Responsibility of a Prison Guard, Jailer & State Correction Officer

Some law enforcement officers work at the terminal point of the criminal justice process–the correctional system. There is a variety of jobs within the penal system that at first glance might look very similar. In reality, the functions of a prison guard, a corrections officer and a jailer have some distinct differences. That being said; the precise definition of each job is very fluid and to some degree interchangeable. Unlike other law enforcement specialties, the specifics role of each job title can vary widely with different source material.


A prison guard–as the name suggests–is responsible for the day to day oversight of inmates in state prison, a federal penitentiary or similar correctional institution. The job title varies from area to area and throughout the world. Throughout much of Europe, the term is ‘prison officer.’ In the rest of the world, it may be ‘correctional officer’, ‘detention officer’, or ‘penal officer’. These terms not only reflect differences in dialect, but the fluidity of how these types are defined.

A prison guard has to care for, control and maintain custody of inmates during pretrial detention or a mandated post-conviction sentence. While there are many other functional areas within a correctional facility, they are usually referred to by a name other than ‘prison guard’.
The working conditions of prison guards vary widely depending on the type of institution and nature of the offenders it houses. A minimum security prison housing non-violent offenders obviously wouldn’t produce the same level of stress and job demand as would a maximum security penitentiary.


There are many similarities between a jailer and correctional officer to the extent that they many consider the terms to be interchangeable. At the same time, there are several distinctions between the two jobs. These traits vary from one source to another meaning the definitions are invariably contextual.

In almost all cases a ‘jailer’ serves in an institution at the local level. For this reason, the job is typically less stressful and hazardous. The inmates in local jails may be there for short stints while awaiting trial, serving time for minor offenses, or ‘en route’ to longer term incarceration elsewhere. Depending on the specific jurisdiction, a jailer may also assist in the transport of inmates to and from court appearances, and administrative functions such as paperwork and dealing with visitors.


In some ways, ‘correctional officer’ is used as a catch-all term for a variety of roles within the penal system. In some jurisdictions, a prison guard is referred to as a ‘correctional officer’. In others (e.g., California), ‘jailer’ and ‘correctional officer’ is used interchangeably in official state documents.

Typically, a correctional officer performs the same supervisory and custodial duties as prison guards or jailers. Additionally, personnel that fulfill administrative roles or in specific functional areas such as food service or communications. As noted above, the specific usage of the term is widely dependent on the individual jurisdiction.


There is one major distinction between the three jobs outlined above–their formal duties as law enforcement officers. A jailer may have oversight of the inmates in their facility but otherwise have no formal law enforcement duties. This status relates not only to their duties but to the training necessary to qualify for the position. With no formal authority, the prerequisites for the job of jailer has minimal qualifications in common with other branches of law enforcement.

Correctional officers, on the other hand, do have formal law enforcement status the extent of which varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The prerequisites for the job also vary though typically include the same type of background tests, physical fitness tests or other written, oral or functional examinations given to other law enforcement agencies. They are also required to complete a thorough training program analogous to a police academy.

Prison guards are usually not considered law enforcement in most cases. They can also work for private ‘for profit’ corporations in addition to a federal or state department of corrections. Private sector management and staffing of prisons is becoming more common, and these corporations may have their own prerequisites for the job.

In conclusion, it’s important to be cognizant of the overlap and ambiguity of these job titles and the duties they perform. It’s incorrect to assume that these are universal in definition and application. For that reason, it’s essential to learn about the specifics of any job in a correctional facility.

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