How to Become a Correctional Officer

Discover the key steps to becoming a correctional officer, from getting the right education to choosing your concentration and landing your first job.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

Correctional officers are critical to maintaining order and peace in jails, prisons, and other detention facilities. To be qualified to oversee and manage incarcerated individuals, correctional officers must complete the proper education before starting the job. Although a formal degree is not always required to work in corrections, officers need to undergo in-depth training to handle detainees. Before choosing which level education to pursue, it’s good to evaluate where you want your career to go. To help, we have created this guide to breakdown your options, provide an overview of the career, and help you decide if you have what it takes to become a correctional officer.

Step 1

Make Sure You’re Suited for a Correctional Officer Career

Working as a correctional officer can be rewarding. However, it’s important to know that you’re cut out for the job before you pursue the education it takes to get there. To see if this is a job for right for you, answer the following questions:

  • Do I have good communication and interpersonal skills?
  • Do I consider myself to be a very capable individual with enough physical strength to restrain inmates?
  • Am I able to read people and effectively assess human behavior?
  • Can I pay close attention to detail, including properly following safety protocols and legal requirements?
  • Am I able to maintain self-control in highly stressful and even life-threatening situations?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be an excellent fit for a career as a correctional officer.

Does Becoming a Correctional Officer Take a Long Time?

Like many other careers, there are multiple paths to becoming a correctional officer. While it might be tempting to choose the one that takes the shortest amount of time, this may actually result in more time in school, depending on what your ultimate career goals are. For example, a high school diploma is sufficient for many correctional positions, but not if you want to work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and have zero relevant work experience.

Let’s take a look at how long it takes to become a correctional officer based on which educational path you choose. Keep in mind that additional training at an academy may be necessary even after finishing one of the below programs.

1

Certification in Corrections: Six months or less.

2

Associate in Corrections: Two years

3

Bachelor’s in Corrections, Criminal Justice, or related: Four years

4

Master’s in Criminal Justice: One to three years.

Now let’s look at what each path entails and the advantages and disadvantages for each academic credential.

Step 2

Look into Correctional Officer Education

There are different avenues to becoming a correctional officer, but no matter what route you choose, there are certain skills and concepts you must learn. Some paths include intense courses at a training academy only, while others focus on a certificate, two-year or four-year degree. There’s even a master’s option for those who want to advance their careers to the highest level. Here’s what each post-secondary educational path can do for an aspiring corrections officer.

Certificate program

These programs often last a few months and provide classroom knowledge concerning higher level topics and issues that a corrections officer may face, especially at the management level or in specialized situations.

The primary advantage of a certificate program is the speed in which it can be completed; there is little time wasted covering subjects that aren’t pertinent to the individual. It also can provide advanced training that can help a corrections officer achieve a promotion or other level of advancement. The disadvantage of a certificate is that it doesn’t result in a college degree. This can be problem if a degree is required for a particular position.

Best for? Certificate programs are ideal for those who are already in the corrections field, but seek additional classroom training to advance their career to the next level.

Associate degree in corrections

There are several reasons to choose an associate degree. Perhaps you are already a corrections officer but need a college degree for a promotion or other professional advancement. Maybe the specific job you’re applying for requires a two-year degree. No matter the reason for pursing an associate degree, the two-year training provides a well-rounded college education that opens doors to study certain subjects that aren’t strictly corrections-related.

Despite these advantages, most people do not choose to earn an associate degree due to the time it takes and the cost associated. This additional length of time is the biggest difference between an associate degree and a certificate program.

Best for? Any aspiring corrections officers who want to apply for a job that requires this degree or would like to earn a competitive advantage over other applicants who may only have a high school diploma, GED or certificate.

Bachelor’s in Corrections or Criminal Justice

The bachelor’s degree is required for work on the federal level such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, unless the corrections officer has one-to-three years of relevant work experience. For individuals who have leadership aspirations, a bachelor’s degree can be priceless.

Of all the educational paths, the bachelor’s degree takes the longest to complete. A typical full-time student will need four years to earn their degree, although an accelerated program can save some time and money.

Best for? Those who want to begin working at the federal level or wish to eventually advance their careers beyond that of corrections officer.

Master’s in Criminal Justice

A master’s degree in criminal justice will usually take about two years of full-time study to complete, or one year in an accelerated format. But given how many students are working while earning the degree, taking three years through part-time study is quite common.

The master’s degree path is rare for most individuals seeking a new career as a corrections officer. It’s going to be more common for those already working in the field who would like to take a leap in their careers, such as engaging in high-level leadership roles or in making policy. It’s also a great option for those who have their eye on elected office.

Best for? The master’s degree is best suited for those already working as a corrections officer who would like to reach the pinnacle positions in their field.

Types of Training Institutions for Corrections Officers

Once you’ve decided on an educational or training path, see which type of school makes the most sense for you.

