Correctional Officers have many reasons for entering their field. Some corrections officers get into the field because of their personal convictions about criminal justice. Others like that it takes less time to get on first shift than if they became police officers. A continually growing prison population creates job stability, great pay, and excellent health and retirement benefits. The work is always eventful and interesting. Despite the best intentions and perks of the job, the corrections job is in arguably one of the most stressful occupations in the justice system or in any other industry.
What Does It Take to Be a Corrections Officer?
The duties of a corrections officer can vary from day to day and from month to month. Some duties are administrative like booking prisoners, inventorying their possessions, and explaining the rules to inmates. Many of the duties require direct contact with inmates like performing body searches, guarding prisoners, transporting inmates to and from court, preventing or intervening in fights or riots, performing cell inspections, and working with convicted felons or prisoners with serious misdemeanors.
Corrections officers learn many of their skills on the job. Training is a continual process for corrections officers. They have to learn how to fight and defend themselves. Suicide is a common risk in prisons, so corrections officers have to learn how to watch for signs of suicidal intent and how to save lives if the situation occurs.
Corrections officers must have complete confidence in their physical and mental capabilities. Their jobs require them to be continually alert, even if the shift lasts up to 16 hours.
What Makes Prisons So Stressful?
Correctional facilities are inherently stressful. They’re constantly noisy, even at night.
Crimes are often committed by people who suffer from brain disorders. An Urban Institute study showed that about half of inmates suffer from some type of mental health disorder. Cook County Jail in Chicago has been dubbed, “The largest mental health facility in the United States.” People who need mental health treatment often end up in a cycle of prison and homelessness. Mental instability of inmates adds to the chaos in prisons.
Inmates learn tips and tricks from each other about how to make weapons out of the few objects they’re allowed to have such as toothbrushes. Corrections officers must be constantly vigilant for threats of assault on themselves or between prisoners. Prison guards also have to deal with having feces and other bodily fluids thrust at them and being taunted and screamed at.
Effects of Stress on Corrections Officers
While the job demands great physical and mental fitness, no corrections officers are immune from the effects of job-related stress. The statistics of the effects of stress are staggering. Corrections officers have:
- A higher rate of divorce than the regular population
- A higher rate of substance abuse than the general population
- A 33.5% chance of being assaulted by a prisoner while on the job
- One of the highest rates of non-fatal on-the-job injuries
- The second-highest mortality rate of any occupation
- Shortened lifespan with lifespan averaging age 58
Detecting Signs of Severe Stress, Hypervigilance Disorder and PTSD
Corrections officers are extremely susceptible to developing secondary trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder due to the constant chaos and threat of danger at work. These issues bore out in a 2011 survey by Catarina Spinaris, who questioned corrections officers about secondary trauma. She tested them for signs of PTSD, flashbacks of job-related traumatic incidents, sleeplessness, suicidal thoughts and ideations, hyper-vigilance, and other stressors.
Her results showed that 34% of corrections officers live with PTSD, which is more than twice that of military veterans, at only 14%.
A New Jersey police taskforce determined that the suicide rate of corrections officers was twice that of police officers and the general public. Still another national study found that corrections officers have a 39% greater risk of suicide than all other professions combined.
It’s important for corrections officers as well as prison employees, family members, and friends to be alert for signs of hypervigilance disorder, PTSD, and suicidal intentions.
The intensity and frequency of violent situations may cause corrections officers to shut down emotionally, unknowingly entering a state of fight, flight or freeze. This fragile emotional state reduces their ability to react and function normally. They may suffer from depression or insomnia or resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like taking elicit drugs or abusing alcohol. These issues may cause them to be slow to react or become lax with rules and safety.
Over long periods of time, some corrections officers may develop compassion fatigue, which means they lose the ability to empathize with inmates, co-workers, family members or friends. Unintentionally, they may take their stress out on inmates or people who are close to them.
Getting Help for Corrections Officers Dealing with Stress or Addictions
Corrections officers have an internal culture of how they attempt to help one another. Not having any other outlet, corrections officers developed their own way of dealing with job-related stress and trauma. They don’t talk about it with each other or with anyone else. The unofficial, but often recited motto between corrections officers is, “Eight and the gate,” which means that after an eight-hour shift, they leave everything behind the gate of the prison. They try to convince themselves that they can leave the traumatic sights, sounds, smells, memories, and experiences behind, forgetting them completely.
As cited here, numerous studies prove that this philosophy couldn’t be farther from the truth. All corrections officers are affected by the stress of their jobs on some level—many to a life-threatening degree.
Fortunately, there is help for corrections officers at Deer Hollow Recovery & Wellness. From the first call, intake specialists at Deer Hollow Recovery & Wellness will help callers feel at ease knowing that we have experience working with clients in specialty fields like police officers, firefighters, EMT professionals, corrections officers and emergency dispatchers. Our professional counselors provide expert clinical assessments to make recommendations for the treatment and other services they need anywhere in the country. Whether you need on-going therapy StepStone Connect to reduce current on-the-job stressors and help maintain positive personal relationships or in-patient treatment at Deer Hollow’s trauma program for first responders treating PTSD, alcoholism or substance abuse, our caring staff will lead you to the most appropriate program to help you stable and confident.
Corrections officers can’t totally escape stressors on the job, but appropriate therapeutic interventions can help beat the stress beyond the gate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Marketing Officer of 360 Wellness Inc/Premier Wellness Solutions and currently managing business development with Institute for Responder Wellness and Deer Hollow Recovery.. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called “Firefighter Wellness Radio” with Fire Engineering. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment firstname.lastname@example.org
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