What the public expects of corrections officers
We asked Americans if they prefer COs to serve in a more “traditional” punitive and custody-focused manner or to take a more “progressive” rehabilitative approach
By Alexander L. Burton, The University of Texas at Dallas, and Cheryl Lero Jonson, Xavier University
A pervasive belief among corrections officers is that they are viewed negatively by the public,  often feeling as if they rank on the “bottom of a pseudo hierarchy of public safety personnel.”  With prison work largely hidden from the public’s view, a thorough understanding of what the job of a corrections officer entails is lacking by those outside the corrections field. Rather, the public’s perception of corrections officers is molded by disparaging news and entertainment media portrayals of officers being inept “hacks” and “mindless morons,” incapable of reducing recidivism and doing little more than controlling inmates in inhumane prison conditions. [1,3,4]
One problematic consequence of these damning depictions is that some officers could internalize these perceptions and believe the public demands them to simply function as “agents of control” who solely punish, supervise and manage inmates. [5,6] However, as seen in the mission statements of state departments of correction across the nation, prison administrators seek more from their corrections officers. Beyond maintaining the safety and security of an institution, corrections officers also are tasked with serving as “agents of change” who facilitate the rehabilitative goals of the prison and assist in the transformative process of inmates’ lives. [5,6] As a result, corrections officers often grapple with conflicting messages about how to approach their job. 
When determining what the role of corrections officer should be in prison, the views of one critical stakeholder is surprisingly absent: the public. In other words, what does the public expect of corrections officers? To bring the public’s voice to the table, we explicitly asked Americans if they prefer corrections officers to serve in a more “traditional” punitive and custody-focused manner or to take a more “progressive” rehabilitative and human service-focused approach to their job. An explanation of our study and results are below.
In early 2022, we polled 1,000 Americans to better understand their expectations of corrections officers working in U.S. prisons. The survey posed a handful of statements to the respondents. Each one is listed in the table below along with the percentage of the public that agree with each statement.
As shown in the table, the eight items are broken down into two sets of expectations that we classify as “traditional expectations” and “progressive expectations.” Traditional expectations consist of characteristics that officers generally believe is expected of them in their corrections officer role, likely because of negative media coverage or due to an “old school” way of doing things in the prisons they work in. By contrast, progressive expectations are those that align with a more modern and transformation-focused way of performing the corrections officer role, with a heavy emphasis in assisting inmates becoming better people and treating them in a humane way.
What are the public’s expectations of corrections officers?
Beginning with “traditional expectations,” we observed low support among the public — about 1 in 4 Americans expect officers to assist in punishing, keeping a distance from, and not caring personally about inmates. Additionally, virtually no American expects officers to ensure that inmates suffer while in prison. This is a sharp contrast to what is regularly portrayed in news and entertainment media portrayals. Clearly, then, the public must expect something else from officers working in prisons.
The support we observed for the “progressive expectations” tells a more optimistic story. Contrary to what many officers believe is expected of them due to negative depictions and an “old school” culture existing in some correctional facilities, we see that more than 6 in 10 Americans expect corrections officers to play an important role in the rehabilitation process of inmates. Approximately 7 in 10 Americans believe officers should be trained in how to help inmates become better people, and nearly half of the Americans surveyed expect officers to foster positive relationships with inmates and to participate in the rehabilitation efforts of prisons. The public believes that doing so will make prison programs and those involved in them better off.
Percentage of survey respondents agreeing with the following statements:
- Correctional officers should assist in punishing inmates, so they learn that crime does not pay: 25.5%
- Correctional officers should not try to get to know inmates but keep at a distance: 25%
- Correctional officers should not care about inmates personally: 22.7%
- Correctional officers should make sure inmates in prison suffer for their crimes: 11.1%
- Correctional officers should be trained in how to help inmates become better people: 71.4%
- Correctional officers should play an important role in the rehabilitation of inmates in prisons: 61.7%
- Rehabilitation programs in prisons would be better off if correctional officers were more involved with them: 48.8%
- A positive relationship between correctional officers and inmates in prison lessens the likelihood that an inmate will reoffend when released: 46.3%
What can Departments of Correction do with this information?
