Be a Certified Correctional Officer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Find out how to become a certified correctional officer by watching this video. Discover the education requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in corrections.

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Should I Become a Certified Correctional Officer?

A certified correctional officer works directly with inmates in a jail or prison. The responsibilities of a correctional officer include supervising inmates and enforcing the rules in the institution. They also must inspect the premises and individual jail cells in order to locate and confiscate any contraband objects, such as drugs or weapons.

Correctional officers may work at the county, state or federal level. Many of these workers complete overtime hours and may need to work nights, holidays and weekends, since prisons need staffing 24 hours a day. This career has one of the highest rates of injury due to the potential for combative inmates.

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma required; federal employers require a bachelor's degree
Degree Field Criminal justice, corrections
Training On-the-job training and training academy
Certification Professional certification optional
Key Skills Good judgment, physical strength, negotiation skills, patience, knowledge of computers and industry-specific software, must be physically fit
Salary (2014) $39,780 annually (median salary for all correctional officers and jailers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, iSeek, American Correctional Association, Discover Corrections.

Step 1: Meet General Minimum Requirements

County correctional officers have to meet minimum standards, such as being over the age of 18 with a high school diploma or GED and passing a drug screen and criminal background check. Correctional officers at the state level may be required to be over 21 years old. In the federal prison system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, correctional officers also must fall below a maximum age limit of 37 at hire. At both state and federal levels a correctional officer must also be a legal U.S. citizen and meet physical requirements.

Step 2: Obtain a Degree or Experience

Depending on whether one is planning to work in a state, county, local or federal position, educational requirements may range from a high school diploma or equivalent to varying amounts of college education. At the federal level, correctional officers must obtain a bachelor's degree or have three years of job experience. Related job experience may include work as a counselor, teacher, probation or parole officer, social worker, police officer, park ranger or security guard.

Many community colleges offer certificate programs or associate degrees in corrections or criminal justice. For those wishing to work in the federal system as a correctional officer, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice may be a suitable choice. This degree program offers core courses in victimology, criminology, criminal law and the justice system.

Step 3: Complete Training Academy

At the state and federal levels, correctional officers must complete training at a training academy. Training follows guidelines set forth by the American Correctional Association (ACA) or the American Jail Association. At the federal level correctional officers must complete 200 hours of training during the first year of employment and an additional 120 hours at the Federal Bureau of Prisons training center in Glynco, Georgia, within the first 60 days of employment. Topics of study at the training academy cover physical fitness, policies and procedures, firearms and self-defense.

Step 4: Receive On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training involves teaching a new correctional officer about the specific rules, regulations and procedures used at that specific facility. The goal of training is to ensure that a correctional officer is safe while on the job, knowledgeable in the way the prison operates and prepared for anything that may happen while on the job.

Step 5: Get Certified

A correctional officer can become a Certified Correctional Officer (CCO) through the American Correctional Association. Requirements to become a CCO include having a high school diploma or GED, completing one year of experience as a corrections officer and passing an exam. Certification is not a requirement for employment at most facilities, but it can give a correctional officer an edge when it comes to getting a new job or obtaining a promotion.

Step 6: Advance in the Field

According to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there are two options for a lower level correctional officer (GS-05 level) seeking advancement to a higher ranking level (GS-06 level). The first option is to take graduate courses at an accredited school. Officers must take at least 9 semester hours or 14 quarter hours in a relevant field of study such as law, social science, criminal justice, or criminology. Gaining specialized experience is the second option. Officers must have at least one year of experience performing duties at the lower level. Desired experience includes enforcing prison rules and regulations, arresting lawbreakers, and helping and guiding lower-level correctional officers.

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