What’s the Relationship Between Correctional Officers & Mental Wellness?

By: Edovo Sep 27, 2019


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As we enter an era of emphasizing employee well-being and satisfaction, there’s a unique yet substantial group of people who’ve yet to reach this goal: correctional officers (CO’s). They’re the first line of action in managing the nation’s prison system, and their mental wellness is vital in an environment that can be chaotic, violent, and seemingly in a constant struggle for reform due to limited resources (staffing, financial, employee support, etc.). Interestingly enough, even though it's the correctional officers’ ability to do their jobs that affect how an institution serves its incarcerated population, it’s only until recently do we truly understand the effects of how working inside a corrections environment impacts an officer’s mental and physical health.

What the Research Has to Say

Historically, we’ve known very little about correctional officers’ overall health due to limited studies, externally by mental health research or internally by government agencies. While researchers have studied the correctional systems in the United States, most of their work focuses on the incarcerated, and whatever has been discussed about correctional officers remains vague or altogether nonexistent. Yet, in 2017, researchers at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy conducted a first-of-its-kind report based on the California Correctional Officer Survey (CCOS) on Health and Wellness, a large-scale effort to gather individual-level information on on the thoughts, attitudes, and experiences of criminal justice personnel. It includes insight from more than 8,300 officers and other sworn staff (which, out of the more than 415,000 correctional personnel staffed in the country, may seem like a small sample—but it at least offers proof that correctional work can have an adverse impact on the well-being of both incarcerated individuals and the officers maintaining security of these institutions.)

Since then, more state and county-focused studies have shown correlations between downturns in correctional officer health and working in these high-stress environments. Here are some key findings that allow us to understand what that looks like:

CO’s are exposed to high levels of constant violence

According to the CCOS results, over half of the officers reported violent incidents are a regular occurrence at the prison they work at—17% of correctional officers report they have been seriously injured on the job, over 60% have seen or had to handle dead bodies while working, and 73% have seen someone seriously hurt or even killed while on the job. The CCOS results also claim “officers are exposed to violence at rates roughly comparable to military vets.”

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Officer Health & Wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey

Mental and physical wellness decline due to work-related stress

Across multiple studies, correctional officers have noted a wide range of factors contributing to work-related stress: job-specific requirements (overtime demands, work overload and work underload, role conflict or ambiguity), environment-specific risks (risk of being injured, lack of proper training, interaction with inmates, crisis situations,) after-work demands (less time to spend with family and friends, low wages, mood swings), and even administrative-related needs (desire for more administrative support, option to be part of decision making.)

This stress takes a toll on both the body and mind. On top of increased risks of headaches, high blood pressure, and heart disease, officers only live an average of 18 months after retirement and 34% experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a comparison, about 13.5% of Iraq and Afghanistan conflict veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. Even after retiring or actively quitting, correctional officers undergo tremendous amounts of stress during and after their time working in correctional facilities. Their roles can also cause anxiety and depression among correctional officers, leading to increased nightmares or thoughts of suicide—and almost ¾ officers in the CCOS study refused to speak to anyone about their suicidal thoughts, leaving them to feel isolated and unwilling to engage in support groups.

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Personal views on correctional institutions’ main objective vary

The exponential growth of America’s prison system is not news. Correctional officers and police are responsible for nearly 2.3 million people, and though there are pushes for a more rehabilitative view of our criminal justice system, it stems from a very well-held belief that punishment is more likely to deter or cure a criminal from becoming a repeat offender. Correctional officers in the California study share a blend of these two views; 49% of officers believe rehabilitation among incarcerated individuals should be a focus for correctional institutions, but ultimately, 65% believe that the main goal of a prison is to protect its surrounding communities and the public, not to help the incarcerated. This conflict in personal views is understandable due to the unique blend of people correctional officers serve. Prisons host inmates, but those inmates are people with diverse backgrounds: low-income individuals, minorities, individuals with mental health illnesses, abuse victims, one-time offenders, repeat offenders, etc. Perhaps due to California’s lean toward rehabilitative efforts amongst its state prisons, a majority of correctional officers agree that rehabilitation programs should, at the very least, be accessible to incarcerated individuals that want them: “86% support drug and alcohol treatment; and 82% of respondents support academic training up to and including GED preparation,” notes the CCOS report.

Resources for mental and physical wellness are limited

“I was taught defensive tactics, I was taught situational awareness, I was taught how to do searches, but I wasn’t really taught how to take care of me.”

Due to high turnover, low staffing, and financial constraints, correctional officers have limited resources to improve their overall well-being. There have been some improvements; in May 2017, the Senate passed the Law Enforcement and Wellness Act, which would require both the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defense to share a list of “mental health practices and services that could be adopted by Federal, State, local, or tribal law enforcement agencies,” and it proposes further research into whether or not annual mental health checks for officers has proven to be effective. Also, some facilities like the Oregon Department of Corrections has implemented a mindfulness program to help alleviate work-related stress and health issues amongst its employees.

Even so, as we slowly shift our focus onto the effects of a prison environment on a correctional officer, many of these officers have stated their training on health-related issues that come with the job is either non-existent or of poor quality. Sgt. Matthew Zeller is one of the officers employed at the Oregon Department of Corrections, and even having worked in corrections for over 19 years, he echoes this sentiment, “I was taught defensive tactics, I was taught situational awareness, I was taught how to do searches, but I wasn’t really taught how to take care of me.” There’s a clear desire among many officers to obtain this training. The CCOS results report over half of personnel hope more training related to stress management and dealing with trauma and PTSD exists.

