How to Become a Custody Officer: Education and Career Roadmap

Aug 10, 2018

Research the requirements to become a custody officer. Learn about the job duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in the field of corrections.

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  • 0:03 Should I Become a…
  • 1:09 Career Requirements
  • 2:29 Step 1: Education Requirements
  • 3:51 Step 2: Screenings and…
  • 5:25 Step 3: Training and…
  • 6:19 Step 4: Working and…

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Should I Become a Custody Officer?

Custody officers are also known as correctional officers. In the criminal justice system, custody officers supervise, direct, and restrain prisoners. Common job duties can include checking prison cells for contraband, making sure inmates follow rules, writing reports about prisoner activities, and helping inmates rehabilitate. Custody officers need good stamina and physical strength to watch over prisoners and control them physically, if necessary.

Workers in this occupation can experience a spectrum of conditions on the job, from comfortable, well-lit new buildings to overcrowded and loud facilities that get too warm in summer and too cold in winter. Custody officers are scheduled on rotating shifts that include daytime, evening, weekend, and holiday hours; overtime is common. This occupation has a higher on-the-job illness and injury rate than average. Hazards include altercations with inmates and exposure to biohazardous substances, as well as maintaining a constant state of being on high alert, which can cause work-related stress.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Most employers require the minimum of a high school diploma; however, regional and state employers expect some college coursework; a bachelor's degree is required for federal jobs
Degree Field Corrections, criminal justice, or law enforcement
Certification Required certifications vary by employer; Optional certifications also available
Experience 1-3 years related experience in corrections, supervision, or custody
Key Skills Ability to negotiate, remain composed, supervise convicted criminals, instruct others verbally and solve problems; familiarity with gate lock and release mechanisms, surveillance equipment, and other correctional technologies; ability to stand and walk for several hours, strong mental acuity, and physical strength
Salary (2015) $40,580 per year (Median salary for correctional officers and bailiffs)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and government job posting sites.

Step 1: Education Requirements

Education requirements vary based on the place of employment. For example, some employers may only require custody officer applicants to hold high school diplomas or GEDs, according to the BLS. However, local and state law enforcement agencies often require applicants to have completed several postsecondary classes. Likewise, most federal agencies will only hire custody officer applicants who hold the minimum of bachelor's degrees. The BLS also states that, in some cases, military experience can make up for lack of a formal degree.

To move towards a successful career as a custody officer, interested individuals should enroll in a corrections certificate program. Most certificate programs in corrections can be completed in a year or less. Some certificate programs allow you to specialize in different areas, such as juvenile corrections. The majority of coursework can be transferred to associate or bachelor's degree programs in corrections, criminal justice, or police science.

Another option is to earn a degree in corrections. There are several associate degree programs directly in corrections. Bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice often prepare students for careers in the field of corrections. Courses related to this career field include probation and parole, criminal law, juvenile delinquency, correctional institutions, and the justice system.

Step 2: Screenings and Experience

Background checks, drug screenings, and medical examinations are often required in order to become a custody officer. Therefore, it's important to get in shape, both body and mind. Records from the BLS show that this career field requires workers to be both physically and mentally strong. This is because custody officers spend a significant amount of time standing, walking, and visually monitoring prisoners. Correctional officers often have to restrain prisoners as well. They also make split-second decisions about managing inmates and resolving conflicts.

In addition to passing screenings, those interested in working as a custody officer also need to gain experience. This could be obtained through law enforcement internships. Associate and bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice often require students to complete law enforcement internships. Students can choose to complete these internships at correctional institutions.

When possible, complete multiple internships. Custody officers can work for several different types of institutions, including jails, court houses, prisons, and detention centers. Those individuals with a diverse experience background at multiple correctional facilities may have better employment opportunities.

Applicants may find that employers prefer those with one to three years of experience. Information from the BLS shows that federal correctional facilities require applicants to have at least three years of experience. Entry-level positions in criminal justice, law enforcement or private security may count toward work experience for some custody officer positions.

Step 3: Training and Certification

After an individual gets hired, he or she will have to complete various training programs. Some training programs are required by individual employers, whereas others are mandated by state or federal law. For example, California requires correctional officers to complete training at the Basic Correctional Officer Academy. This training includes lecture classes and hands-on learning. Topics include firearms training, prisoner rights, restraint devices, transportation protocols, and peace officer training.

Along with training, there are various types of certifications for custody officers to earn. Some are mandatory and others are optional. Common mandatory corrections certification programs include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and emergency defibrillators, first aid, transportation, and firearms. Some mandatory certification programs are covered during basic training.

Step 4: Working and Continuing Ed

After completing required pre-employment training, workers can start their careers as custody officers. Some facilities may require newly hired employees to complete on-the-job training programs with employee mentors. Individuals who want to join special correctional officer task forces may have to complete additional training, which may include coursework in hostage negotiations, prison riots, and tactical response strategies.

Laws and regulations about the corrections systems do change, and professionals in this career field need to be aware of any changes to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or professional misconduct. Corrections technologies, such as restraining devices or inmate identification systems, also change over time. Custody officers may need to take courses on new corrections technologies to remain competitive in the workforce.

So a career as a custody officer requires a minimum of a high school diploma, but likely a degree will be needed to get hired in a state or federal facility. These professionals work in high stress situations that require physical and mental stamina and the completion of certifications in areas such as medical emergency care, prisoner rights, and prison protocol, and firearms in order to monitor, restrain, and interact with inmates.

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