By D. Razor Babb
Researchers have only begun to examine the psychological effects and pressures of working in the prison environment, but studies reveal that officers suffer from PTSD and depression, and commit suicide at rates significantly higher than law enforcement staff in other agencies and even the military. In a UC Berkeley study survey of over 8,000 correctional officers and other sworn peace officers representing California’s correctional institutions and parole offices, a clearer picture of how exposure to violence and work-related stress impact the health and welfare of correctional staff emerges.
Eighty-five percent of officers report witnessing someone seriously injured or killed while at work; 29% report being seriously injured on the job. Other physical maladies such as digestive issues, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease also report high. The psychological stress of feeling unsafe corresponds with excessively high levels of depression, burnout, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. Statistics from 2019 indicate that correctional officers’ suicide rate was 10%, the rate for retired officers was 31%, and one in three officers suffers from PTSD. A report by the Vera Institute shows that the average life expectancy of a correctional officer is 59 years, 16 years less than the national average.
In order to deal with the exceptional mental health and stress issues, correctional officers have the Peer Support Program (PSP), an option that can be reached out to as needed. One California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) sergeant says, “As custody officers we put on the appearance of a hard shell, but we see things that affect us (stabbings, killings, assaults). These are things that the PSP helps with. One of my guys had a son who committed suicide. They came and talked to him. It can be difficult. For example, having a family member who’s an addict, walking around the house in the middle of the night with a gun after working an 8 hour shift, sometimes 16 hours, and not being able to feel safe can become overwhelming. On top of that we have a heightened sense of awareness, we’re trained to be suspicious. We come to work looking around [for trouble], always on edge, fight or flight mechanisms are on high alert. The message is that we can’t trust anyone in here and seeing these violent things, being involved in violence, having 15-20 officers in my charge looking for down time, there is no down time.”
Research suggests that it is the confluence of stress factors that leads to “hypervigilance,” a condition that contributes to anxiety and exhaustion. Any normal person has at least minimal exposure to circumstances and events which can trigger (or expose) neurotic tendencies or reactions when dealing with routine situations in day-to-day life. Add to that the expectations and fear embedded in the minds of correctional officers from the beginning of training—forewarned to constantly be on the lookout for trouble, to be wary of every prisoner and suspicious of their inherent criminal and manipulative nature. They are programmed to expect danger and possible violence at any second. To live with that expectation, even while witnessing or participating in actual violence in workday life, every day, year-after-year, accumulates and frays the fibers of a person’s psyche.
The CDCR sergeant we spoke to says, “It wears on you. I can become a not so pleasant person. I can snap. I’ve had therapy, meeting every 3 or 4 months, then every six months. They tell me, ‘It’ll get better,’ it’s supposed to get better. There are times we need someone to talk to, people we can trust, a safe place, a confidential place where we know gossip won’t ensue. I lost a father, my last grandparent died and at the same time I got employee of the month. Sometimes we use work as an excuse to get away from the things happening at home. There are no phones; sometimes it’s the easiest part of the day.”
Dr. Amy Leman, team leader of the UC Berkeley group responsible for the study that focuses on the pressures of being a correctional officer says, “Without a healthy workforce, ensuring the rehabilitation and care of people in prison is simply not going to be possible.” Officer wellness is not separate, or separable, from concerns about the safe and effective management of correctional institutions. It is at the heart of these concerns.
Correctional Officers are by far the most prevalent workforce group in prisons. Problems inherent in a mass incarceration environment impact correctional officers just as significantly as they do the prison population. They are the ones who are responsible for carrying out correctional policy and regulations in everyday practice and have the most interaction with prisoners. The intimate nature and extreme closeness of contact may explain, at least in part, the difficulties correctional staff face. While the stress associated with working amongst convicted criminals is significant, officers report that “their major job stressors were other staff, poor supervision, and administrative policies.
These factors provide disturbing evidence supporting the claim that prisons are a dysfunctional working environment and harmful to the mental well being of officers. The research done by the UC Berkeley study suggests several ways that improved wellness might be promoted. Eighty percent of officers polled said they are interested in training on stress management, trauma or PTSD, and personal nutrition and exercise. Test results have been utilized to test a number of low-cost behavioral interventions for officers that are hoped will serve as a model for agencies throughout the country.