Correctional officers are in the business of supervising the incarcerated. Naturally, they work primarily in correctional facilities – but these types of facilities are more varied than you might expect. There are differences between working in a prison and in a jail. Other differences include whether the local, state or federal government runs the facility and whether you work with adult or juvenile inmates. You may also find some opportunities serving in community programs.
Types of Prisons and Jails
You should certainly expect to work in some form of correctional facility in this occupation, but there is a bigger difference between prisons and jails than most people realize. Generally, jails are shorter-term correctional facilities and prisons are longer-term correctional facilities, according to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.
If you serve as a correctional officer in a jail, you will probably primarily supervise inmates convicted of misdemeanors and other crimes of a less serious nature and may work with individuals who are still in the process of awaiting a trial or sentencing. Often, the incarcerated individuals you supervise will be there for less than a year. Correctional officers in prisons may supervise the same inmates for years. Often, these inmates have been convicted of more serious crimes, usually felonies.
The type of facility you work at will also determine whether you work with adults or children. Juvenile detention centers, or youth detention centers, house those under 18 who have been convicted of crimes. Some children in juvenile detention centers are quite young, including preteens and even kids as young as eight. Juvenile detention centers often emphasize education and rehabilitation more than jails and prisons do. To reflect these aspects of correctional careers, some states, like Ohio, refer to corrections officers in juvenile facilities by alternative names, such as youth specialists.
Some corrections officers prefer to work in jails, where inmates have committed less serious offenses, while others would rather develop more long-term relationships with the prisoners they oversee.
Correctional System Employers of Corrections Officers
Prisons may be run by local, state or federal governments or by private companies. More than half of the 434,300 correctional officers in the United States work for state governments, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Next most prevalent are jobs with local government corrections agencies, which include most jails and account for more than one in three jobs in this occupation. Corrections officer jobs with the federal government make up just four percent of employment in the profession.
The federal government pays corrections officers the most, with a median annual wage of $58,010. The pay difference between local and state corrections officers is slight, at $44,830 and $43,940, respectively.
Corrections Officer Roles in Community Programs
What happens when incarcerated individuals have served their sentences and been released back into the community? Former inmates may struggle to adapt to life outside prison walls, often contending with stigma, difficulty finding employment and high rates of recidivism, or repeat criminal offenses.
Community programs exist to help the formerly incarcerated acclimate back into society. These programs are often run by nonprofit community organizations or through government entities, such as a state Department of Corrections.
Corrections officer roles with one of these programs may have a job title like Community Corrections Officer. In roles in community programs, correctional officers often take on more rehabilitative duties. They may act as community liaisons. In cases where the individual convicted of a crime was not given a prison sentence but instead probation, community service or a similar non-incarcerating sentence, community corrections officers supervise that individual and help him or her access services that help prevent repeat offenses.
Researchers have found real, evidence-backed benefits of community corrections approaches. The cost of community supervision is lower than incarceration, according to the Institute of Justice Center for Sentencing and Corrections. Because community correctional supervision does not remove those convicted of crimes from their homes, jobs and communities, rehabilitation is easier in that the perpetrator does not face the same struggles to find a new job or mend a family that has been broken up and kept separated for some time.
Although community correctional supervision is not suitable for everyone convicted of a criminal act – such as those believed to be a threat to public safety or to specific individuals – it is an option that many states are using to save money and reduce recidivism.