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How Much Do Prison Guards Make a Year?

Prison guards, also known as correctional officers, are responsible for overseeing individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to serve time in jail or prison. Their duties include maintaining security and order within the facility, monitoring inmate activities, escorting inmates to locations outside their housing units, conducting searches to prevent contraband, and enforcing rules and regulations. Prison guards play a critical role in the criminal justice system by ensuring incarcerated individuals serve their sentences in a safe and controlled environment.

The salary for a prison guard can vary based on factors such as location, level of government, years of experience, and level of education. This article will provide an overview of how much prison guards typically make per year, what impacts earnings, job requirements, working conditions, and career advancement opportunities. We’ll also look at 5 frequently asked questions about correctional officer pay.

Salary Overview

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for correctional officers and jailers in the United States as of 2021 is $47,380 per year or $22.78 per hour. However, salaries can range from as low as $31,000 for entry-level roles to over $80,000 for senior positions.

Here is a breakdown of average prison guard salaries by employer:

  • Federal prisons: $59,180 per year
  • State prisons: $51,100 per year
  • Local jails: $45,650 per year
  • Private prisons: $42,020 per year

As these figures illustrate, pay tends to be higher working for federal and state facilities compared to local jails and private prisons. Geographic location is another major factor impacting earnings potential. The states with the highest average salaries include California ($81,080), Rhode Island ($70,830), New Jersey ($68,860), Connecticut ($67,740) and New York ($67,590). Prison guards in these states earn nearly double the national average.

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Highest Paying Industries

The highest paying industry for correctional officers is the federal government, which includes roles with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The average federal prison guard salary is over $59,000, significantly higher than state and local facilities. The highest paying state is California, where the average is over $80,000 annually. Other high paying industries include state-level departments of corrections and various federal agencies like the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Experience and Education Impacts on Salary

A prison guard’s years of experience and level of education also impact their earning potential. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for a correctional officer with less than 1 year of experience is $36,550, while those with 20 or more years of experience earn a median of $56,580 per year.

Most prison guard jobs require a high school diploma or equivalent. However, candidates with some college education or an associate’s degree may be favored and earn slightly higher starting salaries. Completing a training academy program can also boost hiring and pay prospects.

Job Requirements

While educational requirements are minimal for becoming a correctional officer, candidates must meet certain other standards to qualify for the role. Here are some of the key prerequisites:

  • Minimum age: Typically must be over 18 or 21 years old
  • U.S. citizenship: Most positions require American citizenship
  • Background check: Cannot have a criminal record
  • Drug screening: Must pass a pre-employment drug test
  • Fitness standards: Must have physical stamina and be in good health
  • State licensing: Some states require correctional officers to be licensed

In addition to meeting these hiring requirements, individuals interested in working as prison guards should possess certain skills and personality traits:

  • Good judgment and levelheadedness
  • Observation and analytical abilities
  • Interpersonal and communication skills
  • Problem-solving capabilities
  • Ability to act quickly in emergencies
  • Strong ethics and integrity

Upon being hired, new correctional officers must complete classroom education and on-the-job training programs pertaining to security procedures, self-defense, weapons handling, emergency response, and other job duties. Periodic continuing education is also required to maintain skills and certifications.

Working Conditions

Prison guard jobs involve challenging work conditions and environments. Here’s an overview of typical duties and work settings:

  • Supervising incarcerated individuals 24/7 by conducting rounds, surveillance, and inspections
  • Monitoring inmate activities and interactions to prevent disturbances
  • Searching cells, inmates, visitors, and packages for prohibited items
  • Transporting prisoners to medical facilities, court hearings, or other locations
  • Enforcing rules and doling out disciplinary actions
  • Documenting information into logs, forms, and computer systems
  • Working in secured facilities with constant safety risks and threats
  • Having a high level of responsibility for people’s lives and facility security
  • Rotating shift work including nights, weekends, and holidays
  • Possibility of overtime work hours and staffing shortages
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The job requires being on one’s feet for long durations, remaining alert at all times, making quick decisions, and being ready to handle physically demanding confrontations. It also involves high stress and burnout risks due to the volatile environment. However, prison guards gain immense satisfaction protecting their community and maintaining order.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Prison guards have several options for advancing their careers over time:

  • Gaining higher credentials: Earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree allows qualifying for more advanced roles.
  • Pursuing specialty positions: Correctional officers can become transport officers, tactical team members, K-9 handlers, gang investigators, or parole officers.
  • Applying for promotions: Promotions to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and higher-ranking leadership roles are possible.
  • Transitioning employers: Guards can transfer to federal prisons and agencies for higher pay and prestige.
  • Moving into other fields: Related occupations include police officers, private security guards, and probation officers.
  • Entering management/administration: With experience, guards can become shift supervisors, unit managers, wardens, and directors.

While the prison guard career ladder has limits, driven individuals can significantly boost their earnings, responsibilities, and leadership influence over time. Continuing education is key to advancement.

Table of Notable Crimes and Convictions

Here is a table outlining some major crimes committed by incarcerated individuals along with details of their convictions and sentences:

Prisoner NameDescription of CrimeDate of CrimeConviction & Sentence
Charles MansonLeader of cult “The Family” that killed actress Sharon Tate and 6 others in 1969.August 9-10, 19691971 – Death sentence commuted to life in prison
Ted Kaczynski“Unabomber” – killed 3 and injured 23 via mail bombs over 17 years.1978 – 1995Sentenced in 1998 to 4 life sentences + 30 years
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmánMexican drug lord and leader of Sinaloa Cartel; convicted of drug trafficking, money laundering, murder.1980s – 2016Sentenced in 2019 to life in prison + 30 years
Dylann RoofWhite supremacist who murdered 9 African Americans at church in Charleston.June 17, 2015Sentenced in 2017 to death
Larry NassarUSA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of young female athletes.1992 – 2016Sentenced in 2018 to 40 – 175 years in prison

“I stole people’s lives from them for selfish reasons. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.” – Larry Nassar statement at sentencing.

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The crimes highlighted in this table represent some of the most notorious and high-profile cases handled by prison guards and the correctional system. Manson, Kaczynski, Guzmán, Roof, and Nassar all received lengthy or maximum sentences for the severity of their offenses and the public danger they posed. Guarding and interacting with such infamous prisoners presents unique challenges and risks on the job.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Guard Salaries

Here are answers to 5 of the most common questions about how much correctional officers make:

How much do prison guards make starting out?

Entry-level correctional officers typically start out earning between $30,000 – $45,000 per year depending on the employer, location, and other factors. Limited experience means lower pay at the start of the career.

Do prison guards get paid hourly or salary?

Prison guards are generally paid an hourly wage rather than an annual salary. Their schedules often involve shift work and overtime beyond a standard 40-hour workweek, which is compensated through hourly overtime pay rates.

What benefits do prison guards receive?

Benefits vary by employer but typically include health insurance, life insurance, paid time off and holidays, pension/retirement plans, uniform allowances, and other perks. Government prison jobs tend to have better benefits than private companies.

Do prison guards get hazard pay?

Yes, many correctional officers qualify for hazard pay, hardship pay, or high-risk duty pay additions due to the dangerous nature of their job. This can add thousands per year on top of their base pay.

How much overtime do prison guards usually work?

Overtime is very common given staffing shortages at facilities. Guards may work up to an additional 8-16 hours of overtime per week. Overtime compensation results in higher annual earnings for many officers.


Prison guards earn an average salary of approximately $47,380 per year, with pay ranging from around $30,000 for entry level up to over $80,000 depending on location, experience, education, hazards, and employer. While the base salary is modest, overtime pay can significantly increase total compensation.

Excellent job opportunities are expected due to high turnover and a growing inmate population. However, applicants must meet strict requirements and be prepared for challenging working conditions. For individuals seeking a meaningful career in criminal justice with competitive wages, becoming a correctional officer can provide job security, benefits, and pathways for advancement over time.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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