Vocational/trade schools

Trade and vocational schools focus their curriculum on preparing students for skilled trades. They teach occupational skills that allow students to begin working in a particular profession as quickly as possible. Many of the academic credentials offered will include certificates; however, these institutions will sometimes offer associate degrees as well.

Trade and vocational schools usually have very affordable tuition and programs are that specifically tailored for certain careers. Therefore, the curriculum is as lean as possible, to allow students an economical path to success. One drawback associated with trade schools is that the curriculum is so focused that it can be hard to apply these skills to a different career or for professional advancement.

Best for? A student who would like to receive specialized training to be a correctional officer as quickly as possible without attending a formal training academy.

Training academy

The vast majority of new correctional officers will have to attend a training academy at some point. The only question is when. Some may choose to enroll as tuition-paying students, as if they’re attending a conventional college program, then seek a job upon graduation. But in most situations, enrollees will already have a job with a correctional department and attend the training academy to complete the professional requirements to be qualified for it.

The academy route will usually be the fastest path to becoming a correctional officer. The disadvantage is that is can limit the potential for professional advancement, unless the individual decides to go back to school to earn a college degree.

Best for? This pathway is required for most applicants. For those who want to start working in the field as quickly as possible, this will probably comprise the bulk of their formal training.

Community colleges

Community colleges provide a balanced approach to training and education. At most community colleges, students can earn a diploma, certificate, or an associate degree in a field related to corrections. After graduation they can apply for an open position and attend the requisite academy to finalize their training once they receive an offer.

At some community colleges, formal correctional programs have been approved by the appropriate state agency. In essence, these community colleges combine a college degree (or other academic credential) with the training the student would have received at the official state training academy.

The advantage of community college is the ability to obtain an academic credential along with the approved academy level training necessary to become a corrections officer. The disadvantage is that it can take more time in school before you can begin work.

Best for? Community colleges are ideal for prospective corrections officers who would like to obtain a college degree or want the ability to take an approved academy-level curriculum at an institution that’s more convenient or affordable to them.

Military

Former members of the military are highly prized as prospective hires for law enforcement. They can handle high stress situations (especially when lives are in danger), and they have weapons training, physical fitness, discipline, and familiarity with a martial culture. Military police officers (MPs) will already have learned many of the aspects of training they would otherwise learn at the academy.

Those who choose this path should understand exactly what they’re getting into. Soldiers serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief and the Department of Defense, so knowing when they can start working as a civilian can be difficult. However, there are other benefits to military service that can translate to becoming a corrections officer, including financial assistance to pay for school.

Best for? Individuals who want to serve their country and are willing to put their civilian careers on hold will be in a prime position to become corrections officers as a result of their training and experience from the military.

Four-year schools

Because a bachelor’s degree is not usually required for positions as a corrections officer, this will not be the most popular academic option. The one major exception will be when applying for a position at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where a four-year degree or substantial work experience is required.

Attending a four-year college or university opens the most doors for professional advancement. For those who eventually want to work in management or be considered for other areas of workplace development, having a bachelor’s degree is ideal. But as its name implies, it takes as long as four years to complete, even longer if not attending as a full-time student. In some cases you can shave off a semester or two in the time it takes, but this educational route will still take more time than any of the others. This additional time (and money) is the primary disadvantage of attending a four-year post-secondary institution.

Best for? Four-year schools are best for those who want the greatest professional opportunities as a corrections officer.

Picking the Right Program

You’ve chosen the type of school and academic program you’d like to attend. The next step is choosing which programs to apply to and enroll in. However, before you begin submitting applications, consider the following questions and make sure you have solid answers to each:

  • Is the school regionally accredited?
  • Does the program offer the concentration you are interested in?
  • Can you afford the tuition?
  • Does the timeline fit with your future goals?
  • Does the program have a high success rate?

How to Become a Correctional Officer Online

Online learning has entered mainstream higher education, bringing post-secondary education to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. The growth in online education has impacted most fields of study, including corrections.

Depending on the level and the school, both fully-online and hybrid programs are available. Hybrid programs combine both online and in-person elements. Many of these programs will be mostly or fully-online; the curriculum will provide the theoretical knowledge while the hands-on training will be provided from another institution, such as a training academy.

Online certificate programs

Online certificate programs are usually tailored for those who already have a career as a corrections officer, but seek additional knowledge to take the next step in their profession. Due to their relatively low cost and short duration, the main benefit from an online certificate program is the speed in which an individual can earn their academic credential, often in less than six months.

Online associate degree in corrections

Depending on the chosen pace, these programs can be completed in two to three years. Many will be available completely online. The online associate path is perfect for those who desire a college degree as quickly as possible, but who need maximum flexibility, such as when they wish to continue working while going to school. One disadvantage of an online associate program versus a more traditional program is the potential lack of in-person networking opportunities.

Online bachelor’s in corrections or criminal justice

This is one of the most popular formats for individuals seeking a bachelor’s degree in corrections or related field of study. Many schools offering a traditional bachelor’s degree will have it available completely online. This means while you’re studying, you can continue working, at least part-time.

