The U.S. criminal justice system relies on a vast network of institutions at the federal, state, local, and special jurisdictional levels, including the tribal justice system and military courts. If you are interested in pursuing a career in corrections, you should familiarize yourself with the structure and operations of the criminal justice system, as well as the different types of correctional facilities.
The major components of the U.S. criminal justice system -- law enforcement, the courts, and corrections -- coordinate their functions to control, deter, and prevent crime. The various criminal justice agencies share responsibility for the apprehension, prosecution, defense, sentencing, and punishment of those suspected or convicted of committing crimes.
Within the overall criminal justice system, correctional facilities and programs serve four major purposes: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and social protection. Retribution provides acceptable and appropriate punishment. Deterrence discourages offenders from committing repeat crimes, while the threat of punishment dissuades others from breaking the law. Meanwhile, rehabilitation prepares offenders to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens, and social protection contributes to the security and stability of communities and the country.
Is a Career in Corrections Right for You?
Correctional facilities and programs serve four major purposes: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and social protection.
A career in corrections offers you the opportunity to serve your country and community, maintain safety and security, and play an important role in changing people's lives for the better. Correctional workers pursue rewarding employment paths that provide competitive salaries and benefits. They may also lead to opportunities for career advancement. As corrections professionals gain experience, they often move into supervisory and leadership positions, such as facility security administrators and wardens.
All jobs in corrections -- whether in institutional and community-based corrections facilities, treatment and rehabilitation centers, diversion programs, or the private security industry -- require good interpersonal skills, patience, and analytical reasoning. Corrections officers and specialists who deal with special prison populations, such as juveniles, sexual offenders, and those with mental health and drug issues, should develop their abilities to handle diverse groups and situations.
Because correctional professionals frequently work in dangerous and stressful environments, they should be sure to maintain a healthy life/work balance and proactively engage in self-care to prevent burnout.
Understanding the Corrections System
The U.S. corrections system consists of a complex set of agencies -- each with different functions and different jurisdictions. This section provides an overview of the various types of facilities.
Many people use the terms "jail" and "prison" interchangeably, but these institutions serve very different purposes. Local jails are usually small holding facilities operated by local law enforcement departments. These are used to detain recently arrested individuals convicted of misdemeanors; prisoners awaiting arraignment, trial, conviction, or sentencing; or offenders serving terms of 1-2 years. Local police departments also operate temporary lockups to hold offenders arrested for public disturbances. They may also detain individuals waiting to be transferred to and from court appearances or into the next level of the corrections system.
Sample Facilities and Crimes
Local jail operations differ significantly depending on their size and location. In general, jails often detain offenders who pose a threat to themselves or the community -- such as those arrested for DUIs or disturbing the peace. They also house defendants awaiting court appearances who are unable to post bail, convicted offenders usually serving sentences for misdemeanors of one year or less, or those who have violated the conditions of their parole or probation. Jails also hold inmates awaiting transfer to another correctional facility to serve out their terms.
What It’s Like to Work in Local Corrections
Following guidelines provided by the American Correctional Association, law enforcement officers who work in local jails have completed police academy training and possess a basic knowledge of criminal law and instruction in the use of firearms. Corrections officers and jailers must have completed high school, while some employers may require an associate or bachelor's degree.
The primary role of local corrections workers is to ensure the security of those being held, while also protecting the safety of the jail staff. They handle intake and release procedures and make determinations about an inmate's potential for violence to self or others while incarcerated. These correctional workers frequently guard prisoners in transit between court and jail or oversee their transport to other correctional facilities.
Counties throughout the 50 states manage 87% of all corrections facilities, providing supervision, detention, and other services to over 700,000 offenders. County-run facilities operate separately from local police departments and are under the jurisdiction of publicly elected sheriffs and their deputy officers. Most of the county jail population are considered low-risk offenders or are pretrial individuals who have not been convicted of a crime. Some county facilities also administer alternatives to incarceration, such as work release and furlough programs designed to combat recidivism; these strategies also reduce overcrowding and operation costs.
Sample Facilities and Crimes
County-run facilities fulfill multiple correctional functions. They often hold offenders immediately after their arrest; before their bail hearings; or prior to their trial, conviction, or sentencing. Most convicted detainees in county jails have received relatively short sentences, but the facilities also house offenders found guilty of more serious crimes while they await transfer to a state prison. County facilities sometimes detain material witnesses to ensure they will appear in court to provide critical testimony.
What It’s Like to Work in County Corrections
While each county jurisdiction sets its own requirements and standards for detention and corrections, the duties of these workers generally include maintaining security, defusing disturbances and violent confrontations, preventing escapes, and ensuring inmate accountability.
Unlike law enforcement officers who work in local jails, county detention and corrections officers do not have authorization to perform law enforcement responsibilities outside of the facility where they work. County detention officers guard offenders awaiting trial or transport them to another facility or court. County corrections officers supervise convicted offenders serving sentences.
The work environment in county facilities can be volatile and stressful. Encounters between inmates or between officers and inmates can escalate quickly. In these situations, corrections professionals need to remain calm; control their emotions; and use interpersonal techniques to de-escalate tension, negotiate, and resolve issues quickly.
