional Institution Requirements

General Requirements

Although state correctional institutions are free to impose their own set of minimum employment requirements for state correctional officers, in general candidates must:

  • Be at least 18 years of age (some states/jurisdictions have a minimum age of 21)
  • Possess a high school diploma or GED
  • Have no previous felony convictions
  • Be a United States citizen
  • Possess a valid driver’s license

Educational Requirements

Although not all agencies require education beyond a high school diploma, some require candidates to possess college coursework in the behavioral or social sciences. Previous law enforcement or military experience is often an acceptable substitute for college coursework. In addition, individuals with college degrees or college coursework may be more likely to achieve higher-ranking positions within an institution.

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Cognitive and Physical Requirements

In addition to meeting minimum requirements for employment, candidates for correctional officer jobs at the state or local level must undergo a written examination, which is designed to test their written skills, their judgment, and their mental acuity. Further, physical fitness tests are designed to test candidates’ physical strength, endurance, and stamina.

Candidates who meet the minimum requirements for employment and pass all written and physical exams are often then subject to a thorough background investigation, a medical examination (including a vision and hearing test), a urinalysis (drug screening), and a psychological evaluation before an offer of employment is extended. Most departments have pre-set baseline requirements that must be met to pass these tests.

Federal Correctional Institution Requirements

Individuals interested in pursuing correctional officer jobs at the federal level, through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), must meet a more stringent set of job requirements to qualify for entry-level (GS-05) correctional officer jobs.

General Requirements

  • Candidates must be no older than 36 at the time of their appointment unless they have previous experience in a federal civilian law enforcement position
  • Have no previous felony convictions
  • Be a United States citizen

College Degree Requirements

Individuals may qualify for federal correctional jobs if they possess a full, four-year course of study resulting in a bachelor’s degree.

Experience Requirements in Lieu of a Degree

Individuals without a bachelor’s degree may also qualify for correctional officer jobs if they have at least 3 years of full-time general experience in one or more of the following areas:

  • Providing assistance to individuals
  • Counseling individuals
  • Selling products or services to individuals in a commission-based environment
  • Providing guidance or direction to individuals

Candidates may meet these experience requirements by working in one or more of the following fields:

  • Parole/probation worker
  • Juvenile delinquent worker
  • Teacher/counselor
  • Welfare/social worker
  • Commissioned salesperson
  • Security guard
  • Children’s daycare worker
  • Firefighter
  • Emergency medical technician
  • Nurse
  • Clergyman
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Further, the BOP requires that all candidates have the ability to supervise others, to communicate verbally, and to react in a crisis situation.

Character and Personality Requirements Applicable to State and Federal COs

There are a number of character traits/skills that successful correctional officers must possess:

  • Critical-thinking skills: Correctional officers must be able to quickly and adeptly solve problems.
  • Self-discipline: Correctional officers must be able to control their emotions when dealing with situations involving unruly inmates or stressful situations.
  • Negotiation skills: Correctional officers must be able to negotiate as to avoid conflict.
  • Interpersonal skills: Correctional officers must be able to effectively communicate with members of the corrections staff and the inmates.
  • Good judgment: Correctional officers must use both their practical skills and their common sense to make good decisions that result in the best, desired outcome.
  • Physical strength: Correctional officers must be able to possess the physical strength to subdue, restrain or overpower inmates.

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