Prisons & Institutions

Correctional Officer entering cell block. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Information and Technology professional working on a network server. Lieutenant reviewing case file. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Correctional Officers entering data. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Nurse on duty at a correctional institution. Institution medical examination room. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Institution Control Center. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Correctional Officer verifying information. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Institution Dentist performing a cleaning. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Institution medical personnel. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Prison medical personnel dispensing medications. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Assignment board. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Institutional Food Service Staff. Institution cell door. (photo by Shoshana Frishberg-Izzo for the American Correctional Association) Restricted area around prison grounds. Officer meets with juvenile and his family. Therapeutic Dog Program. Enhancing your Future with Further Education.

Prisons and institutions house inmates serving more than one year and play a crucial role in educating and rehabilitating those individuals. Prison locations, populations, and types vary across the country by state and jurisdiction and are run by either states or the federal government (through the Federal Bureau of Prisons). Some states contract their prison operations to private companies to more closely monitor costs and security.

Prisons and institutions act as small, self-contained cities that rely on administrators, security staff, contractors, and even inmates to make the agency/facility function on a daily basis. Because many prisons house hundreds or even thousands of inmates, the opportunities for exposure to different experiences and perspectives as well as career advancement are numerous.

While employment in prisons or institutions can be mentally and physically demanding, the opportunity to work with offenders on a daily basis and impact the lives of inmates in a positive way is a constructive, rewarding, dependable, and exciting way to earn a living.

There is a wide range of job opportunities within prisons/institutions. Typically, these positions can be divided into several areas. These include:

  • Security Staff: Searching cells for contraband, monitoring the movement of inmates inside and between facilities, and generally supervising and maintaining security within the facility.
  • Medical Staff (doctors, nurses, and support staff): Caring for inmates and employees of the institution to ensure the health and safety of everyone inside, limiting the transfer of infectious diseases, addressing common medical problems and administering medication to inmates in need of medical care.
  • Administrative Staff: Monitoring everyday operation of the prison/institution including compliance of the institution with Federal and State law (and in some cases, operational standards from the American Correctional Association), tracking the needs/requirements of inmates and their families and overseeing the intake or release of inmates from the institution.
  • Inside Educators: Teaching inmates everything from basic life skills to acquiring their GED or even college degrees. Education is vital to earning employment and successfully reintegrating into society after release.
  • Food Service Staff: Providing hundreds or even thousands of meals per day to inmates and staff. Food service workers oversee the safe production and provision of three meals per day and the management of the necessary supplies and tools for the Food Service requirements.

The opportunities for advancement within prisons/institution are significant. Like many law-enforcement agencies, the security staff in the majority of prisons is organized in a quasi-military command structure. With time, dedication and good performance, one can rise through the ranks of the security structure to a position of leadership. Doing so requires intense knowledge of safety and security procedures, high situational awareness, interpersonal skills, and good judgment. Many wardens and senior leaders began their careers as correctional officers and worked upward into a leadership position.

Further explore the range of positions in Corrections. Search our Job Board for positions within this discipline.

The skills needed for the vast number of jobs within Prisons/Institutions vary. For those who choose positions for which contact with inmates is frequent, the following are excellent skills to possess:

  • The ability to learn, think and act quickly
  • Openness to instruction/commands
  • Cooperation and ability to work with a team
  • Confidence
  • Calm, controlled demeanor
  • Courage
  • Good eyesight, hearing and physical health
  • Strong judgement, interpersonal and communication skillsskills
  • Strong moral character
  • Dedication and strong work ethic
  • Ability to be firm, but respectful of inmates and coworkers





Basic requirements for employment in a correctional facility vary by jurisdiction and facility. Below are general qualifications necessary to obtaining a position within a prison or institution. Please refer to specific job postings to determine the exact qualifications required. Job postings, and often online applications, background check forms and other required documentation are typically posted on the websites of state departments of corrections, private prison contractors, and individual prisons and institutions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also lists its employment requirements and available positions online.

