Public respect, fulfilling careers belie Hollywood version of working in corrections
‘Each role required leadership, teamwork, empathy and a desire to give back to the community,’ ASU criminal justice grad says of her many positions in the field
Popular films and television programs, as well as news coverage, often narrowly portray corrections workers as having unfulfilling jobs as “guards” that earn low pay.
In a March 2023 article for Corrections1.com, Alexander Burton of the University of Texas at Dallas and Cheryl Lero Johnson of Xavier University wrote that because most Americans will never visit a prison, “the public’s knowledge of the correctional system and those who work within it are largely based on the negative images they are fed by the media.”
For Amber Marshall ('16 BS), a graduate of Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, her experience has been the opposite of what’s often in entertainment media and news reports.
The Southern California native’s new title with Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) is women’s services administrator, a position the 31-year-old began in September. Marshall said she will have the opportunity in the newly created position to “innovate and transform our practices and services to be specific to the female population.”
Marshall has also served the department as a correctional officer, case manager, community corrections officer, supervisor of case managers, associate deputy warden and reentry coordinator before being offered her current job.
“Each role required leadership, teamwork, empathy and a desire to give back to the community,” Marshall said.
In their Corrections1 article, Burton and Johnson reported the results of their 2022 public opinion survey about corrections officers. The 1,000-person survey found seven in 10 respondents agreeing with the statement, “I have respect for the work correctional officers do.”
Correctional officers’ salaries have been steadily rising for the past 15 years, according to career-recruitment website Zippia.com. Data shows that the average annual salary of a U.S. corrections officer has significantly risen between 2008 and 2023.
Opportunity for ‘direct public service work’
Students with an interest in public service and public safety are often more attracted to other fields within it that are more well known and visible in the community, said Ryan Thornell, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.
“The field of corrections, although often out of sight and out of most minds, is an opportunity for direct public service work that provides employees with the chance to contribute directly to the safety, security and transformation of their community,” Thornell said. “It is not simply about incarcerating individuals in prison. It is actually about helping individuals improve their lives and transform their behaviors through engagement and opportunity.”
Thornell said Marshall exemplifies helping people in her work at ADCRR “through her dedication to helping individuals connect to services while incarcerated, find smooth continuity of care as they transition into the community and support their needs for successful reentry.”
Thornell said many opportunities exist in corrections that allow for this impact, including corrections security, case management and social work, health care services, education and vocational training.
“It's a great service area for direct impact,” he said.
As a reentry coordinator, Marshall assisted case managers in helping people experiencing incarceration prepare for their release.
"Many areas need attention as people prepare for release," Marshall said, "particularly access to transportation for work, school and shopping."
A crucial part of that role involves working with employers to help individuals nearing release find jobs. Marshall also helped them obtain health care cards so they can make medical appointments and arranged repayment of court fees and fines. Additionally, she facilitated connections to parenting and cognitive behavior classes and other important services so individuals nearing release would have a strong foundation for success.
Marshall said her experiences in the field have helped her grow into a more resourceful professional.
Making connections is ‘life-changing for them’
“I’ve learned that when people come to (me) with a question, I love to try to figure it out. Where do I go? How do I help this person? So I know the next time I’m asked for this, I’ll know where to find it,” she said. “When I get a phone call asking who’s hiring and I can connect them with interested employers, as soon as they make that connection, it’s life-changing for them.”
One significant way the real thing differs from Hollywood’s version of corrections, she said, is the number of programs and positions that are available.
“ADCRR offer(s) classes. They gave me the ability to be creative; they embraced the ideas I’ve had in the positions I’ve held. I fell in love with the department in that way,” Marshall said. “It’s beautiful to see where we’re growing. There are so many avenues and positions. You can do something more operational or more programming-based, or both. At ADCRR, the changes you make as an individual, no matter what position you’re in, can make a positive impact on someone.”
SCCJ Associate Professor Kevin Wright mentored Marshall while she was a student. Wright, director of ASU’s Center for Correctional Solutions, said Marshall has served in many positions of responsibility with significant professional and personal fulfillment relatively early in her career.
“It’s been wonderful to follow Amber’s career and to learn of all her successes,” Wright said. “I think the public often thinks that corrections work is nothing but safety and security as a guard that walks the yard. They’re not guards; they’re professionals that go through academy training.”
Wright said a variety of roles in corrections await School of Criminology and Criminal Justice graduates — in institutions and the community. Positions range from case managers to teachers to health care professionals to probation and parole officers to administrative and support roles.
Wright said he has been fortunate to meet and work with many “incredible correctional staff who make our work richer and more impactful. They love what they do and they know that they’re making a difference in people’s lives. And they have a lot of pride in a career that often spans generations in their families.”
Marshall said she always found Wright to be very approachable. “I want to be as approachable and resourceful as he was to me,” she said.
Marshall said she came from a low-income community where she experienced people who were impacted by the criminal justice system.
“At that time, I was inspired to seek solutions, resources and contribute to a more equitable and compassionate criminal justice system,” she said. “My passion to emphasize the importance of rehabilitation and community reintegration is the reason why I majored in criminology and criminal justice.”
The School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is part of ASU's Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.