What the public really thinks of corrections officers
We polled 1,000 Americans about their views of corrections officers. The results may surprise you
By Alexander L. Burton, The University of Texas at Dallas, and Cheryl Lero Jonson, Xavier University
The media has not been kind to corrections officers. From “The Shawshank Redemption” to “Orange is the New Black,” corrections officers regularly are portrayed as cruel, predatory agents of the state drunk on power.  This is in stark contrast to depictions of inmates. Although some offenders are seen as violent and dangerous, nearly every TV show or movie includes one or more sympathetic inmates who are victimized by life circumstances and the system at large.
The damaging stereotype of the abusive correctional officer is not confined to entertainment media, however. Potentially even more detrimental, news media coverage of corrections officers almost exclusively focuses on the “bad apples” in the profession and their misconduct both within and outside the prisons setting.  Headlines frequently feature corrections officers using excessive force, assaulting, or neglecting inmates or engaging in criminal behavior when off-duty. [3,4] This slanderous news coverage occurs even when the officer has not been personally involved. For example, if a crime or other tragic situation involves an officer’s family member, the headline often spotlights the connection the person has to a corrections officer. 
Frustratingly, all this negative coverage is rarely tempered by positive reporting of corrections officers doing good and protecting the public. Thus, corrections officers not only work in a dangerous and demanding job, but they also constantly are dehumanized and denigrated in entertainment and news media alike.
As the majority of Americans will never set foot inside a prison, the public’s knowledge of the correctional system and those who work within it are largely based on the negative images they are fed by the media  With the media seemingly focused on vilifying the profession, one question becomes critically important: How have these continual disparaging portrayals influenced the public’s view of corrections officers? To shed light on this question, we discuss the results of our recent survey asking Americans what they really think about correctional officers and the work they do. 
In early 2022, we polled 1,000 people to explore their views toward corrections officers. The survey posed a handful of statements to the respondents. Each one is listed in the table below along with the percentage of the people that agreed with the statement.
Contrary to the negative images shown in media outlets, there is a strong belief among the public that working in corrections takes courage, bravery and heroism. Our results indicate that the work of officers is well-respected, and there is a belief among the public that officers do their work well.
Another topic examined in the survey was public views toward corrections officers’ pay. After all, salary is a good indicator of the image and prestige of an occupation.  The way we framed our salary question was to compare corrections officers’ pay to police officers’ pay. Historically, police officers have outearned corrections officers by more than $15,000 annually. [6,7] The result of this question looks promising for corrections officers. Nearly 50% of the sample believes that correctional officers should be paid the same as police, with 7% reporting that corrections officers should be paid more.
What can Departments of Correction do with this information?
Despite the negative slander toward the occupation from the media, the public tends to hold corrections officers in high esteem. They view them as brave and heroic, performing a challenging but necessary job, that is deserving of more pay, and not as the corrupt, violent, power-hungry antagonists portrayed in the news, television, and movies.
This information – that the public views corrections officers counter to the media narrative – could be used in three ways:
- Departments could implement this information into their recruiting materials. Whether it be used on billboards, flyers, or videos, the positive image of the job could be sold to prospective applicants. Individuals are more inclined to apply for a job that is viewed positively rather than negatively. [6,9]
- Survey findings could be shared with current staff. Let officers know that the work that they do is respected and valued by the public and that it is acknowledged that working in corrections takes great courage and heroism. Sharing these positive findings with staff takes on added importance given that prior research reports a correlation between staff beliefs of how the public perceives them and their stress levels.  This could be counteracted by sharing these positive findings to increase pride and morale within individual corrections officers and within the larger organization.
- States could promote positive news stories of their officers to increase these sentiments held by the public. Specifically, stories that promote officers exhibiting bravery, courage and heroism could bolster the views already held by the public. Additionally, these stories could help counteract the negative press and slander regularly used by the news media toward the corrections officer occupation.
In closing, corrections officers have challenging and dangerous jobs. Although media portrayals may make it seem that this line of work is looked down upon, our survey results paint a different picture. When asking what the public really think of corrections officers, the answers are overwhelmingly positive: officers are seen as courageous and brave heroes working to keep all of us safe.
1. Welsh A, Fleming T, Dowler K. (2011.) Constructing crime and justice on film: Meaning and message in cinema. Contemporary Justice Review, 14(4), 457-476.
2. Burton AL, Jonson CL. (2023.) Keeping ‘bad apples’ out of the barrel: Early identification of correctional officers with bad intentions. Corrections1.
3. Freeman RM. (1998.) Public perceptions and corrections: COs as smug hacks. In F. Y. Bailey & D. C. Hale (Eds.), Popular culture, crime, and justice (pp. 196-208). West/Wadsworth.
4. Vickovic S, Griffin M, Fradella H. (2013.) Depictions of correctional officers in newspaper media: An ethnographic content analysis. Criminal Justice Studies, 26(4), 455-377.
5. Stimson B. (Feb. 17, 2023.) Florida corrections officer’s 3-year-old son finds gun in nightstand, shoots himself in face. Fox News.
6. Burton AL. (2022.) Hacks or heroes? Public perceptions of correctional officers. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Cincinnati.
7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (March 31, 2022.) Occupational employment and wages, May 2021 [Correctional officers and jailers]. Author.
8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (March 31, 2022.) Occupational employment and wages, May 2021 [Police and sheriff's patrol officers]. Author.
9. Vickovic S. (2015.) Correctional officer job stress: The influence of perceived occupational prestige [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Arizona State University.
About the authors
Alexander L. Burton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas. Cheryl Lero Jonson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their research addresses recruitment, retention, attitudes, motivations and training of correctional officers. Contact the authors about their research at Alexander.Burton@UTDallas.edu and firstname.lastname@example.org.