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How Much Do Prison Guards Make

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 involve maintaining security and order within the facility. Given the challenges and risks associated with this career, many people wonder – how much do prison guards make? Here’s a closer look at prison guard salaries and what impacts earnings.

Average Salary for Prison Guards

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual pay for correctional officers and jailers in the United States as of 2021 is $54,400 per year or $26.14 per hour. However, salaries can vary significantly based on factors like location, experience level, and type of facility.

The table below shows salary ranges for the middle 50% of correctional officers, from the 25th to 75th percentile.

25th Percentile Salary $41,690
Median Annual Salary $49,850
75th Percentile Salary $63,150

As the table shows, half of all prison guards earned between $41,690 and $63,150. The median salary of $49,850 means half earned more than this and half earned less.

Salary by State and Region

There can be significant variation in average pay by state based on factors like cost of living, level of government funding, and demand for workers. The top paying states for correctional officers are:

  • California – $84,400
  • New Jersey – $76,250
  • Rhode Island – $70,140
  • New York – $67,740
  • Connecticut – $64,740

Meanwhile, lower salaries are found in states like:

  • Louisiana – $34,290
  • Mississippi – $30,840
  • South Dakota – $38,990
  • Kentucky – $36,140
  • Alabama – $38,970

Region also impacts salary ranges. Correctional staff in the West and Northeast tend to have the highest pay. Officers in the South are the lowest paid.

Pay by Type of Facility

Prisons guards work in a range of facility types including:

  • Federal prisons
  • State prisons
  • County jails
  • Municipal jails
  • Private prisons

Federal prisons tend to offer the highest average salary at $61,600 per year. State prisons offer around $51,300 on average. The lowest paying facilities are local jails, with county jails averaging around $45,400 and municipal jails at $42,500.

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The type of inmate population also impacts pay levels. Facilities housing maximum security inmates generally pay more than those housing minimum security populations. The increased risks and challenges associated with higher security prisoners leads to increased compensation.

Salary Factors and Benefits

There are several important factors that contribute to a prison guard’s total earnings and job package.

Experience Level

Like most careers, years of experience directly correlate with higher pay in the prison guard field. Entry-level officers usually start between $30,000 to $40,000 per year. With each year on the job, base pay gradually increases. After 25 years, guards can potentially earn double their starting salary.

Seniority and supervisory roles also boost pay. High level supervisors and administrators can earn well above $100,000 annually depending on their facility and responsibilities.


Most correctional facilities require guards to have a high school diploma or GED. However, earnings increase with higher levels of education and training. Typical educational requirements include:

  • High school diploma or equivalent – $35,000 to $45,000
  • Associate’s degree – $40,000 to $55,000
  • Bachelor’s degree – $48,000 to $65,000

Ongoing training and certifications in security, emergency response, First Aid, and other areas also increase earning potential.

Overtime Pay

Due to long shifts and constant staffing needs, there is abundant overtime available at most facilities. Guards are paid time-and-a-half for any hours over 40 hours per week. For some, overtime can mean an additional 10-20% or more on top of their base salary.

Hazardous Duty Pay

Given the risks and dangers of the job, many facilities provide an additional hazard pay differential for prison guards. This can be a set dollar amount or a percentage bonus above the base salary. In high risk maximum security facilities, hazard pay can exceed $2,000 per year.


As noted earlier, salaries vary significantly by state and region due to differences in cost of living and other factors. Guards working in expensive metro areas generally earn more. Facilities in remote, rural areas often pay lower salaries.


Correctional officers receive standard benefits like health insurance and paid time off. Most are eligible for pensions after 25+ years of service. As government employees, they often have greater job and income security than roles in the private sector. Union membership also boosts benefits.

Career Advancement and Growth

For correctional officers seeking higher pay and career advancement, there are several potential paths:

  • Promotions – Can include corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and higher. Each step provides around a 5-15% raise.
  • Specialized Roles – Becoming a canine officer, transport officer, tactical unit member, or armory manager results in about 10-20% higher pay.
  • Supervisory Roles – Shift supervisors, unit managers, wardens, and program administrators earn top salaries.
  • Overtime – Volunteering for overtime is the easiest way to immediately boost total compensation.
  • Transfers – Moving to a higher risk facility or state with better salaries can improve earnings.
  • Continuing Education – Completing advanced certifications and degrees prepares officers for promotion.
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The BLS projects employment for correctional officers to grow by 2% through 2031, keeping pace with average job growth. Opportunities will expand in southern and western states where prison populations are increasing. This steady outlook makes it possible to advance in pay and responsibilities over the length of your career.