Basic Requirements:

Due to the physical nature and potential safety risks of the job, officers are typically in good physical and mental condition, possess standard (or correctable) vision, and have the ability to function effectively within a stressful environment. These factors are usually assessed via entry-level tests that help determine an individual’s interpersonal skills, judgment/logical reasoning ability, physical agility and more. Candidates may also be asked to undergo additional assessments, including pre-employment physical examination, psychological examination and a drug screening.

While previous work experience in the corrections or law-enforcement fields is valued, the absence of such experience may not have a negative impact on your employment potential. Other transferable knowledge and skills, as well as internships or volunteer experience, are positive attributes.

Minimum Qualifications:
  • Eligible to work in the US
  • At least 18 years of age
  • High school diploma or GED
  • Good physical and mental fitness (as indicated through successful completion of fitness and oral/written exams and pre-service training)
  • No felony convictions
  • Drug free (as determined by drug testing at time of job offer)
  • Positive work history (background check with previous employers, landlords and/or financial institutions will be conducted)
qualificationsHighly Desirable Qualifications:
  • Previous experience in law enforcement or military (college credits can be substituted)
  • College courses or relevant work experience
  • History of previous job stability (at least two years of previous work experience)
Federal Bureau of Prisons – Minimum Qualifications:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a separate set of qualifications for employment within the federal prison system. More information on the minimum qualifications is available directly from the Federal Bureau of Prisons however, the following are among the Bureau’s basic qualifications:p>

  • U.S. Citizenship
  • Hired prior to 37th birthday (exceptions for some types of positions exist)
  • Bachelor's Degree or the equivalent of at least three years full-time experience providing assistance, guidance, and direction to individuals; counseling individuals; responding to emergency situations; supervising or managing; etc.
  • Employment panel interview prior to final selection
  • Physical examination and medical history report demonstrating an applicant's ability to perform the duties of the position
  • Applicants with criminal records are evaluated on a case-by-case basis; be honest and forthright concerning your background during the interview process
  • An applicant's prior drug use will be evaluated during the pre-employment process
  • A credit report will be evaluated and employment consideration will be determined on a case-by-case basis

Learn about the Federal Bureau of Prisons hiring process.

Potential Disqualifiers

Certain behaviors (past and present) can disqualify applicants from jobs within prisons/institutions. However, some actions/records that may disqualify one for some agencies may not necessarily disqualify that person for all agencies. Generally, the following MAY disqualify a candidate:

  • Adult felony or certain misdemeanor arrests and/or conviction(s)
  • Adult domestic violence arrest or conviction
  • Current drug use, or a history of previous drug use of substances such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine
  • A driving record featuring multiple license suspensions

Disqualifiers are typically revealed through a standard background check (including criminal history and/or polygraph examination). Background investigations may include one or more of the following:

  • A check of military records, when applicable
  • A report from a credit agency regarding the applicant’s current and past credit history
  • Examination of school records or interviews with school officials
  • Interviews of:
    • Personal references furnished by the applicant
    • Neighbors of the applicant within the last 5 years
    • Current and past employers within the last 5 years
    • Co-workers within the past 5 years

Additionally, read some Tips for Interviewing > >

After accepting a position with local, state, or federal departments of correction, new employees must be trained to effectively complete their jobs. Depending on the position, training ranges from intense pre-service and in-service training to gradual introduction to the methods and skills needed for the position. Training varies according to state and jurisdiction; however, most states retain similar goals and training techniques as detailed below.

Pre-Service Training

State correctional officer trainees must successfully complete a pre-service training program, often conducted at centralized training facilities. The length of programs varies depending on state requirements, but typically occurs over several weeks or months. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia trains all incoming correctional officers and Department of Corrections employees at the Academy for Staff Development near Richmond where incoming staffers are given instruction on everything from security to management to community corrections.

On-the-Job Training

trainingUpon completion of pre-service, new hires undergo on-the-job training with an experienced officer or employee inside the prison/institution where they will work. Instruction is provided across a number of subjects depending on the position of the incoming employee. The content and length of this training (sometimes called “field training”) also depends on the organization and position. New correctional officers are not permitted to work independently until they demonstrate a clear understanding of the work assignment, safety requirements, and related skills.

