Correctional officer mental health: Surviving on the inside

Correctional officer mortality studies have shown that for every officer killed in the line of duty, 10 will take their own lives


By Mark Chamberlain

It is day one of the correctional academy and 30 eager and attentive recruits, with their new uniforms, are seated at their assigned desks. The academy director enters the room.

“Good morning class, and welcome to the corrections academy. I know you’re all nervous and excited to get started and that’s okay, we here at the academy are just as excited for you. Today, you are embarking on a noble profession and hopefully, a rewarding and challenging career. I’d like to go over a few things before I turn things over to your lead instructors.

One of the biggest stresses in correctional work is the rule-oriented environment in which we operate. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)
One of the biggest stresses in correctional work is the rule-oriented environment in which we operate. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

“By the time you finish your exciting and challenging correctional career, for those of you who are married or will be someday, it’s likely that 46% of you will be divorced. Also, 34% of you seated here today will have PTSD and 31% of you will suffer from severe depression at some point in your careers. Welcome to the correctional field, where the rate of suicide by correctional staff is 10 times higher than the unfortunate few who are killed in the line of duty. Many you will become alcoholics, and if booze isn’t your thing, other forms of substance abuse or addictive behaviors are out there for your choosing.

“But fear not class, we are going to do everything in our power to train you up on things like firearms and defensive tactics because we don’t want to see anyone get physically injured. We’re going to teach you the laws of our fair state, report writing and how to deal with inmates. We’ll show you how to conduct searches again because we don’t want anyone getting hurt. Finally, we’re going to get you physically fit, at least while you’re with us. You know, inmates have all the time in the world to exercise, so remember that point.

“As for that ugly stuff about what this job could do to you and your relationships, well, sorry folks, you’re just going to have to figure that out for yourselves. I mean, right now it probably doesn’t mean much to you anyway. You’re here, you’ve gotten this far in the hiring and recruitment process and I know you’re raring to get going. Congratulations, we’re happy to have you with us!”

If such an honest speech were to ever be given, how many recruits would stick around for the next several weeks, months or years to see if the academy director was correct? Also, is he wrong? Not according to several studies.

Addressing stress in corrections

Corrections is a tough business. It takes a toll on those of us who are entrusted to deprive our fellow human beings of one of the most fundamental rights – liberty. Between shift work, ever-present danger, isolation from the rest of society, an “us versus them” mentality (which can include staff against inmates or staff against administration) and the “never appear weak” mantra of correctional work, it’s not a big surprise that emotional well-being, relationships, families and a sense of identity all suffer during the course of a correctional career. So what do we do about it?

The sad answer: historically, little to nothing – and certainly not enough. Like our hypothetical academy director said, most correctional officers are left to “figure it out on their own.” Often that means relying too heavily on each other, thus creating a highly dysfunctional support system that exacerbates, rather than lessens the problem. Ask any correctional officer with a few years on the job who he or she associates with outside of work and the response is likely to be, ”My fellow officers; I can’t trust people who don’t understand what I do.” This is a great example of the blind leading the blind, as the saying goes.

The role of leadership

But, what about supervision and jail leadership? Can’t they help stave off some of these problems? They certainly can, if they’re not part of the problem. One of the biggest stresses in correctional work is the rule-oriented environment in which we operate. Add to that a perceived lack of support for line staff by supervisors and managers and the problem can be greatly magnified. Many officers have said something to the effect of, “When I’m at work, I’m doing the same time as the inmates. The difference is, they often get treated better than I do.” With that outlook, is it likely an officer would reach out to his or her chain of command when they are suffering some type of crisis?

Many agencies have well-intended Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) or peer support programs. Often, however, such programs go underused because correctional staff do not believe that help in dealing with their work, life and family problems will be provided confidentially. We all know how rampant the jail rumor mill can be. Many officers simply don’t trust the notion that their issues won’t become fodder for locker or briefing room discussions.

So, what can be done? There are no easy answers, but a good start would be to truly prepare a recruit, or a new officer, for the realities of the psychological, emotional and even biological changes and challenges they will likely face. Most academy curriculums include a brief block of instruction on stress or stress reduction. But when compared to the number of training hours on subjects such as use of force, defensive tactics and the other high-liability aspects of correctional work, the amount of training or even discussion on the topic of emotional survival is woefully inadequate. The same can be said for annual in-service training hours. Correctional officer mortality studies have shown that for every officer killed in the line of duty, 10 will take their own lives. Yet, where do we put the most emphasis in training?

why we must Change the culture of corrections

Another helpful idea is to begin to change the culture of corrections. The “code of silence” and “never appear weak” mantra are some of the most detrimental notions placed in a new officer’s head. There has yet to be a super-human correctional officer who is not affected by what he or she sees and does on the job. Let’s stop expecting people to be super-human. Let’s put an end to a culture that revels in others’ frailties and faults and makes everything everyone’s business. It’s time to put an end to the band-aid approach toward dealing with correctional officer humanity, that is, dealing with something after the fact. In my experience, I’ve personally known more correctional officers who have killed themselves than inmates who have taken their own lives; this is profoundly sad.

Let’s wake up, support each other, and put meaningful and discreet methods in place for officers to seek help. When they do, let’s make sure that such courageous actions are revealed only to those who have a bonafide need to know about it. Let’s make sure the people who are supposed to help us understand what we do so they don’t have to be “schooled on the fly” by the officer/client.

But before all that, let’s be honest, like our fictional academy director, and admit to a crisis in our profession.


About the author

Mark Chamberlain served as the first chief deputy of corrections for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office in Hot Springs, Ark., from 2014 to 2016. Before his selection, Mark worked for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in West Palm Beach, Fla., for over 26 years, starting as a corrections deputy and retiring as a captain/division commander. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Northwood University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Barry University. He is a graduate of Class #10 of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Senior Leadership Program and holds instructor certifications in Florida and Arkansas. Mark joined the Lexipol team as a training coordinator in August 2016.

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