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Criminal Justice: How to Work in Corrections or Private Security

Are you interested in law and security? Do you want a stable profession working with people? Have you ever found yourself thinking about organization and order? You may be a good fit for a career in criminal justice, the corrections system or private security. 

One first step toward working in criminal justice, such as private security or as a corrections officer or jailer is to pursue a criminal justice: corrections degree or certificate. This program can open doors to work in private, state, federal prisons or local jails as well as in private security in California. Learn how to join this exciting career and why you should pursue a correctional officer degree. 

What Do Corrections Officers Do?

Correctional officers work in jails and prisons and oversee those who have been incarcerated, including those who are awaiting bail or other trial proceedings. Depending on the setting, such as the difference between a jail and a prison, there are different responsibilities a corrections officer takes on.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Correctional officers typically do the following:[1]

  • Enforce rules and keep order within jails or prisons
  • Supervise activities of inmates
  • Inspect facilities to ensure that they meet security and safety standards
  • Search inmates for contraband items
  • Report on inmate conduct
  • Escort and transport inmates

Day-to-day tasks of a correctional officer can vary, and will vary depending on where they work. Maybe you will spend time searching for contraband or checking the health and safety conditions inmates are living in. You may work to prevent escapes by guarding against tampering with cells, bars, locks, fences or gates around a facility. A major part of your role will be watching inmates to make sure there is no suspicious activity or dangerous behavior, as the safety and well-being in prisoners is a major part of your job. 

When considering what is a prison guard vs correctional officer, they’re the same role but with updated language. Correctional officer is used as a softer term, more encompassing of the holistic approach to safety officers now take, whereas prison guard is a more limited term. 

Day in the Life of a Correctional Officer

Correctional officers often work shifts, with the whole team providing 24-hour protection of a prison or jail. [2] That means as a correctional officer you may have to work nights and weekends. Your day may start with a meeting to change shifts, where you learn what happened during the last correctional officers’ schedules and any pertinent information. After that you will likely go relieve the officer on duty and take on your shift. 

Throughout your shift there will be various activities you perform as a correctional officer. You may take a count of inmates to make sure everyone is accounted for and supervised. You may supervise inmates performing chores or tasks such as cleaning, as well as recreation time. Correctional officers may supervise inmates taking medications, to ensure they properly take them. You may oversee the distribution of meals to make sure no one gets an extra portion or misses a meal. 

Contraband checks in jails and prisons are common throughout the day-to-day of a correctional officer. Not only are items like weapons and drugs not permitted, but depending on the facility they may disapprove of extra blankets or pillows, photographs, or other personal items. 

At the end of your shift another officer will relieve you, much like you relieved the corrections officer who was working before you. 

Why Become a Correctional Officer

Though work as a correctional officer can be stressful, there are benefits to the job. First and foremost is job security. The U.S. incarceral system holds nearly 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.[3]

According to the BLS, though there is a projected decline in employment levels for correctional officers and bailiffs between 2019 and 2029, job prospects should still be good due to the need to replace correctional officers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force, such as to retire. [4] With so many incarcerated people in America, it is unlikely that  prison guards will be phased out in the country.

Correctional Officer Salary in California

In May 2019 the median annual salary for correctional officers and jailers was $45,180, according to the BLS. [5] The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10% earned less than $31,740, and the highest 10% earned more than $78,090.

According to the BLS, California was the top paying state for corrections officers and jailers in May 2109, with a median annual wage of $78,510/ [6] Some top-paying metropolitan areas in California include:

Metropolitan area Employment  Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage 
Stockton-Lodi, CA 1,630 $39.08 $81,280
Bakersfield, CA 4,320 $38.38 $79,830
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 1,750 $38.32 $79,710
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 5,280 $38.14 $79,330
Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA 2,190 $36.89 $76,720
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 2,160 $36.30 $75,510
Fresno, CA 1,600 $34.98 $72,750

Correctional Officer Jobs in California

In 2019, California had the second most number of employed correctional officers and jailers with 36,090 jobs.[6] There are plenty of correctional officer jobs in California. There are 35 adult prisons in the California State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system. There are also many local jails and additional federal prisons.[7]

To find California department of corrections jobs, you can look for vacancies through the State Personnel Board website,[8] view the CDCR departmental vacancy list,[9] or contact the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and speak to a CDCR recruiter.

To find a prison guard job at a California county jail, consider reaching out to your local sheriff’s department.

How to Become a Correctional Officer in California

In order to work with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation you must meet some requirements to become a correctional officer:

  1. Have U.S. citizenship (or a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service accepting your application for citizenship)
  2. Be 21 years of age at the time of appointment to Correctional Peace Officer
  3. Have a U.S. high school diploma and/or GED
  4. Possess physical fitness
  5. Have no felony convictions
  6. Be eligible to own/possess a firearm

Beyond those basic requirements, the application process to work for the CDCR is lengthy and can take as long as 18 months to complete. First you must fill out an online application. Once that application has been received, you will be notified about a date for your written examination.[10] Notification for the written exam can take as long as six months. 

Candidates who successfully complete the written examination will be scheduled to take a CDCR physical test in the following month.[11] After that, candidates will be fingerprinted. 

Correctional Officer Certifications 

There are a variety of certifications that may bolster your candidacy as a correctional officer. Some of these include: 

  • Standards and Training for Corrections (STC) Adult Core Academy
  • Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) Security Guard Card and (BSIS) Security Guard Exposed Weapons permits
  • Certification in CPR/First Aid

At San Joaquin Valley College Criminal Justice: Corrections students learn:

  • Arrest and control techniques
  • Courtroom procedures
  • CPR and First Aid
  • Firearms* use
  • Evidence collection and preservation

SJVC also teaches STC, which includes 8-hour Baton, and Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) certified training in Powers to Arrest, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Firearms*, Baton, Chemical Agents, Public Relations, Observations and Documentation, Communications and its Significance, and Liability and Legal Aspects.