In-Service Training

In order to maintain competency in their duties, officers and staff continue to receive in-service training to stay abreast of new developments and procedures throughout their tenures. With the rapid pace of development in the areas of science, law, and criminal justice, it is vital that correctional employees receive this training to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date. The number of required in-service training hours varies by state, but many require 40 hours annually. In-service training requirements may also vary by role and the degree to which the employee interacts with the inmate population.

Specialized Training

There are jobs in many organizations for which specialized training is offered and/or required. These positions include.

  • Leadership staff
  • Correctional nurses and healthcare staff
  • Canine officers
  • Those working with the mentally ill
  • Security Threat Group analysts and officers
  • Information-technology employees
  • Food service employees

Individual organizations can supply additional information regarding any specialized training needed. For more information, also consider visiting State Departments of Corrections websites.

Federal Bureau of Prisons – Year One Training

Like qualifications, training is somewhat different for Federal Bureau of Prisons employees. Following is a summary of the Federal Bureau of Prisons training requirements during the first year of employment.

  • 80 hours of Institution familiarization at the assigned facility, including orientation to the physical plant, overviews of policies and procedures, and techniques for supervising and communicating with inmates during daily activities
  • 120 hours of specialized training at the residential training center located in Glynco, GA, normally within the first 60 days of appointment and scheduled by the Employee Services Department. This training includes four components: Firearms, Self-Defense, Written Academic Test on policies and procedures, and the Physical Abilities Test (PAT). The PAT includes:
    • Dummy Drag – Drag a 75-pound dummy three minutes continuously for a minimum of 694 feet
    • Climb and Grasp – Climb rungs of a ladder and retrieve an item, within the ideal requirement of seven seconds
    • Obstacle Course – Ideal requirement of 58 seconds
    • Run and Cuff – Run one-fourth mile and apply handcuffs, within the ideal requirement of two minutes, 35 seconds
    • Stair Climb – Climb up and down 108 steps carrying a 20-pound weight belt, within the ideal requirement of 45 seconds
  • 40 hours of in-service training annually

Please see the Federal Bureau of Prisons website to obtain additional information regarding training requirements.

  1. What is the difference between a jail and prison?
  2. Is a college degree more common than not for those seeking employment in prisons and institutions?
  3. What are the basic job requirements for careers in the field of corrections?
  4. What is the estimated annual income for a correctional officer?
  5. Is training required to work in a prison or institution?
  6. What type of advancement is available within a prison or institution for a correctional officer?
  7. What is the difference between working at a state versus federal correctional facility?
  8. What role do female employees play in prisons/institutions?
  9. Are jobs in prisons/institutions monotonous and boring?
  10. Is working in prisons/institutions extremely dangerous?

1. What is the difference between a jail and prison?

Jails and prisons serve distinct roles in the criminal justice system. Depending on location or jurisdiction, jails and adult local detention facilities are generally operated by cities or counties.

Jails, located in the towns/cities they serve, typically hold inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences for misdemeanor crimes. Prisons are statewide or nationwide and house inmates from multiple jurisdictions. Inmates in prison are often serving lengthy sentences for more serious crimes (generally felonies).

Since prisons/institutions house inmates serving longer sentences, these facilities have unique security challenges, more complex administration requirements, and often present more intense treatment and education needs for inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

While the identification of inmate needs, challenges and affiliations are important in jails, these activities are even more crucial in prisons because of the large environment and the complex social interactions among the inmate population and between inmates and staff. Both types of correctional facilities are vital to the operation of the criminal justice system, but each presents unique challenges for those working in the corrections field.

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2. Is a college degree more common than not for those seeking employment in prisons and institutions?

Though a college degree is not required, it is becoming more common for those seeking a career in a prison or institution to hold a college degree or at least have some collegiate experience. Although most entry-level positions only call for a high school diploma or GED, advancement often requires a college education in order to tackle more complicated issues and tasks within the prison/institution. For example, especially in the medical and administrative fields, a college degree will help one manage the challenges of being responsible for the wellbeing of inmates and staff within a large, complex environment.

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3. What are the basic job requirements for careers in the field of corrections?

All agencies require potential candidates to be drug free, have obtained a high school diploma or GED, or have a college education or full-time work experience. Military experience is often highly valued in corrections employment.

