The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any free nation. Inmate population peaked in 2009, when it increased for the 37th straight year, according to the National Institute of Justice Journal. At that time, U.S. prisons held 2.4 million inmates, or roughly one in every 100 adults. The incarceration rate was five times more than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan.
The scale of imprisonment in the United States has led to a focus on rehabilitation efforts for reducing crime. As a result, the duties of correctional officers have changed.
History of the Position
Prison administrators during the Great Depression were to balance their budgets and hand back excess funds to the government, according to Don Josi and Dale Sechrest in their book, The Changing Career of the Correctional Officer. The large prison population decreased while prison budgets increased in the 1940s, enabling administrators to take an interdisciplinary approach to corrections. Psychologists and psychiatrists handled counseling and treatment as prison guards were responsible for security and custodial duties.
“With the involvement of social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists came marked civil service classification and pay scale preference,” write Josi and Sechrest. “Prison guards were not classified as ‘professionals.’ Higher education was not required and the caste system was strengthened.”
Later decades altered the penal environment. Beginning in the 1950s, institutions became less severe and inmate programs began a rehabilitative philosophy. Penitentiaries became “correctional institutions,” and prison guards became “correctional officers.” Correctional officers received pay increases, a professional work environment, and increased training and organization within their career field.
In the 1990s, corrections came under attack by the public for civil rights, ineffectiveness of treatment, bureaucratic ineptitude, institutional overcrowding and more. In response, correctional agencies emphasized professionalism, Robert Hanser notes in Introduction to Corrections. This focus would better serve the community and bring higher standards to corrections. After this point, the occupation was much more in line with the current field.
The Current Role of a Correctional Officer
“Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to serve time in jail or prison,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Correctional officers enforce rules and regulations that maintain security and account for the locations of inmates at all times. They may inspect facilities, search for contraband, write reports and perform other tasks. Typically, correctional officers get to know and build relationships with inmates they are responsible for, especially in state and federal prisons where prisoners tend to stay for longer periods of time.
Rehabilitative duties are now common for correctional officers, who often facilitate communication between inmates and counselors as well as other professionals, such as social workers. Correctional officers may act as a community liaison for programs outside prison facilities and newly released prisoners.
Correctional officers can and should play a role in treating prison inmates with serious medical illnesses, an article from Psychiatric Quarterly argues. Correctional officers and nurses can assume many of the roles and duties traditionally attributed to clinicians, and they have access to inmates 24 hours per day. The article describes four activities that make up mental health treatment in prison: counseling and psychotherapy, or talking with inmates; consultation, or talking about inmates; special housing, activities and behavioral programs; and medication.
Advances in Corrections
Corrections continues to evolve. Correctional officers now can have a major impact on rehabilitative efforts in prisons and other facilities. Perhaps further efforts will be made to establish a stronger connection between rehabilitation and the roles of correctional officers, as Psychiatric Quarterly poses.
Alvernia University’s online B.A. in Criminal Justice prepares graduates for careers in corrections, law enforcement, security and other criminal justice fields. Students in this program can learn the skills and knowledge needed for leadership positions and other opportunities.