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Perception About the Status of Corrections Work
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 02/16/2015

Correctionsofficer *This article was published in part in The Correctional Oasis newsletter, July 2014. It has been reprinted with permission from the author.

Very few people grow up thinking that they want to become a correctional officer (prison guard) in part, because it is often seen as a less desirable occupation than many others. Many occupational surveys do not even include correctional officer as a choice to be rated. However, the Career Cast 2014 jobs survey, reported by CNBC’s Cindy Perman showed that the job of corrections officer was listed as the tenth worst job in the country based upon the environment, income, outlook and stress. The fact that corrections officer was even listed on the survey indicated an improvement in status over surveys done by other researchers.

The term corrections officer is considered more acceptable that the more commonly known title of prison guard. During the 1990s, corrections professionals began an all-out assault on the label of “guard” as one strategy to move the field towards a more professional status. The American Correctional Association ratified a policy in January 1999, regarding the term guard. In that policy they committed to promoting the term correctional officer in all of their publications and communications (ACA, 2014). A second strategy to improve the public perception of corrections work can often be found in correctional publications and strategic plans.

Many of these plans include a goal of educating the public about corrections work. These types of objectives or goals are commonly based upon the belief that the public does not understand the work that goes on inside a prison, and that lack of understanding is the reason there is so little respect of the profession.

If this assumption is accurate then people who are informed about the work of corrections should place a higher value upon the corrections work. Toward that end, the perceptions of college/university criminal justice professors in a single western state were surveyed by the author in 2012. A survey was constructed to examine the opinions of professors that currently teach in a college level criminal justice program. An email invitation was delivered to criminal justice professors asking them to complete an internet based survey. The survey was delivered to 106 professors and 25 (24%) professors completed the survey. This group of respondents provided insight into their perceptions of a variety of law enforcement work by providing a rank, for each statement, for six specific law enforcement careers: police, corrections/detention, probation or parole, court services, victim services, and investigative/security/intelligence.

The following are the four statements survey participants were asked to rank the above six law enforcement careers:
  1. The amount of prestige or social standing that they believed each area is afforded by the public
  2. Their beliefs about the salaries commonly earned in each area
  3. The amount of pre-service training or on the job training needed to perform in each area
  4. The ability of individuals to make a difference for the good of society
When asked to rank the prestige of the jobs in law enforcement, eleven respondents indicated that corrections/detention was the job with the lowest prestige and five ranked it as the next lowest. The remaining responses varied with only one respondent indicating that corrections/detention work was the most prestigious of the law enforcement options. The perception of the type of salary earned by each type of law enforcement was the next question for this group of respondents. A total of eight respondents indicated that corrections/detention work was in the 5th or 6th lowest paid type of law enforcement work. The amount of pre-service or on-the-job training needed for corrections/detention work was ranked the lowest or next to lowest (5th or 6th rank), by 40% of the respondents. The final question, concerning the ability to make a difference for the good of society revealed that 11 respondents believed that corrections/detention work was either the lowest of the next to lowest of the options listed that made a difference (5th or 6th rank).

The survey respondents were also asked to indicate whether a college degree was needed and if so, which type. When asked if corrections/detention work required a college degree six indicated that no degree was needed, thirteen identified the need for an associate degree, and six identified the need for a bachelor’s degree (one respondent did not provide an answer for this question). When comparing these answers with the other areas of law enforcement, only four respondents believed that no degree was needed for police work, and all respondents believed that at least a two years degree was needed for probation/parole.

College Degree Needed

No Degree
Associate Bachelors Masters Doctorate
Police 4 6 15 0 0
Corrections/Detention 6 13 6 0 0
Probation/Parole 0 5 18 2 0
Court Services
6 8 10 1 0
Victim Services
3 4 14 4 0
Investigative/Security/Intelligience 2 5 16 2 0

The information provided by the professors indicates that the perception of corrections work by professors in this western state is not positive. This is a significant statement, if one is to believe that the public would value the work of corrections if they knew more about what it involved. This group of professors should, arguably, be very knowledgeable about corrections/detention work. However, they still ranked it very low in all four areas of the survey: prestige, salary, pre-service training, and the ability to make a difference for the good of society.


Further information regarding the public perception of the status of correctional work can be found in the data revealed by the engagement survey completed by employees of the state of Colorado. The survey measured 14 dimensions of work and state employees were asked to complete this survey twice, in October 2011 and in February 2014. The survey results were obtained from the Colorado Department of Personnel and the data reveals a dramatic difference in the perceived public perception between Department of Correction’s employees and Department of Public Safety employees (which includes state patrol officers).

One of the dimensions measured in this survey was labeled “public service.” As part of this dimension, the following item was included: “The work we do in my department is respected and valued by the public.” In the 2011 survey 60 % of all Colorado state employees rated this statement favorably and in 2014, the percentage increased to 62%. An examination of the results of this survey, by department, shows a significant difference between the overall rating, the rating from Department of Public Safety employees and the rating from Department of Corrections employees. The results for the Department of Public Safety indicated that 76% in 2011 and 77% in 2014 rated as favorable the statement regarding being respected and valued by the public. In stark contrast, the results from the Department of Corrections indicated that only 39% of employees answered this item favorably in 2011 and then in 2014, the percentage decreased to 36%.

The fact that the employees of the Colorado Department of Corrections believe that the public in general does not place a high value upon the work that they do may impact their view of the value of corrections work. One former correctional employee summed it up in this fashion: “There isn’t any status involved in being a corrections officer and never has been. You see on the hierarchy of law enforcement it’s pretty much the bottom, but I was not there for the status. I was there because I knew what I was doing mattered.”

This type of commitment to the work is fundamental to the maintaining the security of the correctional facilities. Perhaps hoping that education of the public will make them understand corrections work is overly optimistic. Instead, the corrections profession may be better served to focus on increasing the skills and abilities of the staff. Most correctional systems do not require any college education or even applicable experience. Short of increasing these minimum requirements, the profession should focus on educational opportunities within the agency or programs that offer financial support for pursing education once the employees are hired. Increasing the formal education of corrections professionals may not lead to an overall public acceptance of the value of corrections work, but it may improve the retention and leadership within the criminal justice systems.

The fact is that public recognition of the corrections profession may never occur. While lack of respect from others does not make corrections work any less important, it may make it more challenging for individual corrections employees to continue to find meaning and pride in what they do. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all professionals who have chosen to dedicate their lives to corrections to support each other and ensure that our fellow correctional professionals are reminded that what they do matters.

American Correctional Association (2014, November/December). "Public correctional policy on term "correctional officer.” Corrections Today.

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis.


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