Careers in Corrections

Correctional officers (not guards) are one of the most underappreciated careers in government. They are out of sight and out of mind. Yet whether as a career, a second career or a stepping stone to a street cop job, corrections can be an excellent choice.

Corrections can offer excellent pay, some excellent locations to live and raise a family, great benefits, job security and a chance to help others.

Let's not fool ourselves. The job can be trying to your patience. It takes a special breed to work with some difficult inmates and it can be boring. It can also be dangerous. It requires the willingness to work 365/24/7; anytime, day or night.

In return, the money and benefits can be great. It can be an excellent way to get your feet wet when considering a career in police work on the street or with some other type of agency. Working with crooks and cons offers great experience. Some of the best street cops I have ever worked with started as correctional officers. They understood the criminal mind.

First, let's understand what corrections is all about. Corrections agencies usually exist at the state and county level, and there may be a separate youth corrections agency, as well. The California Youth Authority recently merged into the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), making it the largest non-federal corrections agency in the country. CDCR officers make upwards of $73,000 a year and there are facilities throughout the state. State prisons are the most common workplaces for correctional officers, but almost every county and a few cities have jails.

Some correctional officers are contract employees that work for such agencies as The GEO Group and Correctional Corporation of America. There is also the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Quite a lot of places to start your search! The state prisons and youth facilities are generally for those convicted and sentenced to more than one year. County jails are generally for those awaiting trial or sentenced to less than one year confinement, likewise with city jails. Many prisons and county jails have camps for the more trustworthy inmates, such as those close to release. They may work on fire crews or other projects. Often nothing stops them from walking away, other than the possibility of facing more serious charges.

In some states they call their system the "department of prisons," in others the "department of corrections" or "rehabilitation" or some combination of these names. In some counties corrections officers are full deputy sheriffs, (who can work patrol, detectives, special assignments etc.) while in others they are a special classification of deputy sheriff limited to correctional activities.

A recent report indicates that one facility in Rawlings, Wyoming is over 100 correctional officers short, with current officers working massive amounts of overtime.

What do correctional officers do? Any facility has lots of employees, performing medical, administrative, and counseling duties, as well as those in the more traditional institutional security role. All of these are good jobs if you're suited for the work Correctional officers are responsible for the safety and security of the facility, the inmates and staff. They generally do not carry guns, as they work in proximity to inmates. Others staff observation towers and are armed. They also do transports of inmates to court, medical appointments, and other transports, usually requiring they be armed.

Who would want to become a correctional officer?

  • People who want to eat and want their family to eat. In other words, people that want a well-paying job. Why work in a dead-end job for $10 an hour with no security or benefits?
  • People wanting to work their way up and be street cops, as we already discussed. One advantage is you often are already in the retirement system so your correctional time might count toward your retirement.
  • People wanting to contribute to society, but perhaps don't feel like they want the pressures of street work
  • Military retirees who understand working in a paramilitary environment.
  • Retired cops. A cop can do 20 years and at that point in their life may not want to face the challenges of the street. He/she can retire, start collecting on their retirement and start a second career and then earn a combined retirement & correction income far exceeding what they made before. In order to do this, one must usually switch to a different retirement system, as most will not let you collect benefits while still contributing to the same retirement account.
  • Any retiree or person wanting a change of pace with health and other benefits.
  • People who like to hunt and fish and love the great outdoors, small towns and good schools. Correctional facilities are often located in rural locations. California has some facilities in Susanville, in the mountains of northern California. Think about Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and some of the southern states. Also, once in the system you can usually transfer to other prisons if you decide you don't like where you are.

In some states, correctional officers are not as well paid but live in nice areas with affordable housing and a high quality of life and good schools. For example, starting pay for an officer in Idaho is just $12.31 an hour (about $25,600 yearly), and that area has a lot to offer. Miami-Dade County listed a pay scale of $29,824 to $51,835. That is for officers; like other agencies there are usually corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, etc that earn more money.

As a side note, I have found that corrections requires integrity and intelligence, but corrections tends to be more forgiving than some police agencies for one-time indiscretions or failures. Their physical and age requirements may not be as strict, either.

In summary, we generally have:

  • Prisons: for convicted felons, they often have work camps, too.
  • County (and a few city) jails: for those awaiting trial or who are sentenced to less than a year.
  • Youth facilities: just like the county and state facilities for adults.
  • Federal prisons
  • Contract prisons: run for government agencies, but staffed by a private company.

Corrections can be a well paid and rewarding career, second career or stepping stone to street police work. Give it a thought!