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Corrections Officers


For centuries, punishment for criminal behavior was generally left in the hands of the injured individual or his or her relatives. This resulted in blood feuds, which could carry on for years and which eventually could be resolved by the payment of money to the victim or the victim's family. When kingdoms emerged as the standard form of government, certain actions came to be regarded as an affront to the king or the peace of his domain, and the king assumed the responsibility for punishing the wrongs committed by a subject or his clan. In this way, crime became a public offense. The earliest corrections officers were more likely to be executioners and torturers than guards or jailers.

Early criminals were treated inhumanely. They were often put to death for minor offenses, exiled, forced into hard labor, given corporal punishment, tortured, mutilated, turned into slaves, or left to rot in dungeons. Jailing criminals was not considered a penalty in and of itself, but rather as a temporary measure until punishment could be carried out. More often, prisons were established to punish debtors or to house orphans and delinquent youths. One of the earliest debtor's prisons was Bridewell, in London, England, which was established in 1553. Other European countries built similar institutions.

During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, the belief that punishment alone deters crime began to weaken. The practice of imprisonment became more and more common as attempts were made to fit the degree of punishment to the nature of the crime. Societies looked to deter crime with the promise of clear and just punishment. Rehabilitation of offenders was to be achieved through isolation, hard labor, penitence, and discipline. By 1829, prisoners in most prisons were required to perform hard labor, which proved more cost-effective for the prison systems. Before long, the rehabilitation aspect of imprisonment became less important than the goal of simply isolating prisoners from society and creating respect for authority and order. Prisoners were subjected to harsh treatment from generally untrained personnel.

By 1870, calls for prison reform introduced new sentencing procedures such as parole and probation. It was hoped that providing opportunities for early release would provide prisoners with more incentive toward rehabilitation. Prisons evolved into several types, providing minimum, medium, and maximum security. The role of the prison guard at each institution evolved accordingly. The recognition of prisoners' rights also provided new limitations and purposes for the conduct and duties of the prison guard. Corrections officers began to receive specialized training in the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners.

Until the 1980s, corrections officers were employees of the federal, state, or local government. A dramatic increase in the number of prisoners, brought on by the so-called War on Drugs, led to overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. At the same time, the system itself came under attack, especially the concepts of parole and reduced sentencing. Many states began to contract private companies to build and operate additional correctional facilities. Today, corrections officers are employed at every level of government and often by these private companies.