Corrections officers die by suicide at a rate of three to four times that of the general public. In this episode, AMU Criminal Justice professor Dr. Michael Pittaro talks about the mental health crisis in corrections. Learn about his upcoming testimony in Washington, D.C. advocating for awareness and change to help correctional officers.
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Leischen Kranick: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Leischen Kranick. Today, we’re going to talk about the mental health concerns among correctional officers and staff. Something that is often not recognized and not taken seriously enough.
I’m joined today by Dr. Michael Pittaro, who is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration. He also served as the executive director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility, and as an executive director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency.
Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level for the past 20 years, while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter and subject matter expert. He recently authored a textbook called “Pursuing and Navigating a Career in Criminal Justice,” and is currently writing another textbook called “Introduction to Corrections” that’s slated for publication in early 2023. He will also be testifying in Washington, D.C. before the Blue Ribbon Commission, a hearing on the correctional staff wellness crisis. Hi Mike, thanks so much for joining me today.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, Leischen, this is a great honor for me.
Leischen Kranick: Well, you have a lot of big things coming up. Congratulations on the new book and on this commission hearing, I’m really excited to talk to you about it.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you.
Leischen Kranick: So, you’ve been working in the criminal justice system for a pretty long time now. I was wondering if you could start off by talking about when you first recognized that mental health was a serious issue among correctional staff. Can you just give us a little background?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. Honestly, I think it started when I was actually working in corrections. At that time, but didn’t really consider anything further than, “Hey, there’s some issues here that we’re dealing with,” but at the time I thought it was confined mostly to the facility where I worked.
But once I started getting into teaching and researching, I shifted away from focusing on prisoners, which is the common route that most professors take and started shifting towards the challenges that officers, staff, and administrators contend with and that’s how this really started.
One day I was sitting back, and I was thinking about how many people I knew while working in corrections that had died by suicide, and it sparked my interest. And that generally led to the first article, and then the first article, obviously, led to many other articles. Then realizing that this wasn’t just confined to Mike Pittaro’s experience, Mike Pittaro’s facility. This was something that was occurring internationally, not even nationally, internationally.
And so, I’ve started to tackle it a little bit more by looking into what’s causing these problems? Why are we dying at a such young age? And what can be done about it? I think that’s the most important part now that have the research and we know why it’s occurring, what can we do to prevent it, or at least minimize these incidents of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and, of course, suicide?
Leischen Kranick: Can you talk a little bit about some of the causes of some of these mental health issues? I know that we’ve talked about this a little bit in the past, and it always surprises me a little bit, because I would assume just in thinking about correctional staff, that it would be working in an environment among offenders, but that’s not always the case of what causes stress and burnout and all of the other mental health issues. Right?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. It is quite surprising. And even when I left corrections, I said the reason for me leaving had nothing to do with the prisoners or working in that type of environment, which many considered to be somewhat toxic, but had to do more with the leadership. It had to do with the lack of supporting us. It had to do with close-ended thinking, being far from progressive at all. And it had more to do with that feeling that it was an “us versus them.”
Now, when I moved into administration, I found that a lot of my views conflicted with those that I worked with. And that was one of the reasons why I left corrections, because I felt like these individuals had closed themselves off from the frontline staff, the officers themselves, even though most of them had started their careers as correctional officers and then advanced into administration.
So, for me, it was eye-opening to realize that they didn’t really care about their roots, where they came from, and they weren’t including these men and women in a lot of decision making with the policies, procedures, programmatic changes, anything occurring within the facility. And it was very frustrating, basically.
And so, you have a lot of officers who are feeling frustrated, they’re being worked constantly with mandatory overtime. COVID did not help things whatsoever. And so, you have men and women who are trying to make a career out of this, but, unfortunately, not getting the support of their administrators.
Leischen Kranick: Yeah. It just seems like such a shame, because in a lot of those examples that you gave, it is in the control of a lot of administrators, it seems like. And I was wondering if you could give a little perspective on maybe some of the resources, or even just awareness of mental health. Have you seen that change from when you started your career to today that at least people are talking about mental health issues among correctional staff and administration?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. Just in the last, I would say decade, you’ve seen a tremendous change. We’re now talking about it. We should have been talking about this 20, 30 years ago, but we’re now talking about it. But we’re not doing much as far as action plans, like creating changes by providing those resources that you mentioned, by providing an outlet for these men and women to go to, by hiring someone with a psychological, or psychiatric background that has correctional experience that could help these men and women navigate through some of these challenges that they’re facing, and to deal with it more successfully.
