Prisons: Correctional Officers


Correctional officers (C.O.s) are "people workers" who interact with prison inmates on an intensely personal level, in an environment of close physical proximity over long periods of time, while functioning as low-level members of a complex bureaucratic organization (Lombardo, 1981). C.O.s are the primary social control agents in the prison because they are responsible for regulating inmate behavior through direct supervision and the enforcement of rules and regulations. They function within a paramilitary organizational structure that requires them to wear military-type uniforms and carry firearms and other weapons during specific types of assignments. This organizational structure is autocratic in nature and C.O.s are required to follow loyally a rigid chain of command that is organized in terms of military ranks: officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and major. These ranks form a command and control structure that has the power located at the top. Power and communication flow down the chain of command with every person in a subordinate position expected to obey without question the orders of their superior officer(s). The primary criteria for promotion in corrections is time in rank and job performance. Formal education is less of a consideration. The minimum requirement for employment as a C.O. continues to be a high school degree or a graduate equivalency diploma (GED). Therefore, most C.O.s have a limited formal education and the majority of supervisory (commissioned) officers are not college educated.

The correctional officer occupies the unique position of being both a manager and a worker. C.O.s are low-status workers, the lowest subordinates in the chain of command. However, they are also the primary managers of inmates. Because they occupy the lowest level in the correctional hierarchy C.O.s are under the constant scrutiny of commissioned officers in much the same way as inmates are under officer scrutiny. Because contraband is always a major security concern in a prison, C.O.s are subject to random searches as they enter the institution in the same way that inmates are subject to random searches as they go about their business. Officers are subject to administrative disciplinary action if they violate any of the rules and regulations contained in the code of ethics or conduct that managers use to define appropriate correctional employee behavior.

The C.O. and rule enforcement

The C.O. role of primary social control agent relies on enforcement of a multitude of rules. These rules are typically classified as major or minor. Major rules are prohibitions against violation of the crime code: murder, assault, rape, arson, escape, drug trafficking, drug use, and other felonies. Minor rules are prohibitions against the violation of institutional rules regarding horseplay, disrespect to employees, maintaining sanitary housing quarters, and not playing the radio too loud. Formal punishment of rule violations is initiated through the officer's filing of a written misconduct report that is reviewed during a semilegal proceeding that determines the inmate's guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the inmate is subject to sanctions imposed by the misconduct reviewer that may range from suspension of privileges to a recommendation that parole be denied. Increasingly, in an attempt to make decision-making impartial, this individual is a hearing examiner who is a correctional employee, but not an employee of the prison in which the misconduct has occurred. C.O.s no longer have the authority to determine guilt and sanctions.

Inmate rule violations are common. In 1986, 53 percent of the 450,000 state prison inmates received misconducts for at least one rule violation during the period of their confinement (Stephen). In 1997, state and federal C.O.s reported a total of 1,841,913 minor rule violations and 821,004 major rule violations (Camp and Camp, p. 28). However, there is evidence that the rule violations reported by C.O.s do not represent the total number of rule violations committed by inmates, or observed by C.O.s. Hewitt, Poole, and Regoli have reported that inmates engage in a much higher level of rule violation than official reports record because very few rule violations result in a misconduct report. This conclusion is supported by C.O.s reporting that they observe nearly the same number of violations claimed by inmates. C.O.s exercise a considerable amount of discretion in making the decision to report, or not report, inmate rule violations.

The ability of C.O.s to engage in discretionary rule enforcement is a matter of concern for researchers and practitioners alike because of the possibility that racial discrimination may be a source of differential rule violation reporting. For example, Carroll found that African American inmates were disproportionately reported for all levels of rule violations, especially serious violations, and were subjected to closer surveillance and control by white C.O.s than were white inmates. Held and others determined that African American inmates receive a disproportionately higher number of misconduct reports because white officers consider African American inmates to be more aggressive and dangerous than white inmates. This effect was most noticeable in minor rule violation situations in which the C.O.s had the most discretionary authority. Held and others concluded that the disproportionate number of misconduct reports written on African American inmates was the result of white officer perception of dangerousness, not inmate behavior. Poole and Regoli (1980) also reported that African American inmates were cited for more rule violations than were white inmates. Finally, in a review of fifteen studies Goetting found that seven reported higher rates of rule violation reports filed against African American inmates while seven found no significant difference in reporting rates by race.

Organizational culture

C.O.s are a numeric minority with a high potential for violent interactions with inmates (Brown). In 1997, inmates committed 14,359 assaults against correctional staff. Four of these staff members died (Camp and Camp, pp. 40, 153). The nature of the inmate population has changed since the late 1960s and the level of physical threat has increased dramatically in response to massive prison overcrowding and an influx of younger, more violent criminals (Hepburn). Because the inmate population views correctional officers as the enemy and may respond to their authority with hostile, dangerous, and unpredictable behavior (Poole and Regoli, 1981) the officer-inmate relationship is one of "structured conflict" (Jacobs and Kraft).

