|Minimum Preparation Requirements for Correctional Officers: Part 1|
|By Dr. Susan Jones|
The following is the first in a two part series written by Dr. Susan Jones.
The type of people recruited to work in this country’s prisons directly affects the success of that system. Toward that end, it is necessary to understand what the correctional systems are using as a screening tool for potential employees. This article provides a snapshot of the current minimum educational and age requirements for the state correctional systems as well as the Bureau of Prisons. It also provides a review of the Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP), which targeted the educational requirements for corrections personnel.
The civil unrest of the 1960s in this country drew attention to many different components of society; including prisons. Allegations of abuse within prisons and corruption within all of law enforcement were very common. One result of this civil unrest was a call for dramatic, system-wide changes for the criminal justice system. The focus was not just on the prisons, but also upon the treatment of citizens by police officers and the court system. This lead to what has been described as a crisis in law enforcement that culminated in disruptions both socially and politically (Jacobs & Magdovitz, 1977; Norman, 1980). As a result, several task groups were formed to look at solutions, including the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. This commission paved the way for funding for criminal justice research and education with the establishment of the Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP). This program provided funding as a way to achieve the recommendations of the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, specifically that higher education be viewed as an occupational necessity for law enforcement. The commissions urged that “some college” be required for all appointments and that higher requirements be mandated for any promotions (Travis, 1995).
One of the clearly articulated goals of LEEP was to increase the dignity of the profession by providing educated professionals to lead this system (Winslow, 1968). The Law Enforcement Education Program funded many criminal justice education programs within institutions of higher education for programs aimed at police officers and correctional officers. The assumption was that if officers possessed a college degree, the incidence of abuse would decrease and the criminal justice system would be run more humanely and fairly (Hepburn & Knepper, 1993; Poole & Regoli, 1980).
The Presidential Commission of 1967 concluded that the corrections system was in need of more highly trained and committed professionals to lead these systems. The commission also concluded that an increase in the educational preparation would then increase the dignity of the profession and work to decrease the incidence of abuse, reduce prison violence, and reduce offender recidivism (Gibbons & Katzenbach, 2006; Human Rights Watch, 1996, October 1, 1997; Martin & Jurik, 2007; PEW Center on the States, 2009; Slate, 2008; Winslow, 1968).
LEEP was authorized to make loans and grants to institutions of higher education for each person enrolled in a full time program directly related to law enforcement. The grant would be cancelled by two years of law enforcement experience. Twenty-five percent of the loan would be cancelled each year the recipient worked in law enforcement. Full time service would pay off a loan in four years (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1974).
During the same time period, the court systems launched into an era where they exercised a great deal of power upon the entire criminal justice system. The 1964 decision of Cooper v. Pate held that prison inmates could bring lawsuits against prison authorities under Section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act (Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546). This decision led to a significant increase in civil rights litigation from inmates which resulted in many systems being found to be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. As many as thirty states in the United States were under court orders or consent decrees in the 1990s because of the conditions of confinement (Keating, 1992). Many of the court ordered changes included some of the same goals of the 1967 Presidential Commission.
The need for a new type of professional corrections employee was implied by the courts and clearly documented in the Presidential Commission’s work. The task force concluded that encouraging educated young men to enter the field of law enforcement was important and that “most intelligent, well-adjusted high school graduates now go into college” (U.S. Government, 1970, p. 154), so law enforcement needed to do something to attract these men or be left to “recruit from among those who lack either the ability or ambition to further their education” (U.S. Government, 1970, p. 154).
As early as 1980, many corrections systems began to require some college or even a college degree for entry-level positions. A. Alber, former director of the Pueblo Community College Criminal Justice program, recalls that the Colorado Department of Corrections required at least 30 hours of college credits in a behavioral science program or law enforcement experience, beginning in 1981. Then in 1987, Colorado increased that requirement to at least a two year degree in a behavioral science or criminal justice field (A. Alber, personal communication, June 9, 2011). This change was a direct result of the increase in the availability of college graduates from community colleges and universities. However, even though the prison population was continuing to increase, the number of people available in the U.S. workforce had started to drop and in periods of good economic times, recruitment for corrections was difficult. The career goals and work-life expectations of younger generations also had an impact on the profession. As a result of these work force changes, many systems throughout the country started to reduce minimum qualifications for entry level officers. In 1997, Colorado reduced the minimum educational requirement from an associate’s degree to high school diploma or GED (A. Alber, personal communication, June 9, 2011).
Looking back at the recent history in corrections, the issue has come full circle. Colorado, as well as other jurisdictions, went from requiring a high school education to requiring some level of college to again only requiring a high school education. However, the complexity of the work did not follow this same circle. The correctional facilities have evolved into very complex structures. Many of the newer facilities have highly complex electronic backbones that require advanced skills to do even the most simple tasks (Mears, 2008; Riveland, 1999). Opening cell doors at these newer facilities is not done with a key but with a computer system. Additionally, the types of offenders who are incarcerated today have changed as a result of an increase in gang involvement. Issues such as religious freedom and practice, pornography censorship, gang management, accommodation for disability and languages, aging offender populations and an increase in the number of offenders that are under the age of 18, but sentenced to adult prison, are just a few examples of this complexity (Riveland, 1999).
A review of relevant research does not offer clear direction on whether a correctional officer needs a college degree. Some would argue that the stigmatization of the job, working hours, and isolated locations of prisons actually discourage candidates with college degrees from pursuing this type of a career (Irwin, 2005; Jacobs & Retsky, 1975). If correctional officers are truly expected to act as social control agents as suggested by Jacobs (1975), then perhaps there is a compelling reason to pursue increasing the number of college-educated officers in corrections. Correctional officers have been noted to underestimate the impact they have on offenders yet the correctional officers are the people who spend the most time interacting with offenders, far more than any treatment provider (Antonio, Young, & Wingeard, 2009). As a result, recruitment and retention of corrections officers may be a key factor towards effective social change.
This article offers a snapshot view of the minimum qualifications that are currently in place in United States prison, both within the Bureau of Prisons and the state corrections systems. The information provided on Table 1, was obtained from a variety of sources, primarily corrections department’s web sites. The information captured in this Table 1 is limited to the minimum age and minimum educational requirement only. Some jurisdictions require specific experience and if the applicant doesn’t have that experience, education may substitute for the experience.
All jurisdictions require no more than a high school diploma or GED for the minimum educational requirement. Seven jurisdictions have higher education requirements listed on their recruiting websites but each of these jurisdictions allow for this requirement to be substituted for experience.
The minimum age was reported in Table 2 to provide a more complete snapshot of the type of candidate that each agency recruits (of course, any requirement for college education would necessitate an increase in the age of applicants). In six jurisdictions there is no specific minimum age, but often the experience requirements listed imply that the person must be at least 18. As the chart indicates, most of the jurisdictions (21) require officers to be 18 years old or older and only fifteen jurisdictions require officers to be 21. The minimum age for ten other jurisdictions varies between 18 and 21.
The issue of minimum age is often a point of debate among corrections professionals who are charged with recruiting or supervising corrections staff. Many corrections professionals believe that it takes a level of maturity to work in a correctional institution and age is often a way to estimate that maturity. However, more than one jurisdiction has reduced the minimum age requirement in a response to the decreasing applicant pool (Correctionsone.News, 2015).
Come back next week to read the "Minimum Preparation Requirements for Correctional Officers: Part 2".
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. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".
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