Online master’s in criminal justice

Those seeking the highest levels of advancement, but who would like to continue working in their present jobs, are ideal candidates for the online master’s degree in criminal justice or a similar area of study. Most of these programs will be completely online. Due to the professional aspirations of those seeking a master’s degree, one disadvantage of attending an online program is the reduced ability to connect with classmates. This might make it harder to create connections that can lead to further professional growth later on.

Step 3

Start Applying to Corrections Programs

Working on applications can seem daunting, but when you break down the components needed to apply, it can be very manageable. If there are a few programs you’re particularly interested in, you will need to make sure your application is not only free from mistakes, but presents you in the most positive light possible. Keep the following points in mind.

Entrance requirements

For acceptance into most academy training programs, a high school diploma or GED will be the basic educational requirement. You’ll also have to pass a background check, drugs test and physical fitness exam. The entrance requirements for academic tracks will depend on the level, as well as the school.

  • To be accepted into a certificate program, applicants must have a bachelor’s or associate degree within the corrections or criminal justice field. Some schools may substitute a degree for relevant work experience for a certain period of time, such as 18 months.
  • For entrance to associate and bachelor’s degree programs, the primary requirement will be a high school diploma or GED.
  • When applying for a master’s program, the primary entrance requirement will be a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a field related to corrections or criminal justice.

Application process & fees

All academic programs will require the completion of an application, and some will also require an application fee. As a general rule, the following academic tracks will require a few unique components to complete an admissions application.

  • Certificate: Submission of proof that that the applicant has either a requisite degree (usually a bachelor’s or associate degree) or a certain number of years of relevant experience.
  • Associate and bachelor’s degree: entrance exam test scores, letters of recommendation, a personal statement and completion of a high school diploma or GED.
  • Master’s degree: Letters of recommendation, completion of a bachelor’s degree, entrance exam test scores and a personal statement.

Paying for Your Program

Because each degree takes a different amount of time and each school has its own tuition rates and fees, it’s hard to provide a generalization on the cost of attendance to become a corrections officer. And of course, there are various forms of financial aid to consider. To learn more about how to pay for your education, check out our online guide to financial aid.

Step 4

Complete Your Corrections Coursework

Once you’re accepted to a program, the type of courses you take will vary depending on your level of study. For example, an associate and bachelor’s degree will include a number of electives and coursework unrelated to corrections. A certificate or master’s curriculum will be more abstract, with an emphasis on policy and theory. Here are some of the most common courses you’ll encounter:

  • The Basics of Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice Ethics
  • Correctional Legal Issues
  • The Juvenile Justice System
  • Introduction to Criminology
  • Correctional Facilities
  • Administrative Issues in Corrections
  • The Criminal Legal Process
Step 5

Obtain Certification & Credentials

Earning a degree isn’t the only way to improve opportunities for professional growth. There are a number of certifications available that allow you to demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts. How to achieve these certifications depends on who offers it, as some are based on tests while others rely on a certain level of work experience. To find out more about meeting a specific level of competency, check out the certification requirements provided by two leading organizations in the corrections field.

American Correctional Association

Certifications from the ACA are obtained by passing an exam, holding an associate or bachelor’s degree, and having a specific amount of experience. A few popular certifications offered by the ACA are as follows:

National Sheriffs’ Association

Similar to the ACA, the NSA requires candidates to pass an exam, obtain a certain amount of work experience, and have a minimum number of courses under their belt. The NSA offers the following certifications:

Step 6

Write a Winning Resume

The importance of a good resume cannot be understated. Hiring personnel may only look at each resume for a few seconds before making a decision to reject the applicant or extend an interview. With such a limited opportunity to impress, applicants must present themselves as effectively as possible to make the most of those few seconds. This means including only relevant information and dispensing with irrelevant content.

The best resumes explain why the applicant should be hired for the particular job. This includes education, relevant work experience, certifications, prior employers, and job duties. If possible, professional accomplishments should also be listed to improve chances of landing an interview.

To get a better understanding of what format to use and information to include, check out the following online resume samples.

Step 7

Impress During Your Interview

Once you have your degree, you’ll want to work toward that job you’ve always wanted. Ensure you’re interview ready and properly prepared, as this will be your moment to stand out from other applicants. One way to prepare is to anticipate the questions you may be asked. Here are a few popular ones you’re likely to encounter.

  1. Have you ever worked with inmates?
  2. What certifications do you have?
  3. What de-escalation techniques would you use to prevent a physical altercation?
  4. How do you stay fit in order to perform the physical activities required in this work environment?
  5. Describe a time your ethics were tested. How did you handle the situation?
  6. What are some changes you were able to bring about to improve the way your facility handled inmates?
  7. What was your most challenging moment as a corrections officer?
  8. Why a correctional officer and not, say…a police officer?
  9. Do you have any prior experience in law enforcement or the criminal justice system?