"Structured conflict" provides the foundation for an organizational culture dominated by three principles of officer-inmate interaction: (1) security and control are the highest priority; (2) officer-inmate social distance should be high; and (3) officers must be tough, knowledgeable, and able to control inmates (Welch). The officers' attitude toward inmates is composed of a mixture of suspicion, fear, contempt, and hostility (Jacobs and Kraft). New officers are taught to adhere to a subcultural code of conduct organized around group solidarity and mutual support. The values of this code include: (1) always go to the aid of an officer in distress; (2) never make an officer look bad in front of inmates; (3) always support an officer in a dispute with an inmate; (4) always support another officer's sanctions against inmates; (5) show concern for fellow officers; (6) do not smuggle drugs for inmates' use; (7) do not be sympathetic to inmates; (8) maintain group solidarity against outside groups; and (9) never inform on another officer (Kauffman). This last value is central to the code of silence that prohibits C.O.s from testifying about other officers' corruption or brutality.

Changes in the correctional officer role

The organizational goals of American prisons define the role of the correctional officer (Hepburn and Albonetti). Prior to the 1960s the sole expectation for C.O.s was that they be custody-oriented. Recruitment standards were low or nonexistent. Applicants were required to have only a minimal level of education and, in many prisons, education was not a consideration in hiring. The primary incentive for prison employment was the security offered by civil service employment in a job that some found more appealing and lucrative than farming, mining, or manufacturing work. People were also forced into prison work by unfortunate circumstances, such as the unavailability of jobs (Jacobs and Retsky) or because of layoffs, injuries, or failure in their initial choice of occupation (Lombardo). As a result, the typical officer was a rural, white male possessing limited education, politically conservative, brutal, slow to accept change, who often came to corrections at a relatively late age after mixed success in civilian life or retirement from the military (Philliber).

Training was typically on the job and often involved nothing more than a new recruit being handed a set of cell block keys and being told to learn the job as quickly as possible. The custody-oriented C.O. role definition was unambiguous. They were to maintain security and control through enforcement of institutional rules. The ability to accomplish this goal was based on their unchallenged power to accuse and punish inmates for rule violations with no regard for due process or inmate rights. Inmate control methods relied on physical coercion and discipline, and C.O.s were called guards because guarding inmates was all that was expected of them. As a result there has always been a widespread public perception that C.O.s are low in intelligence, brutal, alienated, cynical, burned out, stressed, and repressors of minority individuals (Philliber).

However, beginning in the 1960s a broad range of inmate rehabilitation programs were introduced into prisons that had historically viewed custody and control as the sole organizational goal (Farmer). This new emphasis on rehabilitation also introduced the expectation that C.O.s were to move beyond the clearly defined security role and assume the much more ambiguous role of human service-oriented professionals who would assist highly educated treatment professionals in inmate rehabilitation (Jurik). The introduction of rehabilitation created an ambiguous social organization (Cressey, 1966; Brown) by introducing a set of contradictory goals. The goal of custody demands the maintenance of maximum social distance between C.O.s and inmates and the avoidance of informal relationships, affective ties, and discretionary rule enforcement (Cressey, 1965; Hepburn and Albonetti). However, the goal of treatment requires relaxed discipline, affective ties, informal relationships that minimize social distance, and the exercise of discretionary rule enforcement based on individual inmate characteristics and circumstances. Punitive control policies were subordinated to the expectation that C.O.s were to be human-oriented and flexible (Cressey, 1965).

Most correctional facilities today accept the dual roles of custody and treatment, and C.O.s are defined as agents of inmate change who are expected to use discretion to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates while simultaneously maintaining security through rule enforcement (President's Commission; Cressey, 1966; Poole and Regoli, 1981). Simultaneous performance of the dual roles of custody and treatment create role conflict characterized by uncertainty and danger because C.O.s can be disciplined for violating institutional policy even if that violation is meant to assist inmate rehabilitation (Hepburn).

The introduction of rehabilitation coincided with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that provided inmates with increased civil rights and decreased the ability of correctional officers to rely on punitive control. The result was due processoriented disciplinary hearings, restrictions on the use of isolation as a disciplinary sanction, and the creation of formal inmate grievance mechanisms. These significantly limited the power of C.O.s and provided inmates with a powerful countervailing power (Poole and Regoli, 1981). This shift in power created for correctional officers a perception of loss of control and a belief that inmates possessed more power than officers (Fox; Hepburn). The product of this perception was a strained and unhealthy atmosphere (Duffee, 1974; Patterson) characterized by a perception that managers and treatment staff possessed more respect for inmates than for C.O.s. This perception of being treated unfairly has generated deeply ingrained C.O. feelings of frustration, anger, and lack of appreciation by superiors (Jacobs and Retsky; Huckabee; Wright and Sweeney).