The Challenges of Working as a Prison Guard

While the stable income and benefits appeal to many prospective prison guards, the job also comes with significant challenges and risks:

  • Dealing with dangerous, volatile inmates on a daily basis
  • Potential physical assaults and verbal abuse
  • Transporting inmates – possibilities of escapes
  • Maintaining order and enforcing rules/discipline
  • Monitoring high security areas and housing units
  • Conducting searches for contraband
  • Counting prisoners multiple times per day
  • Documenting detailed incident reports and observations
  • Working overtime and holidays to provide 24/7 coverage

These risks explain the above average compensation prison guards receive compared to other roles with similar education requirements. However, the hazards can also lead to high levels of stress, exhaustion, and job burnout.

For those able to handle the challenges, correctional officers gain immense satisfaction knowing they are providing an important public service and protecting their community.

Related Questions

How dangerous is it to be a prison guard?

Working in corrections carries significant personal risk. Prison guards suffer high rates of injury out of all occupations. Common dangers include:

  • Assaults – Guards are vulnerable to attacks by inmates with makeshift weapons, fists, or thrown bodily fluids.
  • Riots and Disturbances – Prison uprisings endanger all staff, especially those working in close contact roles.
  • Communicable Diseases – Viruses like Hepatitis C and tuberculosis spread easily in confined populations, putting officers at risk.
  • Psychological Issues – Guards must be constantly alert and on guard, leading to burnout and PTSD in some.

Proper training, vigilance, and back-up from other staff are key to minimizing risks. But the hazards can never be fully avoided in this career.

What qualifications do you need to be a prison guard?

At a minimum, aspiring prison guards must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Hold a high school diploma or GED certificate
  • Have a valid driver’s license
  • Be over 18-21 years old depending on agency
  • Have no felony convictions
  • Pass drug, physical, and written testing
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All officers complete state approved academy training on topics like self-defense, firearms, First Aid, and de-escalation tactics. Extensive background checks and interviews ensure candidates have the right temperament and psychology for the role.

Do prison guards have a high suicide rate?

Due to the difficult nature of their jobs, correctional officers have elevated rates of suicide compared to other occupations. Access to weapons is one risk factor. Others include:

  • Witnessing violence and trauma on a routine basis
  • Working under rigid hierarchy and protocol
  • Having to maintain an authoritative persona on the job
  • Disconnect from family/friends due to irregular hours
  • Lack of available mental health resources

Addressing psychological pressures and making mental health support more accessible could help lower suicide risks. Still, it remains an ongoing problem faced by prison workforces across the country.

How do you become a private prison guard?

Working as a guard for a private, for-profit prison contractor involves a similar hiring process as public agencies. Typical steps include:

  • Reviewing openings at major contractors like CoreCivic and GEO Group.
  • Passing any background checks and drug tests.
  • Completing 75+ hours of formal academy training.
  • Shadowing veteran officers during on-the-job orientation.

One key difference is that most private firms do not require applicants to be U.S. citizens. The largest employers have facilities nationwide, so transferring locations is relatively easy.

Overall, private prison guards undergo virtually the same state or federally mandated training and certification regimen as those at public prisons.


Prison guards have a demanding yet rewarding career patrolling the facilities that hold sentenced inmates and suspects awaiting trial. The diverse duties, constant stresses, and real hazards involved result in above average compensation compared to other roles requiring just a high school education. Salaries for correctional officers tend to range from around $35,000 for entry level up to over $65,000 after many years on the job. Location, facility type, risks, benefits, overtime, and opportunities for promotion allow pay to increase over the course of a career.

For those drawn to serving their criminal justice system and protecting incarcerated individuals as well as the public, becoming a prison guard offers stable employment with room for long-term growth. While challenging, it’s a career path that provides immense value to society.

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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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