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By Brian Dawe, National Director, and
Andy Potter, Founder, One Voice United

America’s prison system needs sweeping reform on many levels. One area that has not had enough attention is the trauma and related mental and physical health issues that arise within prison walls and tragically affect the lives of all who are involved in the corrections system.

This is no small problem. It affects more than 400,000 corrections officers, hundreds of thousands additional administrators and staff, nearly two million incarcerated individuals and their families; this arguably means that more than six million Americans are impacted every day by living and working in our nation’s prisons and jails.

There is a growing consensus around the harm that results from being incarcerated, but there is little awareness about the harm done to those working inside prisons. Post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), depression and suicides are higher among corrections staff than among all other first responders.

[Video: Preventing Suicide in Corrections]

Typically, this has been explained by blaming the dangerous work environment and the potential for assaults by prisoners. What has been ignored, however, is the tone from the top, the embedded work culture within prisons that scorns any display of weakness and, ironically, the general lack of control or respect experienced by front-line staff.

[Digital magazine: Understanding and Managing Corrections Officer Stress]

These combined mental and physical pressures have resulted in correctional officers experiencing higher rates of divorce, heart disease, self-medicated drug abuse, and noticeably shortened lifespans. Male officers typically live to age 59, compared to 75 in the general population.

Working in Corrections is Stressful, but the Source of Stress May Be Surprising

It comes as no surprise to anyone that working in corrections is a stressful job. Some might even say, “You knew that going in!” What would be a surprise would be to learn that correctional staff interactions with the incarcerated population is at the low end of the spectrum of what leads to staff stress.

The majority of their stress actually comes from policies, procedures and prison administrators. A common pattern found in prisons across the nation is that corrections officers are rarely, if ever, asked to contribute to prison managers’ operational or policy decisions. There is no buy-in opportunity for staff, no way for them to own the policy, or partake in planning and development.

[Related: Transformational Leadership and the Impact on Morale, Satisfaction in Corrections]

Usually corrections staff find out about a change the same day it’s implemented and have no way to cite a flaw or gap in the policy change they are forced to carry out. In many ways, it’s the paramilitary nature of the command structure that shuts off staff participation.

The Conditions of Confinement Have an Adverse Impact on Corrections Officers

In addition to a lack of inclusion, the conditions of confinement have an adverse impact on corrections officers. Inmate-to-officer staffing ratios is one of the more disingenuous statistics foisted on the public. Most corrections officers are outnumbered by prisoners by more than 60 to 1. Many operate at over 100 to 1, especially in the yards and “chow halls” of medium-size to large jails and prisons.

The mental and physical toll of working in corrections does not just take place behind the walls but is exacerbated also by external factors. There is little public sympathy for corrections officers because of Hollywood’s often lurid and brutal portrayal of their work. The portrayal has many believing officers are the bad guys, the sadistic knuckle draggers, motivated and wired to inflict vigilante justice on those behind bars. The film “Cool Hand Luke” is a classic portrayal of police brutality. Yet it is the corrections officers who risk their lives not only protecting the public, but also everyone who works and resides behind the walls.

We live in a digital world where sensationalism sells and, in the absence of a counter-narrative, perception becomes reality. So once the narrative is set we subconsciously look for stories to fit it. This contributes to cold receptions by politicians and legislators who oversee prison budgets and related public employee benefit plans. That presents additional obstacles when trying to look for solutions.

The current options available for corrections officers lie in some combination of therapies typically prescribed for trauma victims.  Corrections officers needing assistance, however, often find themselves in an impossible situation. The Catch 22 for most correctional officers when confronted with PTSD symptoms is they believe they can’t discuss the problem and therefore can’t address it. They fear being ostracized and labeled as weak by their peers; that at the least, they will lose promotional opportunities and at the worst their job.

[Related: Post-Traumatic Stress and Suicide in Corrections: How PA DOC is Addressing the Issue]

The most important reforms needed today are systemic. It will surprise many that more than the threats of violence, interactions with those who are incarcerated or even tensions with colleagues, the greatest source of stress for line staff comes from the administration. If we want real change that reduces stress and prevents more severe injuries like PTSD there needs to be a change in the rigid mentality and unforgiving culture of prison administrators.

[Digital Magazine: Rebuilding Officer Resiliency: A Treatment Guide]

The other related culture change has to do with the basic purpose of incarceration. Proof comes from abroad: Nations that have shifted from a more punitive to a rehabilitative approach in corrections subsequently saw reductions in rates of stress, PTSD, depression, and suicide.

For example, in Scandinavian countries such as, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, correctional officers have taken on more rehabilitative roles, which has been shown to help officers avoid issues of stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards.

Similarly, German and Dutch corrections systems, where rehabilitation and resocialization are the primary goals of incarceration, designate increased resources toward correctional officer training, which spans two years with 12 months of theoretical education followed by 12 months of practical training.

Changing the System Requires a Cultural Shift

The American culture and history of retribution and punishment characterized by rigorous conditions of confinement require a cultural shift that may seem insurmountable. But shying away from what seems too arduous should never be the answer. Progress could begin on several fronts.

  • Correctional officers could be trained in de-escalation skills, thereby decreasing not only their stress levels but that of everyone with whom they interact behind the walls.
  • New corrections officers could be assigned mentors to assist with work and family pressures. Administrators could be more collaborative leaders rather than paramilitary authorities
  • Former or retired corrections officers should get counseling or needed therapy as part of their benefit packages.
  • Political leaders should recognize the value in reforming the system so that everyone inside prison walls has a chance of surviving in a more humane and dignified way.

Regardless of where we begin, one thing is undeniable. There exists a serious wellness issue within the U.S. prison system that affects every individual who lives and works behind the walls. To find solutions we must first recognize that indeed there is a problem.

We must stop pretending that what happens behind the walls is not “our problem” if we are going to combat the officer wellness crisis that has hit epidemic levels. And we must understand that the living conditions for those who are incarcerated and the working conditions for those who serve as officers are the same conditions and we can only solve for one by solving for the other. It is time for all Americans to ask if our prisons are failing to rehabilitate the majority of those who are incarcerated and stealing years off of the life expectancy of those who work there then maybe the system needs to be re-imagined.

About the Authors:

Andy Potter is the founder of the national, non-profit One Voice United, which aims to add corrections officers to the national dialogue on criminal justice reform. Andy is also the Executive Director of the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), where his peers have repeatedly elected him to lead the union.  In June of 2019, Potter was appointed to the Service Employee International Union’s (SEIU) executive board as Vice President.  He also serves as President of the SEIU Michigan State Council, Chair of SEIU’s Conservative Member Engagement Committee, and Chair of SEIU’s National Corrections Council.  Recognized as a key leader and strategist in the criminal justice reform movement, Andy serves on the boards of directors for several organizations, his work is featured in a number of publications, and he continues to speak at universities, conferences and events throughout the country and abroad.

Brian Dawe is the National Director of One Voice United (OVU). Brian began his career working as a Massachusetts State Correctional Officer in 1982.  Prior to joining OVU, Brian led the American Correctional Officer Intelligence, which he founded in 2007.  Brian received BA in Criminal Justice and Labor Studies from the University of Massachusetts.  After graduating, he continued to serve as a guest lecturer for the Dean of the College of Criminal Justice on topics such as, Massachusetts Labor Law and union organizing.  His writing his featured in a number of publications and he currently authors the Corrections Monthly Article for the New Jersey COPS Magazine (NJSPBA).