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Officer Health & Wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey

How We Can Change Direction

Research on the mental wellness of correctional officers is growing. We need to take advantage of this momentum and conduct studies on larger populations across the country to more accurately determine what improvements can be made to improve officers’ current circumstances. Until then, here are some potential solutions that facilities can utilize to better support these employees:

Mitigate risks faced by correctional officers

It’s impossible to offer solutions to officers who are suffering from PTSD, depression, stress, and physical ailments if there aren't any recommendations for addressing the source: the stressful and perilous environments they work in. The Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis (COSWLS) pulled data across multiple journals, reports, and books, and it recommends that because COs are constantly presented with dangers such as violent incarcerated individuals, contraband, and prison gangs, it only makes sense to “consider policy interventions designed to minimize the injurious risks connected to such dangers.” By implementing strategies to mitigate the number of risks COs face, facilities can help them decrease their levels of emotional and physical trauma.

Implement the right support resources

Like mentioned before, programs to support CO’s well being are fairly new. This is an opportunity for facilities to reach out to neighboring cities, counties, and even states to learn about in-place resources that have resulted in improvements in overall well-being among correctional employees. A quick Web search for “correctional officer resources” populates organizations focused on professional development, technical assistance, and supply vendor outreach — but it doesn’t highlight organizations whose sole focus on correctional well-being. Fortunately, there are online communities and agencies that have shared resources on best practices, notable non-profit groups, and even officer-run forums that may be a starting point for those looking for assistance:

Incorporate Officer Wellness Programs

Wellness programs are trending not only in private and public companies, schools, and organizations, but they’re a growing development that shows promising results among law enforcement agencies. Though the resources below surrounding police departments, there are key takeaways that can be applied to employees working at correctional institutions as well.

  • From the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD): The IMPD created an officer wellness program that implemented mentoring, spouse and family education and support programs, regular training on mindfulness practices, and oversaw physical and mental health referrals through a wide network of prescreened resources--ensuring officers stayed healthy and were ready to work. In just 4 years, the number of “voluntary interventions and referrals [increased] by over 300 percent.”

  • From the San Diego Police Department (SDPD): In 2011, after experiencing months of officer misconduct and fatalities, the SPDP took action to alleviate the stress and trauma experienced by the remainder of the department by implementing The Wellness Unit. This project, Building and Sustaining an Officer Wellness Program: Lessons from the San Diego Police Department, defines the importance of wellness, acknowledges key challenges of implementing The Wellness Unity, and expresses a desire to help other agencies who would like to begin their own wellness programs. A survey released two years after the initiation of The Wellness Unit proved it has been effective in allowing CO’s to be more comfortable with seeking help, “Not only did a majority of respondents say they had heard about the services offered but 70 percent also felt that the stigma associated with asking for help was decreasing, and 79 percent said that they would feel comfortable walking into the Wellness Center…”

  • From the U.S. Department of Justice: The Department released a report, Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Programs: Eleven Case Studies, that covers successful “law enforcement mental health and wellness strategies with the joint aims of informing Congress, state and local government officials, and the law enforcement field.”

Incorporate Peer Support Programs

Originally called “stress units” by police departments, peer support groups are beneficial to correctional officers because their job of constantly deescalating high-stress situations, protecting incarcerated individuals and themselves, and remember proper training is unique. Peers can support one another because they are the first — and perhaps only — people who will truly understand what they experience on a day-to-day basis. Peer support groups, according to the Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety Literature Review, offer “easy access to assistance, quick response and a level of comfort not easily established with outside professionals.” Peer mentors, then, would need training on basic counseling skills on a routine basis to make sure they’re updated and knowledgeable on best practices. Agencies could utilize an onsite psychologist to oversee the program. Compared to formal Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), peer support groups are less costly for the agency and the officers.

Define proper program coordination and points of contact

It’s also important to note that coordination of these programs is crucial. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin notes “there is no easily identifiable contact within the agency when an officer is in crisis and needs resources beyond EAP, such as psychiatric counseling, medication management, substance abuse evaluation or treatment, or an organizational accommodation, like administrative leave, detail, or change of assignment.” To prevent this, agencies can provide brochures and display posters in offices, lockers, and roll-call locations. Regular training from specific resources and programs will allow CO’s to create relationships with people and organizations outside of their employment. Half of active officers who responded to the CCOS would be interested in confidential links to therapists or counselors who specialize in working with law enforcement and their families. Some CO’s fear retribution or even public shaming if they come forward with work-related concerns, which is why it’s important to implement programs that make them feel safe to voice their anxieties.

Create awareness and support among administrative officials

Administrative officials are in charge of implementing these programs, so they need to recognize how 1) being employed as an officer comes with many threats to their health and 2) programs geared toward CO well being can have a tremendous impact on how they perform their daily responsibility of securing sometimes violent populations. Also, according to the COSLWS, officers may have difficulty bringing up these issues because they “perceive such requests as a sign of inherent weakness.” By acknowledging and accepting that external assistance can revitalize and improve CO well-being, administrative officials and officers alike can move toward healing their employees in need.

Final Thoughts

At Edovo, we focus on developing technology to promote health, education, and rehabilitation to incarcerated individuals. By offering them the tools they need for self-improvement, we also seek to improve the safety of the correctional officers who oversee this unique population everyday. There’s no denying that working in the corrections environment is a demanding and dangerous field of work. There’s also no denying that we have much to learn about what exactly is the mental, emotional, and physical toll on correctional officers across the country. We’ve learned, however, from other at-risk groups such as combat veterans, abuse victims, and those experiencing homelessness, that being constantly exposed to violent situations without proper treatment can lead to lasting mental and physical traumas. Facilities, agencies, and national government entities must consider research-backed programs that prove their effectiveness—all to the benefit of the officers, their families, incarcerated populations, and the entire criminal justice system.