After all, I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but there’s nearly 450,000 men and women who serve as correctional officers in the United States. So, that’s half a million people right there that have, for the most part, been somewhat neglected and ignored all these years. And that’s what I, and many others are trying to do right now, is create that change to let their voices be heard. I’m in a great position now because I have that ability, I have that platform to talk about these issues and to spread more awareness, provide more education, and hopefully get this knowledge out to others beyond just those in corrections, but out to policymakers, those that are stakeholders in this profession, anybody and anybody who just wants to listen to us.
Leischen Kranick: And that segues nicely into some upcoming testimony that you are about to participate in. Can you give our listeners a little overview of why you’re going to Washington, D.C. and the topic and what you hope to talk about while you’re there?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. We’ll basically have two panels. So there’s panel one, that’ll go earlier before myself. And these are individuals who are mostly correctional officers and their firsthand experiences of dealing with stress, suicide of their colleagues, dealing with PTSD, the lack of support, the lack of feeling like they’re empowered. And then the second panel, which I’m a part of, consists of two PhDs, an individual from Norway. And we’re going to provide our insight more from, I guess you could say the research side of it. So, we all have the correctional background, but also now to sway it a little bit, more towards the science end of it, showing that this is a major problem. We know it’s a problem. And we want to really get this out there so we can try to hopefully help these men and women.
For example, the life expectancy of a correctional officer is 59 years old, whereas the national average life expectancy for an adult in the United States is 77 years old. That’s a huge problem. And that’s due to physical health problems, namely cardiovascular issues, poor eating habits, and, unfortunately, our propensity for alcohol abuse.
And then from a mental health perspective, you have depression and anxiety, PTSD, and, of course, suicide. And depending on the study, the research is suggesting that our suicide rate in corrections is twice that of law enforcement, which means that it’s three to four times more than that of those in the general population, your average Joe Citizen. And that’s a huge concern. That’s just not the mental wellness that we’re tackling, but also the physical wellness.
Leischen Kranick: Wow. That is just shocking to me to know that the suicide rate is so high among correctional officers. I knew it was higher than the general public for law enforcement, but just to know it’s even higher for correctional officers is just, it’s very sad. It’s obviously something more people need to know about. To me, it seems like one of those hidden problems that not a lot of people talk about.
With COVID, one of the silver linings is that people are talking about mental health more, because we’ve all had to undergo this fairly traumatic social and health issue. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re hoping to gain from talking to this commission? Are there things that you’re hoping will come from it in terms of policies or changes?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. The commission is not necessarily comprised of anyone who works in corrections, or even somewhat associated with corrections. These are individuals who are high powered individuals within the nation who overlap on some of the topics that we’re going to talk about. And these individuals we’re hoping can bring some movement on their end.
So, it’s looking at it as knowledge is power and strength is power in numbers, that kind of approach by getting this out there further. But I think the frustration, at least amongst the group that’s testifying, including myself, is that we’ve done a great job of spreading awareness and education, but, unfortunately, we’re not making any movement towards actually making the change, changing the culture of corrections. And that’s what I hope to gain from this experience. And that’s what I hope others will gain from this experience, is to show that this is not just isolated to the United States, but this is international. And that’s where colleagues from Norway, New Zealand and Australia will also be there testifying.
And Norway has been very successful in addressing a lot of these issues with correctional officers and prison reform in general. So that gentleman is going to speak about their success and what’s referred to as the Norwegian model. So we’re hoping to play well with others, I guess you could say. My experience is criminal justice tends to play by itself in the sandbox. So we’re trying to get others involved in this as well and see what works and what has been working, not just in the United States, but abroad, specifically in Norway.
So, we’re trying to get out more and trying to get this knowledge passed on, so we could actually start taking some action by creating the programs, providing the resources, everything that we need for these individuals, instead of constantly just talking about it. We want to actually see change. We want this to go through to writing in a form of policies, in a form of programs to help these individuals. So, again, we can minimize these challenges that they’re facing. Can we eliminate them altogether? Absolutely not, but we can at least minimize what’s occurring and keep these young men and women from dying by suicide, or dying at an early age due to some type of physical health problem.