Most state institutions require a potential applicant to be:

  • 18 or 21 years of age, possess a valid driver’s license and have no felony convictions.
  • a US citizen or legally eligible to work in the United States
  • In possession of a valid driver’s license
  • Free of felony convictions

The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires job candidates to be under 37 years of age (unless a previous federal law enforcement officer) and have completed a bachelor’s degree or three years of full-time work related to corrections.

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4. What is the estimated annual income for a correctional officer?

As with many other factors, annual income for corrections officers and other prison/institution staff varies by region and agency. However, national data is available that gives a picture of the average of the annual income for correctional officers. According to the 2011/12 Occupational Outlook Handbook, median annual wages of correctional officers and jailers were $38,380 as of May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $29,660 and $51,000 annually. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,300, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $64,110. Median annual wages in the public sector were $50,830 in the Federal Government, $38,850 in State government and $37,510 in local government. In the facilities support services industry, where the relatively small number of officers employed by privately operated prisons is classified, median annual wages were $28,790.

Annual income for Federal employees is generally higher than those of state and local agencies. In March 2009, the average salary for federal correctional officers was $53,459. Federal salaries were slightly higher in areas where prevailing local pay levels were higher.

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5. Is training required to work in a prison or institution?

As work in prisons/institutions is important and challenging, substantial training is required. Specific training requirements vary by jurisdiction, but most training agendas cover all aspects of work in prisons/institutions. For correctional officers, training includes security, polices/regulations and operations. For other positions, training is related to specific tasks or challenges generally related to management, operations and efficient and effective provision of services. After placement in a prison/institution, many correctional officers and employees will undergo on-the-job training conducted by experienced training staff to introduce and familiarize employees with the specific factors of the facility or agency.

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6. What type of advancement is available within a prison or institution for a correctional officer?

For correctional officers, the opportunities for advancement and specialization are plentiful. In order for a correctional officer to advance to the rank of sergeant, lieutenant or captain, most jurisdictions require the passage of specific tests related to policy, procedure, safety, and security. Some promotion is based on selection by the warden and leadership staff.

In order to advance through the ranks of security staff, one must demonstrate excellent command of operational tactics and skills, agency policy and procedure, communication skills with inmates and fellow staff, high moral character and knowledge of the prison/institution. Pay upgrades accompany promotion in the ranks, as does an increase in responsibility. Many Wardens and facility/agency leaders began their careers as correctional officers and worked their way to positions of great responsibility and respect.

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7. What is the difference between working at a State versus Federal correctional facility?

Although there are significant differences between working in State and Federal institutions, both deal with all types of inmates and the everyday challenges of operating a prison/institution. State employees monitor inmates from within the state, while Federal employees supervise inmates from across the United States. Similarly, those working for a state department of corrections will most likely live and work in that state, but those who work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are subject to work anywhere in the United States. The BOP employees may receive higher compensation than many state employees, but also have higher employment requirements. BOP employees must comply with federal law and generally deal with inmates who have been convicted of more serious crimes. In both types of facilities, correctional staff can deal with all security levels of inmates – minimum, medium, and maximum.

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8. What role do female employees play in prisons/institutions?

The common perception that women have a limited role in the prison/institution community is a complete fallacy. While some believe that women are traditionally only nurses or administrators, women are capable and effective in every aspect of correctional employment. Women hold positions in all areas from correctional officers, security, and food service to healthcare and administrators and bring unique opportunities, experiences, and perspectives to daily operations. Even with the perception that correctional employment is traditionally a male role, more and more women are joining the ranks of correctional professionals and are performing superbly.

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9. Are jobs in prisons/institutions monotonous and boring?

Work in prisons/institutions is far from boring. It is fast-paced and presents new and different problems to overcome each day. Many agencies and facilities work hard to ensure that their employees are exposed to different aspects of prison operation and that each employee has a wide range of experiences.

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10. Is working in prisons/institutions extremely dangerous?

While work in prisons can, in fact, be dangerous (especially for security staff), those working in prisons/institutions are in control and are safe the vast majority of the time. By working together and making personal connections with inmates, correctional employees work to keep one another safe. There are risks in working with the inmate population, but many corrections staff believe the work is worth the risks and benefits society and their community.

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