First Day on the Job as a Corrections Officer: How to Prepare and What to Expect

Prison watchtower from the inside

***This is a guest blog post from James W. Buckner Jr, Corrections Specialist, 86-Keys Consulting***

Monday, February 1, 1988, was my first day on the job as a Deputy Jailer with the Fayette County Detention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. At that time, I had no idea I was embarking on a career in corrections that would span a quarter-century, continuing even as I write this blog.

Throughout my career in corrections, I’ve enjoyed reasonable success and I’ve encountered many lifelong friends along the way. However, had I been better prepared, I could have plotted my course with greater confidence, knowing full well I had made the right career choice. And for that reason, I hope to provide some practical and useful advice to those of you who are newly hired correctional officers, or those simply exploring the field of corrections.

We will discuss preparation for the first day(s) on the job, and we will also talk about what to expect. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will provide you with a time-tested list of Do’s and Don’ts that will aid you in extending the life of your career. Promotional success is entirely up to you, though if you put forth the effort and master the job, your chances of climbing the ladder increase greatly.

In terms of preparation, the advice is very general, and applies to virtually any career path. As we explore what to expect and the Do’s and Don’ts, you will notice the information begins to address the specialized nature of the correctional officer position.

How to Prepare

Good Night’s Rest
Getting a good night’s sleep the night before your first day will ease any jitters and/or nervousness. It will also help you to stay alert and be able to retain the large volume(s) of information that will be disseminated to you by training and human resources staff. The correctional environment demands acute awareness on the part of staff in all areas of operation, including the training environment.

Look Sharp
Your appearance absolutely sets the stage for how you will be perceived by your supervisors and other staff, as well as the inmate population(s) you will be working with, so dress sharp in civilian clothing and in uniform. Taking pride in your grooming and personal appearance demonstrates your intent to make a good impression on your employer and further indicates you will represent the agency/facility in the same positive manner. In summary, your professional appearance should command respect without having to speak a single word.

Punctuality
Punctuality is critically essential to success in any field, and it’s especially so in the world of corrections, from simply assuming your post on time to completion of specialized observations, log entries and scheduled accountability checks. Corrections work is extremely time-sensitive with little to no room for error, so it would be wise to invest in a durable and reliable timepiece to help keep you on track with the demands of a highly fluid environment.

Professionalism
Developing and maintaining a professional demeanor and rapport with your supervisors, co-workers and inmate population(s) will greatly aid you in establishing and cementing your reputation as an employee dedicated to fulfilling your role in the mission of operating institutions which are safe and secure for staff and inmates. It encompasses all we’ve discussed previously and further includes your interpersonal communication skills, and more specifically, your interactions with staff and inmates. Being professional is no mystery- it simply requires that you learn the elements associated with all prospective post assignment(s) and perform them in a superior manner on a consistent basis throughout your career.

What to Expect

Testing
Regardless of facility security or inmate custody classifications, you will absolutely be tested on one or more occasions by inmates within your respective institutions. This testing may come in the form of an overly firm handshake, or a policy-related question to which you are far too inexperienced to know the answer. Then again, the test could be as seemingly innocuous as an inmate asking you for a single cigarette or a piece of gum. The process of “being tested,” in whatever form it may occur, might seem intimidating at first and understandably so, but strict adherence to your parent institution’s policies and procedures and reliance on your pre-service training will allow you to pass these tests with flying colors.

Sensory Overload
Imagine opening the front door to your home and finding your television and music systems operating at peak volume, while your family simultaneously engages you in conversation en masse, all while the phone is ringing and the dogs are barking like an intruder is present. As overwhelming as that scenario sounds, it may actually be quite calm in comparison with the sights and sounds you will encounter within the correctional environment. It’s quite normal to expect a cacophony of soon-to-be familiar sounds from housing units, chow halls, work crews, recreation (rec) yards, and other areas of the institution/prison.

In the same manner, large gatherings of inmates may also be a very unsettling sight. Subsequently, it’s important to recognize that the majority of inmates in general population(s) follow and abide by institutional rules and regulations. For those exceptions, built-in safeguards do exist, in the form of inmate disciplinary programs, and through comprehensive institutional management and control of the staff/inmate supervision ratio, to ensure the safe and orderly operation of jail and prison facilities. The sights and sounds you encounter within the correctional environment may seem disconcerting at first, but as your correctional IQ increases, you will recognize that these sounds provide you with a critical advantage, as they become your personal barometer and allow you to effectively evaluate and assess inmate activity within your respective facilities.

Classroom Time
The greatest sports teams, individual athletes and even business tycoons all share one thing in common: they do their homework. Whether watching film, on-field practice, conducting comparative research or intense product development, spending time in the classroom was (is) an absolute requirement for success…corrections is no different. We’re not in this business for material tokens of success like Super Bowl rings or huge CEO end-of-the-year bonus checks. Rather, we are committed to our jobs entirely out of a sincere and genuine interest in serving and protecting the public. As a result, take full advantage of all classroom time to hone your skills and ultimately support our collective mission of protecting the public.

Do’s and Don’ts

As children, one of the first rules we learn is to “keep our hands to ourselves, and keep our feet on the ground.” As we grow in wisdom and maturity, our definition of right and wrong expands and evolves accordingly, forming the moral code by which we live day-to-day. We will use the same building block approach regarding the application of elementary correctional principles. Below, I’ve included a basic list of Do’s and Don’ts, formulated to put you on the pathway to success as you begin your career in corrections.

Don’t give anything to an inmate and don’t accept anything from an inmate.
Don’t divulge/share personal information with or in the presence of inmates.
Don’t personalize interactions with inmates.
Do be firm, fair and consistent at all times.
Do be yourself.
Do recognize “NO” is reversible.
Do recognize the TEAM is greater than any individual.

Conclusion

In closing, we hope you found this information helpful and valuable in preparation for your first day(s) on the job as a corrections officer, or as a means of determining if a career in corrections is a good fit for you.

The demands of a correctional officer position do exceed the limits of what many are willing to offer. However, to those willing to meet the challenge, you will find that any anxiety is soon replaced by an overwhelming sense of self-accomplishment with each milestone you reach, from your introductory training on through the completion/graduation from required pre-certification academy training. Welcome aboard!!

By: James W. Buckner Jr, Corrections Specialist, 86-Keys Consulting

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