Careers in corrections

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Introduction to corrections

The field of corrections represents one of the 3 branches of the criminal justice system. For those who are not interested in law enforcement or the courts, working in corrections offers an alternate route to standard policing. Correctional officers, bailiffs, parole officers, and probation officers all represent key roles in this area.

Corrections is a revolving door: as soon as one person finishes their sentence, another is convicted to take their place. While information is limited regarding the total number of jailed inmates, in 2019, over 10 million people were arrested for committing a crime, of which 1.2 million were considered violent crimes.

The latest industry projections for corrections show that the need for correctional officers is on the decline. Meanwhile, probation and parole officers are seeing expansion in their industry, with 4% projected growth between 2019 and 2029.

In 2019, over 462,000 people held jobs as correctional officers and bailiffs. Correctional officers and bailiffs are often grouped together, but have different practical roles in the corrections system. Whereas correctional officers work in jails and prisons, bailiffs work in courthouses. Bailiffs do, however, enter jails and prisons to transport prisoners in addition to their courthouse duties.

Each state’s educational requirements for becoming a correctional officer vary, but every state requires you to have at least a high school diploma. The educational requirements to become a probation or parole officer are more stringent than those of a correctional officer, requiring a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a similar field to the correctional officer’s high school diploma.

The corrections process

The corrections system activates as soon as police make an arrest. The arrested individual goes into a holding facility to wait for a bond to be set. If bond is set and the defendant pays the amount due, they can leave jail, but must appear for all subsequent court hearings. If the defendant does not make bond, bailiffs transport them from the holding area to a jail cell or prison.

Once the defendant attends a final hearing, the court or a jury determines whether the defendant goes on probation or remains jailed. If the court or jury determines that the defendant is guilty, the court holds a hearing to determine an appropriate sentence and the prison where the defendant will be housed. Sentencing might consist of jail time, prison time, fines, and probation.

If the defendant receives only probation, they check in with their probation officer as directed by the court or state laws. A defendant can also receive probation as part of a sentence. For example, a first-time offender who committed burglary could get prison time combined with one or more years of probation. If the defendant misses a probation meeting, the court can revoke the probation and send the defendant to jail or prison.

If the defendant receives a combination of jail or prison time and probation, the defendant serves the jail or prison time first. In some cases, jails or prisons release a prisoner to parole for good behavior. If a prisoner is granted parole, they do not have to finish the rest of their sentence in prison. However, the parolee must check in with their parole officer and maintain good behavior, among other case-specific requirements. If the prisoner violates parole by committing another crime, ignoring the requirements of parole, or missing parole meetings, the prisoner usually has to finish their prison term.

Anatomy of the prison system

Although it is common to hear the words jail and prison used synonymously, there are key differences between them. A jail is where people who have been arrested wait for a trial or sentencing. Many of those in jail are found not guilty of the crime they were arrested for.

Prisons are for defendants convicted of crimes. Prisons have security classifications, including minimum, low, medium, and high security. Typically, only the most serious offenders end up in high security prisons.

Another distinction of prisons is their solitary confinement ward. If a prisoner becomes a threat to others, they are usually put into solitary confinement. In some cases, wardens may use solitary confinement to protect an inmate from other inmates.

For minors who have committed a crime, juvenile correctional facilities are available to house and provide services to at risk youth. Children in these facilities have the right to an education and regular family visits.

The alternatives to incarceration, parole and probation, are referred to as community supervision. Probation occurs when a defendant does not serve an initial prison term, but rather is paired immediately with a probation officer for supervision. Occasionally, courts sentence defendants to some prison time and some probation time.

In lieu of spending the rest of their sentence in prison, prisoners can be can released on parole before serving their whole sentence. The parolee is required to maintain good behavior, report to their parole officer, and satisfy local laws.

Careers in corrections

Correctional officers and bailiffs earned an average of $47,440 per year in 2020, while probation and parole officers had a median pay of $55,690 in 2020. Correctional officers usually work in shifts. Bailiffs, probation officers, and parole officers typically work the same hours as other court personnel, generally from 8:00 to 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. Pay varies by several factors, including location and jurisdiction, with city, county, state, and federal prison systems maintaining their own remuneration standards.

Those who choose a career in corrections can move up to supervisory positions, often without additional education. However, counselors, case managers, nurses, and educators in corrections may need additional training.

Correctional officers

The duties performed by a correctional officer require the officer to use weapons and handcuffs. A correctional officer may have to discipline prisoners with physical force should a prisoner become violent.

Total employment

405,870

Projected growth (2018-2028)

-7.2%

Degree required

High school diploma or GED

  • have daily interactions with inmates
  • inspect cells, locks, gates, doors, window bars, and grills
  • settle disputes between inmates
  • help prevent inmates from escaping
  • listen and respond to inmates’ concerns, questions, and requests
  • counsel inmates

Supervisors may task the correctional officer with assigning duties to inmates. Officers are responsible for instructing inmates on the details of the their responsibilities and updating supervisors on inmates’ work records, rule violations, and disturbances. If the correctional officer notices anything unusual, they notify their supervisors.

Who is best suited to be a correctional officer?

Correctional officers need integrity, self-control and the ability to handle stressful situations with a cool head. These professionals often have to make snap decisions without the immediate input of a supervisor. To be successful in this role, officers need to think on their feet and take initiative when issues arise between inmates or co-workers. With the inherent stress of this role, it is key to keep emotions in check and avoid aggressive behavior.

