Why corrections facilities should recruit from military networks
What characteristics differentiate an officer with a military background versus their non-military counterpart?
By Alexander L. Burton, The University of Texas at Dallas, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Xavier University, and Allison Escobedo, The University of Texas at Dallas
For many years and for a variety of reasons, state departments of correction have targeted individuals with military backgrounds to work in their prisons. As such, approximately 75% of states actively rely on retired military personnel networks for recruiting prospective correctional officers. 
The rationale for recruiting individuals with military backgrounds is that they are assumed to already possess the training and skills needed to work effectively in the prison environment. Moreover, given that most people who come to work in corrections have no prior experience working in a correctional setting [2,3,4], those with military backgrounds often seem even more attractive to state corrections departments.
Because an estimated 10% to 35% of the correctional officer workforce possesses a military background (depending on the jurisdiction) [5,4], a key research question is what are states getting when they recruit and hire officers with military backgrounds.
In other words, what characteristics differentiate an officer with a military background versus their non-military counterpart? We explored this topic.
Our study and findings
We surveyed 671 newly hired officers from three states’ correctional officer training academies in 2018. Of note, nearly 10% of the officers in our sample noted prior service in the military (65 officers). The surveys were given to the officers before they participated in academy training and included questions that allowed us to examine if officers with military backgrounds were different than other officers in the following three domains:
- Teamwork skills
- Leadership skills
- Interpersonal skills.
Table 1 shows the average scores for the three domains (out of a possible score of 5). The key takeaway from the table is that newly hired officers coming to corrections with military backgrounds possess greater levels of confidence in teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills than officers without such backgrounds and experiences. Below we explain how departments can interpret and use this information.
What can Departments of Correction do with this information?
With the American correctional system facing critical staffing shortages, state departments of correction are desperate to recruit, hire and retain officers to ensure the safety and security of those who work and live behind the walls of our nation’s prisons.  However, prisons constitute a stressful and dangerous working environment that necessitates a workforce with a unique skill set. [2,3,4]
Prison work requires people who possess teamwork, leadership and interpersonal capabilities as well as the ability to work long days in environments marked by order, structure, and discipline. [7,8,9] Embodying many of these characteristics, military veterans have been the focus of targeted recruitment campaigns around the country.  These efforts have successfully helped fill vacant positions , and the results of our study reveal that these efforts have increased the hiring of people well-suited for correctional officer work.
Below, we present two ways the results of our study can be used by correctional administrators.
First, our results indicate that the hiring of military veterans may benefit the correctional officer workforce. Military veterans begin the training academy with greater confidence in their teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills compared to their non-military counterparts. In other words, the skills and competencies cultivated and exercised in the military are transferred to work in a prison setting. As many new recruits have no background in correctional work, it is likely that newly hired officers with military backgrounds can assume leadership roles and help build a sense of camaraderie and teamwork both in the training academy and once they assume their roles as correctional officers. [2,3,4] Thus, the investment that state departments of correction have made in their recruitment campaigns targeting military veterans appear to have had their intended effect and should be continued in the future.
Second, our results illustrate the need for correctional officer training academies to develop teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills in their new recruits. Although both non-military veterans and veterans enter the training academies with relatively high confidence in these abilities, there are significant differences between the two groups. Recent research has shown that correctional officer training academies devote little to no time in the fostering of these skills. [1,10] Thus, without training, the gap between officers with and without military experience will likely remain or potentially widen, which could have detrimental implications for new hires beginning their work in prison as correctional officers. As a result, concerted efforts to foster these skills in the training academy should be undertaken.
In closing, military veterans are a distinct group of individuals who may be well-suited for work inside of a prison. Due to their unique experiences and training, individuals with prior military experience possess strong teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills that allow them to successfully embody the role of correctional officers.
Consequently, state departments of correction should continue to and potentially increase their targeted recruitment of military veterans as they seek to fill the numerous vacancies within their prisons.
1. Burton AL, Cullen FT, Lux J, Miller WT, Burton VS Jr. Creating a model correctional officer training academy: Implications from a national survey. Fed Probation. 2018;81(1):26-36.
2. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Petrich DM, Burton VS Jr. Understanding who is hired to work in U.S. prisons and why it matters: A call for research. Corrections: Policy, Pract, and Res. 2022.
3. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Cook R. Likely to stay or bound to leave? Exploring prior work histories of correctional officer recruits. Corrections Today. 2022;84(5):24-28.
4. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT. Elevating the rehabilitation orientations of the correctional officer workforce: Implications for recruitment and hiring practices. Corrections: Policy, Pract, and Res. 2023.
5. Kipper N. Military service a pipeline to state prison jobs. The Salut News. December 15, 2018.
6. Office of Correctional Health. Staff recruitment and retention in corrections. American Correctional Issues: The challenge and ways forward. Corrections Today. 2023;Jan/Feb Issue.
7. Friederich R. Hiring vets: Service doesn’t end after the military. Washington Corrections. November 9, 2018.
8. Logan MW, Swartz K, Wooldredge J. From soldiers to staff members: An examination of veteran status across occupational outcomes within the prison context. Crim Justice Behav. 2022;49(7):971–990.
9. Trigg L. Prison job recruiting bets on vets. Military.com. 2021.
10. Miller WT, Burton AL, Jonson CL, Adkins P, Burton VS Jr. A multi-state outcome evaluation of correctional officer training academies: A pretest-posttest design. Justice Eval J. 2023.
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. Allison Escobedo, M.C.J., is a doctoral student in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas. Their research addresses prison staffing, officer training, and corrections policy issues. Contact the authors about their research at Alexander.Burton@UTDallas.edu and firstname.lastname@example.org.