Is corrections work prestigious?

By Alexander L. Burton, Ph.D., Kerrie Ann Hull, M.S.W., and Cheryl Lero Jonson, Ph.D.

For the past 40 years, the federal government has asked the public to rate how prestigious they believe a variety of occupations are in the United States. Doing so gives a sense of how jobs are viewed in terms of their social standing in society. Generally, jobs with lower prestige are viewed as being less desirable, and in some instances, resented and looked down on. Conversely, those with higher prestige ratings are seen as more desirable and often viewed as admirable professions. As corrections researchers, we were eager to see how corrections work, specifically the occupations of correctional officers and jailers, stacked up to other occupations regarding occupational prestige.

Background and context

Correctional officers and jailers perform critical and demanding functions in our nation’s prisons and jails. Consistently, it has been found to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States and most stressful. [1] Even when compared to police work, it is viewed as being much tougher because all the people correctional officers and jailers deal with have been charged with or found guilty of a crime. [2]

Historically, however, the public and their ratings of correctional officers and jailers’ prestige is lacking. Specifically, correctional officers and jailers’ prestige ratings by the American public have led them to be grouped with taxicab drivers, garbage collectors, welfare aides, exotic dancers and debt collection agents. [3,4]

When compared to similar occupations in the criminal justice field, such as police, probation and parole officers, correctional officers/jailers consistently have been ranked lower in prestige ratings. For example, in 1978, the public gave correctional officers a prestige rating of 3.98 out of 7. The same sample rated police officers at 5.26 out of 7, probation officers at 4.37 out of 7, and parole officers at 4.28 out of 7. [5] Fast forward to 1994, using a 100-point rating scale, police officers were rated at 60 out of 100 and correctional officers were rated at 40 out of 100. [6] More recently, in 2014, on a 10-point scale, police officers were rated at a score of 5.9 out of 10, and correctional officers were rated at 4.2 out of 10. [7]

However, all these rankings are quite dated, with the most recent rating conducted a decade ago. This leads to the question: How are correctional officers and jailers viewed today? Is corrections work seen as prestigious by the public? Below we describe a study we conducted to answer these questions.

Our study

In 2022, we conducted a national survey with 1,000 American adults. [8] One goal of our survey was to explore the level of prestige that the public ascribes to correctional officers and jailers. To assess this issue, we showed each respondent a randomized list of 25 occupations and asked them to rate the prestige (social standing) they believe each occupation has on a scale of 1 to 7. Once we calculated the average prestige scores for each occupation, we put them in a list in ascending order of their ratings.


The table below answers our primary question of the study: Is corrections work prestigious? We see that the public rated correctional officers 16th out of 25 occupations on the list below (average score = 4.5 out of 7). Jailers came in at 23rd out of 25 (average score = 4.21 out of 7). Regarding other public safety positions, firefighters and police officers came in 2nd out of 25 and 5th out of 25, respectively. Other notable and related positions coming in ahead of correctional officers were mental health and substance abuse counselors, social workers and park rangers. Similar to findings in prior research, jailers were rankled behind local delivery truck drivers, bank tellers, security guards at banks and factory workers.

Note: The prestige ratings range from 1 to 7.

C1 table.png

What do these results mean?

After calculating these results, we were quite surprised to see how the public rated firefighters and police officers so highly compared to the other occupations. Firefighters and police officers were rated higher than jobs that required advanced degrees and certifications, such as computer scientists and mental health counselors. As a result, one might assume that these occupations were rated highly due to the bravery it takes to do them, and the appreciation that the public has for these challenging jobs.

If bravery and heroism are the reasons why fire and police officer work is rated so prestigious, what about corrections work? Working as correctional officers and jailers requires a high level of bravery and is arguably as challenging, if not more so, than the work of firefighters and police officers. Why then were the rankings so much lower for correctional officers and jailers? Below, we discuss some reasons for this disconnect and provide recommendations to highlight the admirable work done by correctional officers and jailers to the public.