The state justice system includes corrections facilities operated by state governments. These institutions are funded by state tax money. While the size, security levels, and type of inmate populations vary across state jurisdictions, state-run corrections facilities generally hold convicted felons serving sentences of one year or more. In contrast to most local or county facilities that deal primarily with transient inmate populations, state prisons provide educational, counseling, and rehabilitative programs to prepare offenders for re-entry into society.
Sample Facilities and Crimes
Although the terms "prison" and "penitentiary" are often used interchangeably, a state penitentiary usually refers to a high-security facility holding dangerous offenders or those serving long sentences. Maximum security prisons house criminals convicted of murder or other violent crimes. Minimum-security facilities typically hold nonviolent offenders, such as white-collar criminals.
Unlike local or county jails, most state facilities receive inmates from multiple jurisdictions. They also operate with tighter security and employ different levels of specialized staff trained to deal with rehabilitation and security.
What It’s Like to Work in State Corrections
Conditions in state prisons depend on several factors, including the type and size of the inmate population, the amount of funding available for programs and staffing, and the age and maintenance needs of the facilities. Because state prisons may contain thousands of inmates, including dangerous offenders serving long sentences, they use tighter security measures and may restrict movement, confining inmates to cell blocks and providing limited time in exercise yards or other areas outside cells.
Prisons operate as self-contained institutions and rely on the corrections staff and other employees to maintain daily functions. Because these inmates serve longer sentences than those incarcerated in county jails, corrections personnel become better acquainted with individuals within the prison population and can assess the behavioral and security needs of prisoners. This stressful and sometimes dangerous work environment requires good judgement, self-discipline, negotiation skills, and physical strength.
Tribal corrections programs include tribal courts, tribal jails, adult and juvenile detention centers, and other correctional facilities and programs administered by federally recognized Indian tribes, sovereign nations, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
Tribal jurisdiction extends over Indian Country -- a statutory term that refers to all lands within an Indian reservation, dependent Indian communities, and Indian trust allotments. Indian Country correctional facilities have been established to operate in a safe and humane manner, supportive of cultural and traditional values.
Sample Facilities and Crimes
Local tribal courts prosecute misdemeanor offences. While some tribal courts have authorization to prosecute felony offenses, for most of Indian Country the federal government handles felony crimes by or against American Indians. After defendants have been sentenced by a tribal court, they usually serve their sentences in a local tribal jail or correctional facility, depending on the crimes and their past records. Most inmates in tribal jails have been convicted of misdemeanors, although the number of individuals serving sentences for felonies has increased.
What It’s Like to Work in Tribal Corrections
The work environment in tribal jails is similar to the conditions found in county jails. Corrections officers in these settings must possess cultural awareness and an understanding of the challenges specific to the American Indian prison population. A background in risk assessment also serves as a useful skill. Tribal jails -- although historically underfunded and understaffed -- have attempted in recent years to provide mental health and suicide prevention services, as well as alcohol and drug prevention programs.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and many tribes use "Indian preference" for hiring corrections personnel. This policy establishes a legal right for tribal members to receive first consideration for employment, training, contracting, and business opportunities on reservations.
The federal criminal justice system differs significantly from local, county, and state jurisdictions. Federal courts -- established under the U.S. Constitution -- handle violations of laws passed by Congress. Federal offenses include crimes that take place on federal land or involve federal officers; immigration or customs violations; a crime in which the defendant crosses state lines; or criminal conduct that originates in one state and causes harm in another. Several federal agencies have the authority to investigate federal offenses, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Sample Facilities and Crimes
Federal justice systems operate differently than those on the state and local levels. Offenders found guilty of violating state laws serve time in either local jails or state‐run correctional institutions. In the federal system, Congress enacts laws and federal law enforcement agencies -- like the FBI or the Secret Service -- enforce these laws. U.S. attorneys prosecute those accused of violating federal crimes in federal courts. Those convicted of federal crimes receive punishment and opportunities for rehabilitation in corrections facilities administered by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Federal crimes include offenses like airline hijacking, credit card and mail fraud, and hate crimes.
What It’s Like to Work in Federal Corrections
The federal prison system houses inmates according to different security levels: minimum, low, medium, high, and administrative. Minimum-security prisons allow inmates much more freedom of movement than higher levels. As security levels increase, inmates experience much more surveillance and restrictions. Federal maximum-security prisons have higher inmate-to-staff ratios, strictly controlled movement of inmates, and reinforced fences or walls surrounding the facility perimeter.
Federal corrections officers working in facilities with higher levels of security encounter frequent occurrences of disciplinary misconduct, gang activity, and racially motivated violence. While federal corrections professionals receive higher compensation than those working in state, county, or local facilities, they must fulfill more rigorous entrance requirements. In addition to a bachelor's degree, officers must complete 200 hours of specialized training within their first year of employment, including 120 hours at the Federal Bureau of Prisons residential training center.
What Jobs Are Available in Corrections?
Corrections Officer Corrections officers working in all levels of the criminal justice system maintain safety and security for inmates and staff. This link provides you with more information about this and other careers in corrections.
Probation Officer Probation officers counsel and supervise convicted offenders who have been released but must comply with court-ordered conditions. You can find out more about this specialized corrections career by following the link.
Warden As the chief operating officer of a corrections facility, wardens oversee staff, manage inmate populations, and ensure safety and security. Follow this link to learn more about the education and training requirements for this career.