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8 pieces of advice for new correctional officers

Being new in the correctional environment is overwhelming to say the least, but if you remember just a few things, you can shine above the rest


The corrections profession is filled with unlimited opportunities. Find your passion, follow it and shine so others can follow you.


Being a corrections officer isn’t pretty and it never will be. You are asked to walk into some of the roughest places in the country and lay your life on the line for meager pay and a very rare thank-you. Being new in this environment is overwhelming to say the least, but if you remember just a few things, you can shine above the rest. You will be safer and more respected by staff and inmates alike.

1. Show Integrity Daily

I cannot stress this enough to new employees. Protect your integrity at all costs because once it’s lost, you will never get back. Never make a promise you cannot keep as prisons have long memories. I can assure you that the inmate you just blew off will be living in your next unit over the next 20 years. And that staff member you just told the “white lie” to will be your supervisor in a few years.

2. Lead Others

As a correctional officer, you are a leader of inmates, and a leader of your community, church and family. How many of you are already leading prayer groups at church or coach Little League?

As you grow in this profession, you will make decisions daily that most people are never faced with. Sometimes you will be making life and death decisions. That kind of decision-making will carry into all facets of your life. Most people do not or cannot make decisions at this level; others will look to you when the time comes. The only thing worse than making a “poor” decision is not making a decision at all.

No matter what decision you make, own it. Owning a decision goes back to your integrity. You can rebound from a “poor” decision, but you will never get your integrity back if you don’t own it.

3. Learn From your Mistakes

Be open to criticism and feedback as a way to improve. Take your emotions out of the mix and understand these are your opportunities to become a better correctional officer. If you show respect to the person that gave you the constructive criticism, you will be rewarded with their respect.

Supervising a work detail requires leadership and the ability to communicate clearly. It can also provide opportunities for professional growth. As a correctional officer, you display leadership and communication skills every day when you supervise inmates. Use these times to improve your skills. Many of my best leadership and communication lessons were learned on the job supervising inmates. As a young corrections officer, I found inmates were often brutally honest about my failures or mistakes. After I learned to take my feelings out of it, I soon discovered there was often some truth to their criticism.

4. Be There For Others

On Friday, when you get paid, this job is about you. The rest of the time you are here for others. You are here to protect the public from the criminals. You are here to protect your fellow staff from the inmates we supervise, and you are here to protect the inmates from themselves and each other. You are here because you raised your hand and said, “I will walk in there and do what others cannot.” There is no greater respect from your co-workers than the feeling of knowing you will never be alone when you need help.

5. Be On Time

This shouldn’t be a point of discussion, but I see more and more staff comfortable with being late. The impression you give when you show up right on time or even worse, late, is that you don’t care. This may not be your intent, but when you don’t respect others’ time, they won’t respect yours.

Being late is not just about the disrespect you show to other staff, being late is a comment on your self-image and your integrity.

6. Wear Your Uniform Proudly

The way you wear your uniform is a direct reflection of how you want others to see you. If you want to be respected and heard by your supervisors, show up looking like you care. If you want the respect of the inmate population, show up to work like you have a purpose. Inmates see a sloppy or dirty uniform as a signal of low self-esteem or depression in staff. Investigations show time and time again that inmates are quick to try to manipulate those staff perceived as having low self-esteem.

7. Clean Up After Yourself

Corrections is a 24/7 business, so there is always someone coming to work as you leave. They will be working the same housing unit, chair, patrol vehicle you just left. Show a little consideration and clean up after yourself. Wipe down the work area and take out your trash. Nobody wants to smell your tuna can all night. Take a couple of minutes and show your co-workers the respect of a clean area.

8. Know Policy

Policy is not just about enforcing rules; it provides you the ability to make effective, knowledgeable decisions. Successful staff read policy regularly. Some read a few lines of policy each day, while others read a new policy each month. No matter how you stay current on your institution’s policy, make knowing policy a habit. Just like exercise, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Staff members who know and use policy are seen by inmates and other staff as fair and consistent.

Shine Bright

Francis Bacon wrote, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” When you report to work tomorrow, don’t settle for “eight and the gate.” Let your actions shine above the rest as a person there to make a difference. Be the person others look to for direction, leadership and inspiration.

The corrections profession is filled with unlimited opportunities. Instructor, team member, counselor and even warden are within your grasp. Find your passion, follow it and shine so others can follow you.

Host of The Prison Officer Podcast, Mike Cantrell has been in corrections for over 28 years. He has recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as the Chief of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is a firearms, less lethal, breaching and disturbance control instructor and has led special response, disturbance control and canine teams over his career.

He is a correctional consultant specializing in the use of force and physical security. He is a writer, content creator and speaker on leadership and crisis management.