One of the most significant consequences of the perception that correctional managers were no longer on the side of the officers has been unionization. In the early 1970s, federal law granted C.O.s the right to unionize and they quickly joined powerful national unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) whose leadership has effectively challenged numerous management policies viewed as not being in the best interests of the rank and file. Unions have the authority to successfully influence management's allocation of resources and salaries and benefits have risen dramatically as a result. Unions have been equally successful in leveling the playing field between officers and management through their ability to legally challenge management policies that are unfair, discriminatory, or arbitrary.

Changes in C.O. workforce demographics

In the 1970s, correctional managers recognized four fundamental challenges: high staff turnover; the growing lack of white applicants in the job pool; the lack of treatment-oriented officers; and minority inmate demands that the correctional work force be diversified (Philliber). The response to these challenges was a concerted effort to increase the number of women and minorities in corrections. The presence of female correctional officers in the men's prison was desired because they were seen as bringing a "normalizing" influence into prison. This perception was based on the assumption that women would rely more extensively on listening and communication skills than male C.O.s and develop personal relationships with inmates that could be used as a "technique of control" (Pollock, p. 111). Minority officers were sought because of a belief that minority inmates would be more amenable to rehabilitation if they were supervised by minority officers who could serve as role models. Minorities were viewed as constituting a more sympathetic work force with which minority inmates could identify (Jacobs and Kraft). The result was the creation of aggressive affirmative action programs.

Prior to the early 1970s, women in corrections worked as matrons in the women's prison or as clerical staff in the men's prisons. They were not hired as C.O.s in men's prisons because of male fears that women lack physical strength; are too easily corrupted by inmates; can not provide appropriate back-up in emergency situations; have a vulnerability to assault that jeopardizes facility security; are a disruptive influence because inmates will not obey them or will fight for their attention; and violate inmate privacy by being in a position to view inmate personal hygiene activities (Hawkins and Alpert; Alpert and Crouch). Because promotional criteria favored staff with direct supervision of male inmates, employees in clerical or matron roles had little hope of professional advancement (Chapman et al.).

The passage of amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in 1972 extended the prohibition of employment discrimination to government employers. Women used this amendment to file civil suits against correctional managers who would not hire them to work as officers in male prisons. As a result, women are no longer limited to supervising women inmates. In states such as Alabama where one-third of correctional officers are women, 89 percent work in men's prisons. In 1997, 14.8 percent of the Federal Bureau of Prison's new hires for the C.O. workforce were women. At the state level, 25.5 percent of the new hires, on average, were women (Camp and Camp, p. 144).

Thirty years of experience have found that male concerns about the unsuitability of women to be C.O.s in men's prisons are groundless (Walters; Wright and Saylor). Shawver and Dickover and Rowan reported that female officers are assaulted significantly less often than male officers and there is no relationship between the percentage of women officers and the number of assaults against male staff. Simon and Simon found that female C.O.s write approximately the same number of misconduct reports as male C.O.s, for the same types of violations. Jurik and Halemba found one significant difference between male and female officer perceptions of the job. The men wanted more discretion. The women wanted more structure. Both male and female C.O.s tended to believe that the majority of their work-related problems were caused by superiors, although women were more likely to express negative attitudes toward male coworkers and view them as the cause of many of their problems. Fry and Glasner (1987) found that female officers were more negative in their evaluation of inmate services.

However, male officer hostility to the hiring of female C.O.s has been a consistent problem in corrections and women are still a numeric minority in most men's prisons. Their appearance, demeanor, behavior, performance, and mistakes receive a disproportionate amount of attention (Zimmer). In addition, male supervisors often assign female C.O.s to low-risk assignments such as visiting rooms and control rooms, a practice that limits their opportunities for skills development and advancement and further antagonizes male C.O.s who resent working the dangerous jobs while women get the easy jobs (Zimmer; Jurik, 1985).

The decision to recruit minority officers through aggressive affirmative action programs was met with fierce resistance by white officers. Racism was prevalent and many white officers believed that nonwhite, urban C.O.s would be pro-inmate and less trustworthy (Irwin). The fear that minority officers would "go easy" on inmates has not been validated by research. In fact, Jacobs and Kraft found that African American C.O.s were more punitive than whites toward inmates. Klofas and Toch found that minority C.O.s expressed the need for high social distance between officer and inmate.

