The prison experience for corrections staff

The people who work inside prisons are largely responsible for the environment that is created behind the walls. Although corrections staff may not dictate standards and policies, they must interpret them and put them into practice. This takes its own toll. Corrections officers, who work inside these facilities for 40 or more hours per week over the course of 20 or more years are also subject to the restrictive nature of prison and the negative effects that has on mental health.Jaime Brower, Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety Literature Review (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center, 2013), 6-10 (citing a study of corrections officers in New Jersey which found their suicide rate to be more than double that of police officers),  Researchers have only recently begun to examine the psychosocial effects of working in prison on corrections officers, but early studies show that officers suffer from PTSD and commit suicide at rates much higher than law enforcement staff in other agencies and those in the military.Ibid., 12; and Lois James and Natalie Todak, “Prison Employment and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Risk and Protective Factors,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine (forthcoming) (19 percent of 355 surveyed prison employees met the criteria for diagnosable PTSD, a rate comparable to that of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans). Also see Michael D. Denhof and Caterina G. Spinaris, Prevalence of Trauma-related Health Conditions in Correctional Officers: A Profile of Michigan Corrections Organization Members (Florence, CO: Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2016), 11-15,  Three aspects of working in prison and their negative effects on staff are described below.

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Corrections Officers Experience

Mundane routine and violence on the job. In the hierarchy of correctional goals, maintaining order within a facility is paramount. The majority of the training that officers receive is thus focused on the use of surveillance and control equipment and techniques.Training lasts anywhere from three to 20 weeks and can include training in the use of correctional technology and equipment such as metal detectors, x-ray machines, leg irons, waist chains, handcuffs, holding cages, restraint chairs, stun guns, pepper spray, and different types of firearms; riot control, movement and transport of incarcerated people; conducting cell searches and strip searches; identifying contraband; and writing up reports. See, “Corrections Officer Training,” Also see New York State Department of Correctional Services Basic Training curriculum, available at; and Adam Jackson, Evaluation of New Officer Training (Columbus, OH: Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, 2012),  Officers are also trained on the psychological aspects of maintaining order and are taught to be suspicious of incarcerated people: to be constantly on the lookout for potential or actual trouble.Elaine Crawley and Peter Crawley, “Understanding Prison Officers: Culture, Cohesion and Conflicts,” in Understanding Prison Staff, edited by Jamie Bennett, Ben Crewe, and Azrini Wahidin (New York: Routledge, 2012), 142.  Yet one American corrections officer admitted that “95 percent” of his job can be “pretty mundane:” he admitted doing the same thing every day for eight—or even 16—hours straight, sometimes without a break, including making periodic rounds of assigned areas, conducting cell counts, and keeping an eye on the activities of those who are incarcerated.Dasha Lisitsina, “'Prison Guards Can Never Be Weak': The Hidden PTSD Crisis in America's Jails” Guardian, May 20, 2015,  This experience of dull routine, conducted in an atmosphere where officers are primed to expect—and do at times experience—sudden, extreme violence, heightens stress and can lead to hypervigilance, a condition that can contribute to anxiety and exhaustion.Ibid.

Escalating job stress. The effects of the prison environment on staff extend beyond the hours during which officers are on shift and the years in which they work in prison. Corrections officers have been found to suffer severe physiological, psychological, and behavioral effects from job stress. These can be so pronounced that a specific diagnostic category—“corrections fatigue”—has been proposed to account for them.See Michael D. Denof, Caterina G. Spinaris, and Gregory R. Morton, Occupational Stressors in Corrections Organizations: Types, Effects, and Solutions (Washington, DC: DOJ, National Institute of Corrections, 2014), 5, Also see Brower, Correctional Officer Wellness, 2013; and Peter Finn, Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies (Washington, DC: DOJ, 2000), 11-17,  Common stressors include unpredictable shift work; overtime demands; crisis situations; perceived or actual risk of being injured; lack of support from or trust in supervisory staff; and inadequate training, particularly in dealing with special populations such as young adults or people with mental illness.Brower, Correctional Officer Wellness, 2013. Also see Finn, Addressing Correctional Officer Stress, 2000, 11-17.  For a discussion of the impact of feelings of care and support from supervisory staff on willingness to overlook or engage in inappropriate behavior among corrections officers, see Finn, Addressing Correctional Officer Stress, 2000, 47-52 & 76; and Robert Worley and Vidusha Worley, “Guards Gone Wild: A Self-Report Study of Correctional Officer Misconduct and the Effect of Institutional Deviance on “Care” Within the Texas Prison System,” Deviant Behavior 2, no. 4 (2011), 298-300, 310-14.  These conditions can lead to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, and gastrointestinal ailments. In fact, some studies have shown that corrections officers experience heart disease, and high blood pressure at rates significantly higher than other professionals considered at high risk for these conditions, including police officers.Wilmar B. Schaufeli and Maria C.W. Peeters, “Job Stress and Burnout Among Correctional Officers: A Literature Review,” International Journal of Stress Management 7, no. 1 (2000), 19-48, 29,; and Brower, Correctional Officer Wellness, 2013, 11-13. Also see Finn, Addressing Correctional Officer Stress, 2000, 16.  