Implications and recommendations

Unlike police officers and firefighters, the work done by correctional officers and jailers often is hidden from the public’s view. [9] With prisons and jails intentionally insulated, everyday Americans do not see the daily acts of heroism and bravery undertaken by correctional workers each day. Instead, when this type of work is highlighted in either the news or entertainment media, it often is cast in a negative light. Images and stories of officers abusing their power, harming those they are entrusted to supervise, and engaging in criminal acts dominate the news headlines and the storylines of popular television shows and movies. [8, 9, 10, 11] These negative portrayals overshadow the transformative and important work done inside our nation’s prison and jails. Thus, a salient question becomes: Could showing what correctional officers and jailers really do each change the perceptions that Americans hold of this line of work?

To test this question, we re-analyzed our data solely including people who stated they personally knew a correctional officer or jailer. As expected, among this group of respondents with a personal connection to someone working in corrections, their average prestige rating of correctional officers rose to 4.92 out of 5 and to 4.68 out of 5 for jailers. More specifically, the ranking rose correctional officers 8 places from 16th out of 25 to 8th out of 25, tying them with electricians and placing them just below college professors. For jailers, the ranking increased 10 spots from 23rd out of 25 to 13th out of 25, placing them near social workers and park rangers. These findings confirm that when people have more information about what correctional work entails, they are more likely to view it as more prestigious and admirable.

These findings have direct implications for correctional administrators. Specifically, concerted efforts need to be undertaken to spotlight the brave and heroic work done by our nation’s correctional officers and jailers. Police officers and firefighters work in plain view of the public where citizens can see (and record for others) how their work saves lives. Additionally, their valorous acts often are reported on by the news media and portrayed in popular entertainment media. Correctional administrators should take note of this. Although they likely cannot shape the entertainment industry, they can reach out to news media to report on the positive and life-changing work done by officers and jailers.

Additionally, to take this matter into their own hands, correctional agencies could appoint or hire designated social media managers to ensure that this positive and challenging work is recognized and made aware to the public. By doing this, it is possible the public will gain a more complete view of the work that goes on inside a prison or jail and view correctional work as both more prestigious and admirable.


1. Konda S, Tiesman H, Reichard A, Hartley D. U.S. correctional officers killed or injured on the job. Corrections Today. 2013;75(5):122–123.

2. Page J. The toughest beat: Politics, punishment, and the prison officer’s union in California. Oxford University Press; 2011.

3. Ashforth BE, Kreiner GE, Clark MA, Fugate M. Normalizing dirty work: Managerial tactics for countering occupational taint. Academy of Management Journal. 2007;50(1):149-174.

4. Ashforth BE, Kreiner GE. Dirty work and dirtier work: Differences in countering physical, social, and moral stigma. Management and Organization Review. 2014;10(1):81-108.

5. Berger R. Public image of corrections. California Youth Authority Quarterly. 1978;31(1):2-1.

6. Nakao K, Treas J. Updating occupational prestige and socioeconomic scores: How the new measures measure up. Sociological Methodology. 1994;1-72.

7. Smith TW, Son J. Measuring occupational prestige on the 2012 general social survey. Vol. 4. Chicago: NORC at the University of Chicago; 2014.

8. Burton AL. Hacks or heroes? Public perceptions of correctional officers. Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati; 2022.

9. Vickovic S, Griffin M, Fradella H. Depictions of correctional officers in newspaper media: An ethnographic content analysis. Criminal Justice Studies. 2013;26(4):455-477.

10. Welsh A, Fleming T, Dowler K. Constructing crime and justice on film: Meaning and message in cinema. Contemporary Justice Review. 2011;14(4):457-476.

11. Freeman R. Public perceptions and corrections: COs as smug hacks. In: Bailey FY, Hale DC, editors. Popular culture, crime, and justice. West/Wadsworth; 1998. p. 196-208.

About the authors

Alexander L. Burton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Kerrie Ann Hull, M.S.W., is a doctoral student in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Cheryl Lero Jonson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Contact the authors about their research at and


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