Despite beliefs among corrections officers that the public does not value them or envision them as able to assist in transforming inmates’ lives, our results paint a clear picture: The public expects officers to serve the role of an “agent of change.”
The results of our survey could be used in at least three ways:
- Departments should consider placing more emphasis on training officers in the rehabilitation and human service function of their jobs in academy basic training. At present, states spend a dismal average of 1.2% of training academy hours on training officers in the skills to assist in the human service function of their job. [7,8] Not only is this what the general public expects of corrections officer training, research demonstrates that officers who endorse the human service and rehabilitative role of their jobs are more likely to experience greater job satisfaction, less stress and more overall commitment to their organization. 
- Prison administrators could create a system to recognize officers who go above expectations in performing the rehabilitative and human service functions of their jobs. Not only should these efforts be acknowledged, but they should also be rewarded with awards such as Corrections Officer of the Year, and with promotions and increased compensation. These measures would likely create a culture where corrections officers would be incentivized to embrace their role as “agents of change” and reiterate to the workforce their department's commitment to their rehabilitative mission.
- In-service training could be provided to officers currently working in prisons reiterating the importance and the public’s expectation of them serving as pro-social models and “agents of change.” Not only could this training provide concrete skills on how to effectively achieve this role, but the training could serve as an impetus to shatter the myths some officers may hold concerning the human-service aspects of their job. With some pockets of corrections holding tightly to an “old-school” culture embracing the punitive aspect of their role and resisting the rehabilitative function of their occupation, [9,10] these ongoing in-service trainings could convey to all officers that the public expects them to be both agents of control and agents of change. Furthermore, the training could emphasize the personal benefits of assuming a more rehabilitative orientation toward their job (for example, greater job satisfaction and less work-related stress).
In closing, contrary to the way the media depicts officers and their role in prisons, as well as some officers’ preconceived beliefs about what is expected of them by society, the public’s expectations are clear: Corrections officers should seek to assist in the process of positively changing inmates’ lives. Although we realize that this simply is not possible for all inmates and in all prison settings, it is our hope that these findings serve as an incentive for departments to continue to elevate the human service and rehabilitative focus of corrections officers in U.S. prisons and to further meet their mission of protecting the public and transforming the lives of those behind bars from law-breaking to law-abiding.
NEXT: What the public really thinks of corrections officers
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4. Burton Alexander L, Jonson CL. (March 16, 2023.) What the public really thinks of corrections officers. Corrections1.
5. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Barnes JC, Miller WT, Burton VS, Jr. (2022.) Training as an opportunity for change: A pretest-posttest study of correctional officer orientations. Journal of Experimental Criminology. Advance online publication.
6. Logan MW, Jonson CL, Johnson S, Cullen FT. (2022.) Agents of change or control? Correlates of positive and negative staff-inmate relationships among a sample of formerly incarcerated inmates. Corrections: Policy, Practice and Research, 7(3), 175-195.
7. Burton AL, Cullen FT, Lux J, Miller WT, Burton VS, Jr. (2018.) Creating a model correctional officer training academy: Implications from a national survey. Federal Probation, 81(1), 26-36.
8. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT. (2023.) Elevating the rehabilitation orientations of the correctional officer workforce: Implications for recruitment and hiring practices. Corrections: Policy, Practice, and Research. Advance online publication.
9. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Petrich DM, Burton VS, Jr. (2022.) Understanding who is hired to work in U.S. prisons and why it matters: A call for research. Corrections: Policy, Practice, and Research. Advance online publication.
10. Conover T. (2010.) Newjack: Guarding sing sing. Vintage.
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 email@example.com.