If you have a job as a First Responder, whether it be as a Law Enforcement Officer, a Paramedic, or a Firefighter, you start each shift with the understanding that it could be your last. The risks of injuries and even death are increasing in alarming numbers for each of those professions. But as a firefighter, you get the luxury of being surrounded by supportive coworkers, taking turns cooking meals, and having your own secure place to train and relax between calls. As a paramedic, you get the fulfillment of seeing new life enter the world, you get to help people in their darkest moments and make a difference. Law enforcement officers even occasionally get to have positive interaction with their community and establish relationships with people in that community. But there is one sector that is oftentimes ignored and forgotten about. It is the profession of the Corrections Officer. As most citizens go about their day, thoughts of the sacrifices and struggles of Firefighters, LEO’s, and Paramedics cross their minds because they come in contact with each other. Even if it is simply sitting at a stoplight and yielding to one of their vehicles as they respond to an emergency. But what about the Corrections Officer? For the vast majority, they are “out of sight, out of mind”. But without them, what chaos would abound? What environment do they chose to enter each day? How does that environment affect them?
Prisons run the gamut from Federal to State to County; government run to privately operated. Three common themes are seen throughout all: overcrowded, short-staffed, and underfunded. Imagine going into work every day, and knowing you will be out-numbered. You have no weapon to defend yourself beyond a can of pepper spray. The people surrounding you are in crowded conditions, tempers stay at the forefront, and you can’t trust anyone. You most likely will be working a 16-hour shift, and may have many shifts in a row ahead of you. You are short on sleep, have received minimal training, and were probably released early from training due to staff shortages. While many Americans face issues at work like copier jams or truck breakdowns, and delayed meetings, a Corrections Officer has to constantly be on alert, aware of their surroundings at all times. They are in danger of being assaulted, spit on, lied to, and face having bodily fluids being thrown on them. Inmates with outside connections threaten the family members of officers, truly creating a constant state of being on guard. What does this constant state of high-level alertness do to one’s mental and physical state?
Turnover is high in the corrections field. Long shifts, rotating assignments, and the constant stress of being a potential target causes many to seek another career. Many corrections officers are very young. This coupled with limited training can cause even more potential issues. Even in the prison system, a hierarchy exists. Criminals view “rookie” Corrections Officers as people who need to “earn” respect. This can lead to intentional “pushing the limits” behavior from the inmates, forcing the new officer to act. Inmates have their own set of rules and oftentimes feel they “run” the facility. The effects of the long shifts can be particularly devastating. The Tennessee Department of Corrections came under criticism due to the work schedule their employees were required to work. According to a story by WSMV-TV Nashville, the correction officers were required to work 6 days on, 3 days off. As a result, turnover was reaching a rate that was causing unsafe conditions on staff¹. Research published in the European Heart Journal suggests that people working overtime are at a 60% increased risk of heart disease². Being subject to chronic stress does more than just put someone “on edge”. The following effects are reported by the American Psychological Association as results of exposure to chronic stress³:
- Migraines and tension-type headaches
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
- Coronary Artery Disease
Mention PTSD and corrections officers are not usually the first that come to mind. But these officers are witness to violent events on a daily basis. Assaults between inmates and attacks against staff are events that could trigger PTSD. Being chronically exposed to these events can lead to a mentality of constantly being on guard, even when off duty. Imagine the stress of never being able to trust what you are being told, of always wondering if a lethal weapon has been constructed out of ordinary materials. Being respectful of others is not enough to guarantee you won’t fall victim to an assault. The Correction Officer must walk a fine line of being fair yet always maintaining authority. In a report on the Rikers facility in New York, it was shown that 40% of inmates had a mental disorder⁴. This is a burden being felt across the nation. With the breakdown of quality mental health care, Corrections Officers are coming into contact with people who require special interventions. With minimal training, officers are expected to maintain order among people who don’t respond to normal methods of intervention.
With all of the stress factors that Corrections Officers experience every shift, it is no surprise that the suicide rate is one of the highest in law enforcement. A 2009 report found that the suicide rate for corrections officers is twice as high as other law officers and population⁵. The answer to that high rate could possibly be found in a 2012 survey which showed that 1 in 3 officers exhibited signs of PTSD⁶. This is a much higher rate than any other group.
Focus is finally being placed on First Responders and how to recognize, support, and treat the combined negative effects of the job. But one category is grossly overlooked and that is the area of corrections. With more crowded conditions, lack of funding, forced overtime, and chronic staff shortages, Corrections Officers are exposed to more dangerous working environments than before. If a facility can barely provide adequate staff to patrol than how could they possibly provide the support for employees to seek help?
It is imperative that administrations look at how they can provide outlets for their staff. Simply having a phone number up on a breakroom board, advertising access to mental health isn’t enough. Programs like Critical Incident Reviews and accountability partners could provide consistent support to staff needing an outlet. Discussing events with people who truly understand the demands of the job can be the most therapeutic outlet. Coworkers must look out for each other and watch for signs of imminent issues. Sudden mood swings, depression, outbursts, and even apathy are all signs to take seriously. If you notice changes in your everyday outlook, if you feel you never can just relax, then it is time to reach out for help. Services are available and the stakes are too high not to get help.
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a unique understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John 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. John is also a member of the National Police Suicide Foundation and has provided training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics specific to First Responders. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com.
¹Finley, J. (2016, January 12). TDOC Employees Say New Schedule Creating Dangerous Conditions. WSMV-TV Nashville. Retrieved from http://www.wsmv.com/story/29548955/tdoc-employees-say-new-schedule-creating-dangerous-conditions
²Nauert, R. Health Problems from Working Overtime. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/05/12/health-problems-from-working-overtime/13752.html
³Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
⁴Valmon, J. (2014, May 22). The Dangers of Being a Corrections Officer. The John Jay Sentinel. Retrieved from http://johnjaysentinel.com/2014/05/22/the-dangers-of-being-a-corrections-officer/
⁵Pittaro, M. (2015, January 5). Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion. In Public Safety. Retrieved from http://inpublicsafety.com/2015/01/suicide-among-corrections-officers-its-time-for-an-open-discussion/
⁶Zaitz, L. (2012, March 31). Stress Takes Toll on Oregon Prison Workers; Twin Projects to Plug Research Gap on their Health. Oregonlive.com. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2012/03/twin_projects_to_plug_research.html
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a unique understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John 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. John is also a member of the National Police Suicide Foundation and has provided training, on topics specific to First Responders, to agencies and organizations throughout the country. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com