Becoming a Prison Guard: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of being a prison guard? Read about salaries, education requirements and job prospects to decide if becoming a prison guard is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Prison Guard

Prison guards are the primary rule enforcers in correctional facilities. Learn about the pros and cons of becoming a prison guard to make an informed career decision.

Pros of a Prison Guard Career
A high school diploma may be the only educational requirement*
Annual mean wage of approximately $44,000 (May 2014)*
Many correctional institutions provide employee training*
Many schools offer associate degree and certificate programs for career advancement**

Cons of a Prison Guard Career
Lower-than-average job growth projected (five percent increase from 2012-2022)*
Correctional officers have some of the highest injury rates in America*
High-stress work environment*
Irregular and occasionally long work shifts*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Center for Education Statistics

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Your primary responsibility as a prison guard or correctional officer is to maintain order by ensuring everyone sticks to the rules. This can involve inspecting prisoners' quarters for contraband and signs that security features, such as bars, have been compromised. You may also check both prisoners and visitors for drugs or weapons. At times, correctional officers act as arbitrators in conflicts between prisoners. Additional duties range from aiding prisoners with rehabilitation to enforcing progressive disciplinary measures.

Job Growth and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that correctional officers would experience sluggish job growth compared to other occupations in America for the 2012-2022 decade. This was attributed to budget cuts and an actual decrease in crime rates. While many prison guards work for local, state and federal agencies, additional jobs may be available through private companies that operate correctional facilities.

As of May 2014, corrections officers earned an annual mean wage of just over $44,000. Corrections officers who worked in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals earned a slightly higher amount at around $51,000. According to the BLS, the top paying state for this job was New Jersey, with corrections officers earning wages near $71,000.

Job Requirements

Education and Training

Education for these jobs differs by facility type. Local facilities might only require a high school diploma or GED, while state and privatized facilities sometimes require college coursework in counseling, behavioral science or correctional law and procedures. At the federal level, you may need a bachelor's degree, but no specific area of study is mandated.

Training is often available on the job. Successful candidates will have skills in leadership and communication; you should also have good physical stamina. Other essential traits include the ability to remain calm in stressful situations and make practical decisions during emergencies.

What Employers Want

Employers typically look for people with a high school diploma, though some positions require higher education and 2-5 years of experience. You must also pass various physical and psychological testing to prove you're able to handle job-related stress. Check out a few real job postings from April 2012:

  • A federal prison agency is looking to fill correctional officer positions throughout the country. You must have a minimum of a 4-year degree or at least three years of experience. More advanced positions are available to candidates who have taken graduate-level classes in criminal justice, social sciences or criminology. Duties include overseeing the inmate population and ensuring facility security through the enforcement of regulations.
  • A Florida facility is seeking a corrections officer dedicated to the law enforcement career path. The position only requires a high school diploma, but the candidate must also have a Florida driver's license and pass the Criminal Justice Basic Abilities Test with a score higher than 72%. You must also be willing to submit to a polygraph exam, drug screening, background check and psychological exam.
  • A private facility in Mississippi is looking for a correctional officer with a high school diploma and 2-5 years experience, although it's willing to accept certain military ratings in lieu of civilian experience. The firm offers paid training time with a slight raise once training is completed. Duties include overseeing inmates, searching for contraband and maintaining security throughout the facility.

Standing Out

Get a Postsecondary Degree or Certificate

There are almost 100 schools offering degree and certificate programs in corrections and criminal justice, including graduate study programs. The majority of criminal justice programs include studies in corrections as an integral part of the system. Programs can be further tailored to meet your needs through elective courses, such as studies in juvenile justice and community corrections.

Gain Experience

Through volunteer programs and internships, you can gain practical experience in the world of corrections. Volunteers are needed to help with sports activities, library services, programs that help prepare prisoners to re-enter society, tutoring and counseling. Internships can be found at all levels of corrections and help you focus your skills; you can work in places that interest you, such as juvenile or female correctional facilities.

Alternative Career Options

Police and Detectives

If you're interested in law enforcement but don't want to work in a prison, consider becoming a police officer or detective. The BLS predicted that police and detectives would see a seven percent increase in employment opportunities in the 2010-2020 decade. This is below average, but many positions might open due to the high turnover rate in this profession. Education varies depending on the agency and level (local, state or federal); some departments only require a high school diploma while others might require a bachelor's degree. Training generally takes place in a local academy, and candidates are paid throughout. According to the BLS, police and sheriff's officers earned an average salary of around $56,000 as of May 2011; detectives and criminal investigators earned close to $76,000 per year on average.

Probation Officer

If you're intrigued by the corrections field but want a career with better job prospects and higher earning potential, you might be interested in working as a probation officer. The BLS predicted that probation officers would enjoy an 18% increase in employment opportunities between 2010 and 2020. As of May 2011, probation officers earned an average salary of just over $52,000. California ranked as both the highest paying state and the state that hired the most probation officers. Although not all employers require that probation officers have a college education, some require a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. Many states require probation officers to be certified after they complete a government-sponsored training program.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master: Criminal Justice
      • Master: Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Corrections
      • BSCJ: Juvenile Justice
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
      • BSCJ: Law Enforcement
    Associate's
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
      • AAS in Criminal Justice and Criminology
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Regent University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Law - Criminal Justice
      • Master of Arts in Law - National Security
      • Master of Public Administration - Emergency Management and Homeland Security
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice - Corrections
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice - Law Enforcement
      • Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies - Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Arts in Law and National Security
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Saint Leo University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • BA: Criminal Justice
      • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
      • BA: Criminal Justice - Homeland Security
    Associate's
      • AA: Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • PhD in Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy
      • PhD in Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy
    Master's
      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Criminal Justice
      • MBA - Criminal Justice
      • MBA - Homeland Security
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Benedictine University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MPH - Emergency Preparedness Focus
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Utica College

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Data Science: Financial Crime
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Fraud and Financial Crime Investigation
      • BS in Fraud and Financial Crime Investigation - Financial Investigation
      • BS in Fraud and Financial Crime Investigation - Fraud Prevention and Detection
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Baker College Online

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • Criminal Justice - Bachelor
      • Law Enforcement Academy (Police) - Bachelor
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Colorado State University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
    Bachelor's
      • BS - Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Admin
      • Undergraduate Specialization - Criminal Forensics
  • Iowa City, IA

    University of Iowa

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • Master: Criminal Justice
  • BS in Corrections
  • Associate: Criminal Justice

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Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Law - Criminal Justice
  • Master of Arts in Law - National Security
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice - Corrections
  • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice

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Saint Leo University

  • BA: Criminal Justice
  • BA: Criminal Justice - Criminalistics
  • AA: Criminal Justice

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Northcentral University

  • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
  • PhD in Business Admin - Criminal Justice
  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Criminal Justice
  • MBA - Criminal Justice

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Benedictine University

  • MPH - Emergency Preparedness Focus

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Utica College

  • MS in Data Science: Financial Crime
  • Bachelor of Science in Fraud and Financial Crime Investigation
  • BS in Fraud and Financial Crime Investigation - Financial Investigation

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Baker College Online

  • Criminal Justice - Bachelor
  • Law Enforcement Academy (Police) - Bachelor

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Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

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