* Effective January 1, 2020, BSIS Exposed Firearms Permits may only be issued to applicants who are 21 years of age or older. Individuals who do not meet the new age requirement will be provided alternate training during the firearm sessions, and are welcome to pursue the certification after they meet the age requirement.


Find Your Path in Criminal Justice

SJVC is committed to hands-on training in the skills you need as a correctional officer. Learn more about our program and exciting opportunities.

Other Careers with a Criminal Justice: Corrections Degree

Those who pursue a Criminal Justice: Corrections degree are not limited to correctional positions when they graduate. They may also be interested in pursuing careers in retail loss prevention or private security. 

According to the BLS, security guards and gaming surveillance officers typically do the following:[12]

  • Enforce laws and protect an employer’s property
  • Monitor alarms and closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras
  • Respond to emergencies
  • Control building access for employees and visitors
  • Conduct security checks over a specified area
  • Write reports on what they observed while on duty
  • Detain violators

The 2019 median salary for security guards was $29,680. The lowest 10% earned less than $21,150, and the highest 10% earned more than $50,310.[13] Additionally, employment of security guards is projected to grow 4% from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.[14] Security guards will continue to be needed to protect both people and property because of concerns about crime and vandalism.

Getting a degree in Criminal Justice: Corrections can help you obtain the same certifications that can help bolster a correctional officer application. Certifications like the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) Security Guard Card and (BSIS) Security Guard Exposed Weapons permits may help you find employment in private security
Is a Criminal Justice Degree Worth It?

There are many paths to a career in criminal justice, and especially corrections and private security. While a degree may not be required, there are many criminal justice degree jobs that may benefit from pursuing a degree. In particular, it can be helpful to obtain certifications such as CPR/first aid and weapons handling before you apply for Correctional Officer jobs.

While the BLS says there is “moderate-term on-the-job training” for those who want to become correctional officers,[15] in a competitive field it may be beneficial to come into the process already with a good foundation of understanding around the job.

Pursuing an education is always a big decision, but it could have major benefits. In addition to giving you an understanding of criminal justice and correctional officer jobs, getting an associate degree in Criminal Justice: Corrections also gives you the basic foundation of an A.S. education, which can be beneficial. The BLS reports that those with an associate degree earn $141 more a week than those with only a high school diploma.[16]

What to Look for in a Correctional Officer Program

Investing in your education to get a Criminal Justice: Corrections is a big decision, and you shouldn’t just settle on the first school you find. Here are a few important factors to consider when looking a Criminal Justice: Corrections programs:

Small class sizes. You’re learning physical techniques in safety. You need to have individual attention from your instructor.
Hands-on training. When working with items like firearms and batons, theory is not enough. Criminal Justice: Corrections programs should be physical and hands-on.
Industry Certifications. Half the benefit of an A.S. in Criminal Justice: Corrections is obtaining the industry certifications like BSIS guard card and STC certification. You should ask what certifications your program teaches.
Career support. Programs and schools should be dedicated to your success. Many institutions, like SJVC, offer career services to help you with your job search after graduation.
Cost. Education is a major investment, but it’s an investment in your future. SJVC and many other institutions participate in most financial assistance programs, both federal and state, as well as private financing. Student loans, grants, and scholarships are available to those who qualify.

What Will I Learn in a Criminal Justice: Corrections Program?

Beyond core competencies like composition and math, here are some classes you could take at SJVC during correctional officer training:

CO 2: Introduction to Administration of Justice – This course covers the history and philosophy of justice as it has evolved throughout the world. This course offers an in-depth study of the American system and the various sub-systems, roles, and role expectations of criminal justice agents and their interrelationship with society; concepts of crime causation; punishment and rehabilitation; ethics; and education in training relating to professionalism in the social system.

CO 8: Introduction to Investigation – The fundamentals of investigation are introduced in this course through the following topics: techniques of crime scene search and recording, collection and preservation of physical evidence, modus operandi, sources of information, interview and interrogation, and follow-up investigation.

CJ 14: Juvenile Law and Procedures – This course identifies techniques for handling juvenile offenders and victims, prevention and repression of delinquency, diagnosis and referral procedures for juveniles, and the organization of community resources. Juvenile law and juvenile court procedures will also be covered.

Criminal Justice: Corrections Admissions Requirements at SJVC

Because criminal justice graduates handle firearms and sensitive situations, there are some additional admissions requirements you should consider. Admissions to SJVC’s Criminal Justice: Corrections program requires:

  • High school diploma or equivalent
  • Passing score in Admissions assessment
  • U.S. Citizenship
  • No felony criminal convictions
  • No misdemeanor convictions that would prohibit an applicant from possessing a firearm
  • No legal conditions that would prohibit an applicant from possessing a firearm
  • Valid California driver’s license
  • Applicant must be in good health and physically fit
  • Applicant must be age 18 by program start date

Kickstart Your Career in Criminal Justice

Small class sizes, individual attention, and hands-on training in the skills you need. Learn more about criminal justice with SJVC.

Criminal Justice: Corrections Programs by SJVC

If you’re interested in the exciting world of criminal justice, corrections or private security, it may be time to consider SJVC’s Criminal Justice: Corrections program. Our Criminal Justice: Corrections program offers hands-on training from experts in the field that may help you get a boost when applying to jobs. Our program is offered at the available at the following campuses:

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