By the end of 1997, the percentage of minority hires in state departments of corrections was 26.9 percent of the total hired (Camp and Camp, p. 143). However, racism remains a powerful factor in corrections. Philliber notes the tendency of African American C.O.s to quit their jobs more often than whites, primarily because of conflicts with superior officers, and to express higher levels of job dissatisfaction than whites.

Correctional officer stress

A number of studies have documented that C.O.s experience higher levels of stress than most other occupational groups (Laskey, Gordon, and Strebalus; Lindquist and Whitehead; Honnold and Stinchcomb; and Wright). There are numerous stressors in the C.O.s' work environment. They live by a macho code that requires them to be rugged individualists who can be counted upon to do their duty regardless of circumstances. Both management and C.O.s expect that every officer will perform the functions of their assignment independently, and seek assistance only when it is absolutely necessary, as in the case of physical assault, escape, or riot. This macho code combined with the unpredictability of working with inmates, role ambiguity, and demographic changes in the work force create high C.O. stress levels.

In addition, C.O.s frequently complain of structural stressors associated with the traditional autocratic style of correctional management: feelings of being trapped in the job; low salaries; inadequate training; absence of standardized policies, procedures, and rules; lack of communication with managers; and little participation in decision-making (Philliber). The failure of managers to support line staff has been emphasized by Lombardo and Brodsky. There are also gender differences in stress perception. Zimmer and Jurik have found that female C.O.s report higher levels of stress than male C.O.s because of employee sexual harassment, limited supervisory support, and a lack of programs designed to integrate them into the male prison.

The consequences of stress include: powerful feelings of alienation, powerlessness, estrangement, and helplessness; physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and ulcers (Cornelius); twice the national divorce rate average; and high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and heart attacks. Cheek reports that C.O.s have an average life span of fifty-nine years compared to a national average of seventy-five years. The organizational consequences of stress include high employee turnover, reduced job productivity, high rates of absenteeism and sick leave use, and inflated health-care costs and disability payments (Patterson). Some C.O.s also respond to stress by engaging in corruption or inmate brutality.

Correctional managers have responded to these consequences by seeking to recruit and retain individuals who have the psychological resources to handle the stress of institutional life. Application selection methods rely on psychological testing, background checks, and rigorous interviews. Those applicants who are hired are required to complete a probationary period that is, on average, ten months in length and includes 232 hours of entry-level training (Camp and Camp, p. 146) before they can be assigned a permanent job within the correctional facility. This probationary period begins with standardized training in a correctional training academy whose instructors are qualified to provide oral instruction, written examination, and practical hands-on application of techniques. Training curriculums are designed to provide trainees with the knowledge necessary to become a human servicesoriented professional who can assist inmates as they meet the challenges of incarceration and preparation for return to the community. The typical corrections curriculum includes instruction in such diverse areas as: the professional image; interpersonal communications; assertive techniques; development of observation skills; prison subcultures; classification of inmates; legal aspects of corrections; inmate disciplinary procedures; fire prevention; security awareness; stress awareness and management; control of aggressive inmate behavior; cultural sensitivity; emergency preparedness; HIV; report writing; suicidal inmates; mentally disturbed inmates and special behavior problems; principles of control; basic defensive tactics; standard first aid; use of the baton; firearms training; drug awareness; search procedures; use of inmate restraints; transportation of inmate procedures; and weapon cleaning and maintenance. Increasingly, academy curriculums include ethical behavior, cultural sensitivity, and awareness of diversity courses designed to help C.O.s adjust to a work environment that has become increasingly multicultured. State correctional systems now require C.O.s to annually participate in, on average, forty-two hours of in-service training designed to help them maintain high levels of professional efficiency and ethical behavior (Camp and Camp, p. 147).

In addition, correctional managers are increasingly adapting a participatory management style that emphasizes employee empowerment through shared decision-making and input solicitation, unit management, and formal mentoring programs (Cushman and Sechrest; Freeman). This management style is associated with higher levels of employee morale and job satisfaction than is the traditional autocratic management style (Duffee, 1989). As management and training philosophies become more sophisticated C.O.s will be better prepared to manage the stresses inherent in their critical role as human service professionals in an increasingly complex work environment.

Robert M. Freeman

See also Correctional Reform Associations; Deterrence; Incapacitation; Jails; Juvenile Justice: Institutions; Prisoners, Legal Rights of; Prisons: History; Prisons: Prisoners; Prisons: Prisons for Women; Prisons: Problems and Prospects; Rehabilitation; Retributivism.


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FREEMAN, ROBERT M.. "Prisons: Correctional Officers." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. 24 May. 2016 <>.

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