Within local jails, state prisons and federal penitentiaries, the correctional officer serves as the voice of authority, while also ensuring the safety and welfare of prisoners. These courageous law enforcement professionals disrupt violent confrontations, ensure order, and also work to help rehabilitate prisoners. With more than 462,000 correctional officers working in the U.S. as of 2019, these law enforcement professionals represent one of the most important components of America’s criminal justice system.
Correctional Officers as Safety Facilitators
There are three areas of safety that every correctional officer must remain aware of at all times:
Personal safety – Most correctional officers are required to complete a rigorous training program that instills skills in the use of firearms, hand-to-hand combat, pepper spray and other non-lethal weapons, like batons. It is essential that officers in close proximity to prison populations maintain their physical capabilities in case of an attack. It is equally important that officers remain cognizant of their situation and surroundings to limit any opportunities for violence against officers.
Protocols are in place that ensures correctional officers are never left vulnerable to attack and that back-up is always present and able to respond immediately. Another tactic is prevention through observation. The key to this is for officers to develop working relationships with the inmates that allow them to better recognize the signs of emotional distress in them that may indicate the likelihood of violent outbursts.
Team safety – The second sphere of safety is with regard to the security of other correctional officers and prison personnel. For some correctional officers, like those manning perimeter towers, this may be a principal responsibility. Regardless of position, following proper protocol is critical to ensuring safety; most of these protocols have been developed over decades of research and are extremely effective in limiting the danger to staff.
Searching prison cells and vehicles that come and go from the prison compound to isolate and confiscate potential weapons also helps ensure team safety. Correctional officers are routinely involved in these measures to limit the likelihood that inmates could come into contact with dangerous items that could be used to cause injury or death.
Inmate safety – The third safety responsibility is that of the inmates. The pressures of imprisonment can contribute to depression, anger or hopelessness, and correctional officers must recognize the signs of trouble before they lead to a violent altercation or suicide. If the signs of despondency appear it is the responsibility of officers to notify mental health counselors or take more active steps like putting an inmate under suicide watch.
Efforts are also made to segregate inmate populations as needed to better ensure the protection of inmates that are at higher-risk of being assaulted, victimized or targeted for assassination. In some instances, this may mean keeping rival gang members from sharing communal areas at the same time.
Ensuring the Security of Detention Facilities
Maintaining the jail or prison is of paramount importance. Any breach in prison security may allow contraband drugs, weapons or communication devices into the facility, which may contribute to more violence. Most importantly, any compromise of the prison’s borders may allow prisoners to escape and harm others in the community. All threats to the prison’s security are identified and immediately remedied.
Most prisons utilize surveillance cameras to monitor the prison grounds and inmate activity that takes place in common areas. Searches and security checks are regularly scheduled to disrupt potential plans for escape or rioting. Correctional officers also carefully monitor the behavior of offenders to ensure that there are no disruptions in usual patterns of behavior that may indicate an inmate is making preparations for an escape.
Many prisoners engage in paid employment during incarceration. While this occurs on prison premises, the tools, equipment and materials are closely monitored so that offenders do not abscond with them for use as weapons or tools in aiding an escape. In lower security facilities, prisoners may work in the community under close supervision during daylight hours, while correctional officers work with local police to manage duties like trash pickup, farming or construction.
The Correctional Officer’s Role in Inmate Rehabilitation
The corrections community has utilized research to develop more constructive options for prisoners. This may involve mental health treatment, employment, religious instruction, vocational training or chemical dependency counseling. Correctional officers play a key role in communicating with offenders and providing trustworthy advice to improve their lives. Most departments of corrections are beginning to recognize that offenders who actively participate in these programs are much more likely to stay out of trouble once they are released.
Correctional officers may assist offenders who are eager to improve their futures by helping them to choose the institutional programs that would most benefit them. By communicating and building relationships with offenders, correctional officers may obtain insights into the forces that compelled a prisoner to commit their crimes. Almost 80 percent of offenders are dependent upon alcohol or drugs, so convincing most prisoners to seek cognitive retraining and substance abuse counseling can produce enormously positive effects.
The other rehabilitative role correctional officers fill is that of liaising with agencies in the community. In some states, correctional officers are authorized to work outside of prison facilities in an effort to connect newly released prisoners with treatment programs, halfway houses, or community organizations. Even correctional officers that work in prisons may assist in the rehabilitation of offenders by communicating needs and risks to parole officers, parole boards, judges or probation officers.