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How to mitigate health risks for corrections officers

A leader who is realistic about risks and proactive about solutions can have a major impact on personnel well-being


By John C. Becker Jr., MHS-C, CTR

Corrections officers are under increasing amounts of stress. The sheer amount of criminal activity, the “revolving door” of the justice system and longer shifts are combining to make the profession riskier than ever before. However, a leader who is realistic about risks and proactive about solutions can have a major impact on personnel well-being. Leaders need to be aware of several health risks facing their staff.

The threat of inmate violence

This Aug. 6, 2012 file photo shows a corrections officer walk through the Central New Mexico Corrections Facility in Los Lunas, N.M. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
This Aug. 6, 2012 file photo shows a corrections officer walk through the Central New Mexico Corrections Facility in Los Lunas, N.M. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

One of the biggest risks for personnel working in the prison system is inmate assaults. Despite stringent prevention efforts, inmates find materials to make weapons.

Gang activity does not stop at the front entrance; rival gangs can be just as active inside a prison as out. Inmates with a nothing-to-lose mentality, personal vendetta or mental illness can turn on an officer at any moment. As every inmate can pose a potential threat, staff must maintain a heightened sense of awareness. This is challenging when an officer is overworked, which leads to our next biggest threat – mistakes due to exhaustion.

The fatigue factor

Most prisons run a schedule on long shifts. Due to high turnover rates and staffing deficits, an employee may work multiple overtime shifts, which can create serious problems. Employees who operate on a regular schedule of little sleep or free time can become lax when it comes to safety; they are more likely to take shortcuts, make exceptions to policies and have slower reaction times.

Leaders need to do everything possible to give officers adequate time to rest and regroup. Spending time outside of work allows officers to get both the physical and mental rest they need.

Emotional overload

Dealing with the mental and emotional stress of working in a prison system can be overwhelming. An officer can battle periods of depression and a complete loss of faith in humanity when faced with the depravity of some inmates. A loss of confidence in the justice system can occur when the same inmates come through the proverbial “revolving” door.

Officers may become fearful of the world their children are facing. While most people just read about horrific criminal acts, corrections officers interact with those who have committed such atrocities. Officers can also become targets of inmates who try to establish dominance, for example, by making threats to an officer’s family.

As a leader, it is imperative you invest in ways to help your officers. Implement creative scheduling, request healthier meal options and raise the flag if you feel one of your staff is in distress.

Missing the signs that an officer is depressed or showing symptoms of PTSD can prove deadly. Remember that an officer can experience PTSD from the cumulative stress of the job and prison environment. It doesn’t have to be a single critical incident that negatively impacts a corrections officer. The daily grind of the job can lead to post-traumatic symptoms, PTSD and even suicide.

Make the time to get to know your staff. If you hear someone is having financial struggles, take extra caution. An overworked, underpaid employee may become a prime target for inmates.

The value of wellness programs

One of the best ways for management to help officers remain psychologically and emotionally healthy is to provide wellness education and self-care training.

A corrections officer’s mental health is as important as their physical health. Both are vital to the overall well-being of personnel, yet both are not handled the same.

Within the law enforcement community, a stigma exists around admitting you need help. Agencies have failed at eliminating this mentality. Corrections officers may believe that coming forward will result in their being placed on leave or at risk of losing their job. This has led to corrections officers keeping their struggles secret. Instead of providing easy access to mental health services, many departments have an environment and process that discourages officers from seeking help.

Only when management embraces a proactive and supportive approach will officers feel comfortable seeking assistance. Healthy officers make for safer and more productive employees.

Shift commanders also need to check in with officers on a regular basis. Setting up programs for positive stress relief – like softball, basketball or bowling – is a fun way to foster comradery and mutual support.

Establishing and/or utilizing existing peer-support Critical Incident Stress Management or Critical Incident Teams is another way to improve officer wellness. Sadly, critical incident and peer support teams are underused. Untreated issues can lead to negative and harmful behaviors, such as alcoholism and substance abuse.

Working in the prison system is an incredibly stressful job. It is also one of the most underappreciated. Taking the time to get to know your staff, invest in their lives, and offer substantial and useful resources will go a long way in providing a positive balance to a potentially harmful work environment. Every department is short-staffed and under-funded. As a leader, it is up to you to provide your personnel with the tools to enable them to have a successful career and an active life outside the prison walls.


About the author
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician and outreach professional. He also has a personal understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services for Advanced Health and Education and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. He is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and is certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. He is a Certified Trauma Responder (CTR) and is a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS) and the National Police Suicide Foundation. Contact him at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com.

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