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Correctional officers needs a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. About 90% do not have further education or training. However, depending on your location, additional training could garner a higher salary and lead to more advanced positions.

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Probation and parole officers

Probation officers generally work in an office outside of the prison system. These officers work with criminals serving probation as part of their sentence or with recently released parolees.

Total employment

90,070

Projected growth (2018-2028)

3.3%

Degree required

Bachelor’s

Probation officers generally work in an office outside of the prison system. These officers work with criminals serving probation as part of their sentence or with recently released parolees.

The tasks and duties of a probation or parole officer include regularly interviewing those on parole or probation to ensure they are maintaining the terms of their contracts and following their rehabilitation plans. These officers also supervise those whose sentences include electronic monitoring, curfew checks, and visits to school, work, or home. The officer might discuss the offender’s behavior, including how anger management and substance abuse might have contributed to their sentence.

It is up to the parole or probation officer to investigate parole violations using surveillance, interviews, and search and seizure. These officers also recommend remedial action, influence whether an offender needs to go to court for a violation, and initiate court action if warranted.

Who is best suited to be a parole or probation officer?

The best candidates for these roles are comfortable working with people of all backgrounds. Parole and probation officers should have a nurturing personality to help those under their care integrate back into society. To this end, they should be able to make decisions with little to no supervision. These officers offer support to previous inmates in areas like finding a job or appropriate housing.

The probation or parole officer should also be ethical and honest even under pressure. This job requires self-control and dependability since others rely on these officers to be available for parole and probation appointments. A missed appointment could cause an offender to repeat a crime if the offender does not think the officer is giving them the support they need.

As with a corrections officer, the parole or probation officer must be able to handle a lot of stress and keep calm when working with offenders.

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While a small percentage of parole and probation officers work with an associate degree, most have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, social work, or a related field. Committing to continuing education or supplementary training can open opportunities for advancement to supervisory roles.

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Bailiffs

A bailiff’s main duties are to escort prisoners to and from the courthouse and maintain order in the courtroom. The bailiff also escorts judges, juries and other court employees.

Total employment

18,120

Projected growth (2018-2028)

-1%

Degree required

High school diploma or GED

The criminal court system is not the only court to use bailiffs, as even civil courtrooms can have issues with disorderly conduct. For example, in a divorce trial, one spouse might not like the judge’s order and could become violent toward their ex or others in the courtroom.

The bailiff also arrests people when the court issues an arrest warrant. While this is more common in criminal courts, it can happen in a civil court if one of the parties violates a court order and the court rules on a criminal motion.

The bailiff also handles evidence as needed during court proceedings. If the judge requests a copy of a document or other evidence, the parties and their attorneys generally do not approach the bench. Instead, the bailiff retrieves the item from the party and delivers it to the judge.

Who is best suited to be a bailiff?

Successful bailiffs are realistic, conventional, dependable, and have self-control. While working as a bailiff, you might have to arrest someone or prevent someone from taking violent action in the courtroom. Making quick decisions to diffuse tense situations is one of the primary focuses for bailiffs on the job.

Bailiffs need to be willing to follow procedures and routines set by the courts. In addition to state and local laws, the courts often have their own procedures and regulations. In many cases, each judge has their own set of procedures, and the bailiff must be aware of and follow these practices.

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Bailiffs are often able to work with only a high school diploma or a GED. Some states, however, require formal training or a degree in criminal justice.

Other careers in corrections

There are several careers related to corrections for those interested in branching out. Listed below are some of the most closely-related roles to corrections positions:

  • Wardens

    Median salary: $90K

    Wardens oversee all prison operations to ensure the facility runs efficiently, and that security and safety of inmates and staff is maintained.

  • Counselors

    Median salary: $42K

    A correctional, or prison, counselor works with inmates, individually or in groups, to help them address psychological, mental health, addiction, and other personal issues.

  • Case managers

    Median salary: $42K

    Case managers supervise prisoners, probationers or parolees – to ensure the provision of social services as needed, including legal aid and access to healthcare.

  • Corrections nurses

    Median salary: $66K

    These nurses provide on-site routine and emergency nursing care to people incarcerated in correctional facilities.

Additional roles that can be interesting for people with corrections experience include the following:

  • Jailer
  • Detective
  • Criminal investigator
  • Fish and game warden
  • Parking enforcement worker
  • Police and sheriff’s patrol officer
  • Police officer
  • Transit and railroad police officer

In corrections, careers are split between those working in the field and at a desk. Regardless of which path you choose, these roles are known to be demanding. While the stressful nature of these roles leads to a high turnover rate, it can work to your advantage if you are looking to advance quickly in your career.

Should I go into corrections?

Many careers in corrections do not require post-secondary education, making it a good area to get into if you would like to start working immediately. Another advantage of this path is the variety these jobs present. One day, you may deal with a prison fight and on the next day, get the satisfaction of seeing a former criminal transform into a contributing member of society.

If you choose to further your education, you can progress to a supervisory position, work as a case manager, or even become the warden of a prison. Those promoted to these roles enjoy benefits like employer contributions to retirement, vacation time, sick days, medical and dental insurance, overtime and shift differential pay. Some employers also offer support for returning to school or provide on-site training.

Making the choice to enter into the field of corrections requires insight into your personal character, tolerance for stress, and tolerance for risk. If you are looking for a challenge and a chance to work in a dynamic environment, corrections offers plenty of opportunities.

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