How To Become a Corrections Officer

Image of an empty, dimly lit courtroom

Do you have a passion for serving your community? Are you looking for a job that would allow you to help keep people in your neighborhood safer? If so, you might consider pursuing a career as a corrections officer. Corrections officers, usually called “correctional officers,” work within local, state and federal correctional facilities. Explore this detailed career guide to learn how to become a corrections officer and what to expect from a typical day on the job.

Understanding the Career Pathway of a Corrections Officer

If you’re interested in the process of how to become a corrections officer, consider talking to your high school guidance counselor about your career plans. Your school may offer some relevant courses, such as an introductory course in criminal justice. Communications classes are also important for future correctional officers, because it is necessary to know how to de-escalate tense situations and resolve conflicts through verbal means. It’s also a good idea to start working on improving your physical fitness.

Correctional officers must be physically fit and reasonably strong in order to carry out their duties effectively. If you haven’t already done so, consider signing up for one or more sports teams at your school. You might also wish to take some self-defense classes in your spare time. If you do go on to become a correctional officer trainee, you’ll take self-defense classes at the academy. However, it never hurts to become familiar with the basics ahead of time.

Academic Requirements in Becoming a Corrections Officer

The academic requirements to become a corrections officer vary. All jurisdictions require at least a high school diploma. Federal agencies typically require a bachelor’s degree, although relevant experience (such as military service with an honorable discharge) may sometimes serve as a substitute. However, it is strongly recommended that all those interested in a career in criminal justice do earn a bachelor’s degree, even if it isn’t a strict requirement. College education is crucial for a number of reasons.

Perhaps most importantly, candidates with an undergraduate degree are more likely to be given preference over those without one. In addition, having a bachelor’s degree can open the door to pursuing opportunities for advancement later in your career, such as supervisory positions. Even if you don’t see yourself in a supervisory position someday, a college education is an invaluable asset nonetheless.

Earn an Undergraduate Criminal Justice Degree

The most relevant bachelor’s degree for an aspiring correctional officer is a criminal justice degree or a justice studies degree. A criminal justice degree will enable you to develop foundational knowledge in constitutional law, statutory law, the roles and practices of law enforcement agencies, the corrections system and the court systems. Depending on the school, you may also study modern challenges in the criminal justice field, such as cybercrime. 

Other topics you may study include the following:

  • The application of research and data to develop workable solutions to challenges that arise in the criminal justice field
  • The evidence-based analysis of natural, manmade and accidental threats to communities, as well as how to respond to those threats
  • The objectives, strategies and interagency relationships of correctional agencies
  • Ethical principles and professional ethics in the criminal justice field

A criminal justice or justice studies degree is a smart choice for anyone who is interested in a criminal justice career. Even if you eventually decide that becoming a correctional officer isn’t the right choice for you, having this academic credential can open the door toward pursuing other opportunities, ranging from law school to private security.

Meet the Non-Academic Requirements

Every state establishes their own eligibility criteria for aspiring correctional officers. In general, however, applicants need to meet a minimum age requirement, which ranges between 18 and 21 years of age. You can also expect to submit to an extensive and thorough background check, which will include a polygraph exam and fingerprint submission. The criteria for excluding a candidate typically include a criminal history or history of drug abuse. Certain medical conditions may also exclude a person from applying. You must be reasonably physically fit, hold U.S. citizenship and you may also need to demonstrate that you have no major debts.

You will likely be required to undergo a psychological evaluation to determine your mental fitness to serve. You must be able to pass the civil service test, and there may be a residency requirement. Certain issues can exclude a person from applying to the training academy, such as a conviction for domestic violence, dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces and a discharge from employment that reflects poor moral character or behavior.

Complete an Academy Training Program

Assuming that you meet all of the eligibility criteria, your next step in the process of how to become a corrections officer is to complete the academy training program for your jurisdiction. Like the eligibility requirements, the specific curriculum used in a correctional officer training program will vary from one jurisdiction to the next.

The lengths of the training programs also vary. In Arizona, for example, the Correctional Officer Training Academy (COTA) is seven weeks long.1 In California, the Basic Correctional Officer Academy (BCOA) is 13 weeks long.2 Sometimes, correctional officer trainees are invited to live at the training academy in a dormitory, especially if they live far away from the academy.

If you live relatively close to the academy, however, you might simply live in your current residence and commute each day. The curriculum of these training programs typically features a blend of classroom instruction, hands-on learning activities and, sometimes, simulated training environments. Trainees can expect to study institutional policies, regulations, operational procedures, security protocols and self-defense practices. Some programs emphasize communication skills and de-escalation techniques.

Become a Corrections Officer by Studying Justice Sciences at GCU

If the idea of pursuing a career as a corrections officer appeals to you, you can begin working toward your future by applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree, which empowers students to learn about criminal behavior, threat assessments, criminal procedures and professional ethics in the criminal justice field.

Retrieved from:

Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry, Correctional Officer Training Academy (COTA) in July 2022. 

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, The Academy in July 2022. 


Approved by an instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Nov. 17, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.