Fixing Jail Violence Means Worrying About Officers’ Health

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Department of Correction Promotion and Recruit Graduation Ceremony at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, Friday, January 10, 2014.

Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de BlasioRob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Department of Correction Promotion and Recruit Graduation Ceremony at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, Friday, January 10, 2014.

“Of the hundreds of Correctional Officers I have treated, 60 percent of their anxiety and stress can be attributed to the Administration, 15 percent from inmates, 15 percent from other staff and 10 percent from personal issues. Also I am noticing more PTSD in officers from previous trauma and for those who have been in wars.”
-Donald Steele, Ph.D.

On average, each U.S. correction professional experiences 28 exposures to violence, injury or death-related events during his/her career. Correction officers “experience constant stress because of fear of inmate attacks, mandatory overtime, rotating shifts, sleep disturbances and supervisory demands.” These job stress issues are “linked to psychological disorders that may result in an elevated suicide risk.” In fact, correction officers have a suicide rate 39 percent higher than the rest of the working-age population, and twice as high as police officers.

Sources of stress for correction officers include organizational stressors (the “people aspects” of the job—interpersonal conflicts, role problems, unsupportive leadership), operational stressors (logistical issues such as being overworked, and challenging physical conditions), firsthand trauma (e.g., being assaulted or directly observing the assault of another), and secondhand trauma (e.g., hearing about violence, injury or deaths via in-house communications or media).

For correction officers affected by the extreme stresses inherent with the job, mental health assistance can be essential to their well-being; indeed, it is unlikely that they will be able to survive the job without support of some kind. Without intervention, officers may experience medical/physical, psychological, alcohol/substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, as well as other behavioral problems (e.g., violent behavior, domestic violence, inappropriate/illegal use of force, and officer v. officer incidents). However, providing this assistance to officers who adhere to a “Warrior Ethos” can be challenging, to say the least.

As is often the case with law enforcement, correctional staff are commonly categorized as one massive group instead of individuals. So when a particular officer is declared “bad,” his/her peers are usually considered to be one and the same. Regardless of how decent, capable and inherently “good” the other officers may be, the one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch in the average person’s mind. Fear about how they are perceived is just one more additional stressor that can burden many correction officers.

Of further concern is critical incident stress—a debilitating syndrome defined as “exposure to an unexpected critical incident that challenges and threatens” safety, mortality, and ability to cope effectively with a traumatic incident. It can seriously jeopardize job performance, destroy personal lives, and—if unrecognized and untreated—can lead to permanent emotional trauma, psychological problems, job suspension, dismissal, and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicide.8
A 2006 study by Marshall of traumatic stress in law enforcement discusses Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress (CCTS)—often unacknowledged symptoms occurring sporadically as a result of exposure “to a myriad of traumatic events over a period of years.” In 2011, a survey of almost 3600 corrections officers determined that 44 percent percent of offices experienced some form of PTSD and 27 percent met the full criteria for PTSD. A 2012 study on PTSD in U.S. corrections professionals confirmed there is an elevated suicide risk due to PTSD.

Providing effective mental health treatment and stress reduction care to officers is very difficult because of the way that law enforcement culture often adheres to the “Warrior Ethos” (i.e., mission first, never accept defeat, never quit, never show weakness, never leave a fallen comrade behind). By admitting s/he is “sick,” this self-image as “warrior” is compromised, so officers are less likely to seek—or accept—help.

In order to circumvent this kind of thinking, which may lead to self-destructive and even suicidal behavior, it is important for correctional facilities to put effective programs in place. A supportive and cooperative administration, providing proper direction in an adequately staffed facility with clear regulations and proactive/preventive (versus reactive) directives, will go a long way in creating a less stressful work environment in any correctional facility. Supervisors must be trained to spot officers who are experiencing stress. Confidentiality is crucial, with an array of services made available both before and after critical incidents occur, without judgment or penalty for officers who take advantage of these services.

Every effort is needed to remove the perceived stigma that comes with asking for or taking advantage of assistance when the stress of the job becomes overwhelming. One way to remove or lower resistance is by referring to counseling sessions as “debriefing” versus “treatment” or “psychotherapy” because the latter terms are often considered embarrassing and stigmatizing, which can undermine the process from the start. Off-site debriefing is highly advised because no one wants to be spotted entering/ leaving the office of “the shrink.” Peer Support (aka “stress units”) usually consists of peer mentors with basic counseling skills under the guidance of a psychologist. They can help officers with day-to-day difficulties on and off the job, provide targeted support after critical incidents, suggest referrals to professional services, and offer general support with a more like-minded level of comfort than many of the alternative resources.

A 2006 study identified staff members who experienced “Correction Fatigue”—job-induced anger and hate that caused “huge energy drains”—and noted that they benefited greatly from utilizing “emotional intelligence techniques” (self- and people-management) when interacting with inmates, co-workers, and family. The study concludes that training academies should equip trainees with these concepts from the start. An article in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology regarding Occupational stress and psychological functioning in law enforcement officers revealed the most helpful intervention for officers is one that combines acceptance of workplace stressors with increased behavioral changes.

A review of the literature relating to Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety listed the key elements of a successful employee assistance program (EAP) in a correctional setting as follows: providing specialized professionals with advanced knowledge of the field; easy, round-the-clock accessibility; ability to treat a wide range of mental health issues, substance abuse and trauma; familiarity with the agency, policies and procedures and current issues impacting employees and their families; having a critical incident response team including a trauma psychologist; for corrections administrators to maintain a referral network of clinical providers offering critical incident stress management services; and accessibility by officer families for help with stress and wellness issues that impact COs and their families. A report from the National Institute of Justice recommends “stress reduction programs which include professional counseling, peer support, referrals to clinicians or employee assistance programs, and staff training.”

Employing best practices as identified by these evidence-based studies would help to reduce on-the-job stress for Correction Officers, and reduce the rates of self-harm caused by repeated daily exposure to such difficult and demanding circumstances. It is important to provide services in such a way that these brave, strong men and women – “Warriors” in the best sense of the word – do not avoid, or think less of themselves for making use of the mental and emotional wellness support and stress reduction assistance available to them.