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What Does a Jailer Do?

By Ray Hawk
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A jailer, often also called a correctional officer or gaoler, is responsible for monitoring and caring for prisoners at a local government level. Usually these prisoners are being held for short periods of time while awaiting trial, are convicted of minor offenses, or will soon to be transported to a prison for long-term confinement. Other duties common to jailors include filing paperwork on prisoners, transporting them to and from court, and monitoring visitors who come to see the prisoner.

In the United States as of 2010, jailers were responsible for the processing of 13,000,000 people a year, with almost 800,000 being held in jails at any one time, according to the national Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since a jail is typically set up to hold a prisoner for a year or less, much higher numbers of detainees are processed through jail systems than through prisons. The OOH estimate for the number of Americans in prison as of 2010 is 1,600,000.

Though a jailer has authority over prisoners and must maintain order within the confines of the jail, in the US and other countries, they have no law enforcement responsibilities outside of the jail. They are not sworn individuals like state police officers who are bound to uphold civilian laws. In this respect, they often share many of the duties of a local government filing clerk, where they have to fingerprint, photograph, and process suspects into the criminal justice system. They also serve prisoners meals, search them for weapons or other contraband, and make sure that their medical needs are attended to.

The demand for gaolers or jailers is usually dependent on the society's predilection for incarcerating individuals. The US per capita numbers are vastly larger than most other industrialized nations, making the occupation of jailer a growing one in the US, with estimates of a 9% increase in the jailer field between 2008 and 2018. A 2008 study listed 751 people in prison in the US for every 100,000 people in the population; whereas, in Russia, with the next highest incarceration rate on the list, 627 people per 100,000 were confined. Other comparable nations had far lower incarceration rates and, therefore, far less demand for jailers, with England incarcerating 151 per 100,000 people, Germany 88 per 100,000, and Japan with 63 per 100,000.

Local jailer duties are also dependent on how overcrowded a system is, as a jailer may also be responsible for foreign nationals in detention. In early 2011, Romania began notifying other members of the European Union that it had no room for Romanian citizens in jail in other EU nations that were due to be transported back to Romania. European Union law allows prisoners being held by a jailer in a foreign nation to serve their sentence in their home country, close to family. Romanian citizens in jails in Italy, Spain, and France, as well as Germany, the UK, and Austria have all requested transfers back to local Romanian jails.

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Discussion Comments

By anon995613 — On May 14, 2016

Actually, in the State of KY, we are sworn peace officers with authority to arrest outside of the facility. Our county jails hold incarcerated individuals who are sentenced to 10 years or less (we will house them for the entirety of their sentence. Yes, the majority of our inmates are here on minor charges, but we do house a large number of offenders who have committed sexual and violent crimes as well as murder.

By Logicfest — On Nov 17, 2014

@Soulfox -- You are right, but isn't it true that most people working as jailers are hoping to work their way up the ladder to become sheriff's deputies or police officers? That being the case, it would seem the pay for a jailer would stay at the entry level range. After all, why pay people well if you know they will leave at the first opportunity?

By Soulfox — On Nov 16, 2014

Never heard of a "gaoler," but I've known a jailer or two over the years (no, I'm not a criminal -- we're talking about meeting people socially here). Few of them seem to enjoy their work and almost all of them say they are underpaid.

You'd think society would have an interest in paying those cats well. They are pretty important. If a jailer doesn't do his or her job, then criminals could get loose and escape. No one wants that, right?

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