Job stress can also lead to high levels of major psychological problems: a 2013 study of a national sample of almost 3,600 corrections workers found that more than 25 percent suffered from depression, 27 percent from PTSD, and 17 percent from both—all levels significantly higher than the national average.Michael D. Denhof and Caterina G. Spinaris,  Depression, PTSD, and Comorbidity in Corrections Professionals, (Florence, CO: Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 2013), 14-15 & 35-36,  Corrections officers with co-occurring disorders reported experiencing levels of both professional and personal functional impairment five to seven times higher than the average corrections officer.Ibid., 23-24.  This can be fatal: a national study showed corrections officers’ suicide rate to be 39 percent higher than the rest of the working-age population.Ibid., 8. Regarding PTSD, see Jaimie L. Gradus, Ping Qin, Alisa K. Lincoln, et al., “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Completed Suicide,” American Journal of Epidemiology 171, no. 6 (2010), 721-27, Regarding depression, see John Michael Bostwick and V. Shane Pankratz, “Affective Disorders and Suicide Risk: A Reexamination” (published online December 1, 2000),  In combination, this leads to an overall grim statistic: one study found that the average life expectancy of corrections officers was only 59 years, a full 16 years below the national average.Brower, Correctional Officer Wellness, 2013, 11.

Poor working conditions and lack of public trust. Although corrections work is often physically and emotionally demanding, stressful, and dangerous, it is all too frequently characterized by low pay (the average hourly rate for a corrections officer is $16.65 per hour), insufficient training, little emotional support, and a dearth of other rewards.Kevin Minor, Cherie Dawson-Edwards, James B. Wells, and Earl Angel, “Understanding Staff Perceptions of Turnover in Corrections,” Professional Issues in Criminal Justice 4, no. 2 (2009), 43. For the average hourly wage for corrections officers see Payscale, “Corrections Officer Salary,” Also see Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment Statistics: May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States,”, which states that the median hourly wage is slightly higher at $20.93. This number may be greater because it includes states with unionized corrections staff—such as California, Illinois, and New York—that often pay higher wages. See for example Jon Ortiz, “California Prison Officers’ Union, Jerry Brown Agree on Contract,” Sacramento Bee, March 16, 2016, In fact, California pays the highest annual mean wage, at $71,630 across all corrections officer and jailer jobs, whereas 12 states pay at most $35,410 and more than three-quarters of states pay less than $50,000 annually. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment Statistics – Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017 – Correctional Officers and Jailers,” Also see Eric Lambert, “I Want to Leave: A Test of a Model of Turnover Intent Among Correctional Staff,” Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice 2, no. 1 (2006),  These problems, while substantial, are exacerbated by understaffing in many facilities. Corrections officers in jurisdictions as diverse as Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, and West Virginia are working “six or seven days a week, 10- to 12- and sometimes 16-hour shifts.”Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, “Thousands of Unfilled Jail Jobs, Millions in Overtime, 'Zero Room for Error',” Governing, June 21, 2018,

Compounding this, corrections staff lack the status that other law enforcement professionals (such as members of the military or the police) tend to hold in communities. Media imagery often depicts prison staff as ignorant, brutal, corrupt, and abusive of socially wronged individuals.See Peter Finn, “Correctional Officer Stress: A Cause for Concern and Additional Help,” Federal Probation 62, no. 2 (1998), 65-74, 69, Also see Samuel G. Vickovic, Marie L. Griffin, and Henry F. Fradella, “Depictions of Correctional Officers in Newspaper Media: An Ethnographic Content Analysis,” Criminal Justice Studies 26, no. 4 (2013), 455-77; Bart Masker, “Public Perception of Corrections: The Dark Side of the Force,” paper prepared for Florida Department of Law Enforcement,; and Ray Berger, “The Public Image of Corrections,” California Youth Authority Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1978), 2-17, Also see Joey Hedger, “Here’s the Bad News: Public Trust is Tanking, Negative Media is Growing,” Corrections Today, September/October 2017,  This image is further reinforced by reports that highlight abuses behind bars. For example, a 2015 report from Human Rights Watch recounted the routine and extreme physical abuse that guards across the United States had inflicted on incarcerated people who were mentally ill.See Jamie Fellner, Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons (Washington, DC: Human Rights Watch, 2015), report found that corrections staff have been known to “deluge [mentally ill prisoners] with chemical sprays; shock them with electric stun devices; strap them to chairs and beds for days on end; break their jaws, noses, ribs; or leave them with lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs.” Ibid.  Comparatively few accounts of officers’ supportive or constructive engagement with incarcerated people make the news. “It’s not a job that most people consider,” says Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “Growing up, people play cops and robbers, not convicts and corrections officers. You don’t grow up thinking ‘I want to be a corrections officer.’”Barrett and Greene, “Unfilled Jail Jobs,” 2018.