Here's How Much Prison Guards Really Get Paid

Before getting down to the dollars, it's worth painting a bigger picture. This probably won't come as much of a surprise, but the life of a correctional officer is distinctly short on beer and skittles. An article published by the Houston Chronicle in 2019 (The Disadvantages of Being a Correctional Officer) paints this grim picture. "Most correctional officers don't make it past the age of 58. Some take their own lives, while others are killed in riots and assaults. After retirement, the average prison guard will live only 18 months. Chronic stress, heart attacks and depression are often the culprits."

So, given all that joyfulness, let's talk about salary. According to PayScale, an entry-level prison guard will take home a salary of about $35,000. After around four years of paid employment, that salary skyrockets (sarcastic voice) to $37,500. At the mid-career mark — about 5 to 9 years — the average prison guard salary increases to $50,000, and stays more or less capped at this level for the remainder of their career. Barring good luck or an exceptionally well-managed career trajectory, a smooth 50k is as good as it gets for a lifetime of work in the US prison system.

Prepare to be completely underwhelmed by this next revelation. The US faces a chronic shortage of correctional officers, according to a 2018 New York Times article on the state of prison systems (Safety Concerns Grow as Inmates Are Guarded by Teachers and Secretaries). "Support workers are frequently required to carry out risky tasks without training," the article explains. Adding insult to incarceration, "many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job."

Let's get a tad more granular here

There are stark disparities when you break the figures down by state. According to 2020 data published by Zip Recruiter, New York attracts the highest prison guard salary of $38,677. Massachusetts and Washington come in a close second and third, all three states staying in the 38k range. Down at the bottom of the list is North Carolina, with an average correctional officer salary of $28,366. Florida and Missouri come hot on North Carolina's heels in the rock-bottom last sweepstakes. Unsurprisingly, there's a reasonably strong correlation between prison guard rate of pay and quality of life in jails. According to research findings published by US News, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Washington are among the five best prisons for general administrative efficiency. They're also among the top five by prison guard salary. Go figure.

While we're laying down the surprise-bombs, Narrow The Gap reports that female prison guards fare consistently worse than men in terms of salary. A female prison guard can expect to earn about 75 cents to every dollar earned by their Y-chromosome-enabled counterparts.

Stepping away from the statistics, here's that bigger picture again courtesy of The Houston Chronicle: "As a corrections officer, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. It's not uncommon [...] to see inmates killing each other, engaging in large-scale fights or setting their cells on fire. [...] You'll be exposed to these risks on a daily basis." So the bottom line is, if you know a prison guard, buy them something extra-nice for Christmas — and perhaps suggest an easier profession.