Leischen Kranick: It’s really fascinating. I’m glad you brought up the Norwegian approach and I’m wondering, I don’t know how much you know about that, or can speak to it, but are there just really stark differences in the way that Norway approaches criminal justice in general? You mentioned a culture shift and other policy changes, but is there anything that you can point to as really something that would really help us here in the United States?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Yeah, I think one of the reasons why they’ve been successful is that you have the buy-in of the officers, the administrators, politicians, decision makers in the profession. So I think that’s what it’s going to take in the United States to actually move forward with this change. They’ve been very successful in getting everybody to agree that this is a main major problem, and we need to address it as a country. And that’s something that’s lacking in the United States, is that we’re not approaching this as what I would refer to as a public health concern, because the suicide rates are incredibly high, and we need to start looking at this and start addressing it.
So I hope to learn, myself learning as one of the testifiers even, a bit more about the Norwegian model, how they’ve been successful, and then hopefully carry that on to the state and federal correctional institutions within the U.S. to start making those changes, to start actually getting people who know about this to actually get in there and say, “Okay, this is what’s worked in Norway. Let’s try to implement the same types of policies to see if we can have the same rates of success.”
Leischen Kranick: Definitely sounds interesting for sure. I was wondering just to shift gears a little bit, I had mentioned the pandemic and how COVID-19 has affected so many people, but it’s my understanding that it’s just had a huge impact in the correctional system. Can you talk about how COVID has impacted correctional staff members and the system in general?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. You have multiple things that occurred during the pandemic. You had those officers that didn’t necessarily want to get vaccinated, they were essentially being forced to get vaccinated. Then you had a number of officers who actually contracted COVID and were out for lengthy periods of time, some were mildly ill, others were severely ill, that required others to work overtime, mandatory overtime. Working in a prison it’s 24/7, no holidays off, no vacations off. It’s an operation that never shuts down. So, a lot of people don’t understand that you have to have X amount of officers on a shift to operate properly. And so, you’re requiring sometimes these individuals to work 16, 24-plus hours without a break. And that’s simply not healthy. That adds more to the stress, that weakens your immune system, that could make you more susceptible to contracting COVID and other types of viruses.
So, it’s not just worrying about your colleagues, but also you had to be prepared for prisoners contracting it. And prisons, unfortunately, social distancing is not a thing. Unfortunately, you’re in a close proximity to maybe 75 to 90 people during your shift, depending on how the prison’s set up.
So, it created a huge, huge issue for those who worked in corrections simply because there’s no way to escape from COVID. So, I think that caused a lot of issues right there with officers being out for extended periods of time, or, as you know, for those who came in contact with someone with COVID, they would also have to quarantine for a period of time. So, it led to more burnout probably than we’ve ever seen before. And, this is only anecdotal evidence, but people leaving the profession to pursue other careers because thinking this is simply not for me.
Leischen Kranick: Yes. It’s really the staffing concerns, I think among everything else. It’s like staffing seemed like it was always a problem in corrections and then COVID just really amplified it and made it that much worse. So, I mentioned in the intro that you’re actually writing a textbook on corrections, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why your book is unique? And then also, why should people consider a career in corrections? I know we’re talking about a lot of the negative aspects right now, but it really can be a great career path. So, can you talk a little bit about your book and those who are considering going into this field?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, absolutely. I think unfortunately, if you look at the criminal justice system, somewhat as a pie, you have your law enforcement, you have your courts, and then corrections for the most part. Historically, or traditionally, people have viewed corrections as somewhat of a stepping stone onto other careers. We’re trying to change that image as well, and trying to change the culture of the profession, trying to make it something that’s more attractive, I guess, for those who are considering careers in criminal justice and it has that potential.
What separates my book from the others is that I plan on focusing more on the practical side of it. I’ve been teaching criminal justice for 20 years now, corrections every single semester since that time. I’ve used a number of books and I’ve found some to have strengths and weaknesses, just like you would find in any book. But I noticed that all of them, they didn’t delve into more of what correctional officers experience, what administrators must do, and staff as well, programmatic staff. So, this is going to jump outside more of the theoretical and focus more on the practical side of things.
So, what is it like working with someone who’s in for sexually violent crime, someone who wants to harm you, how do you deal with these things? So, it’s more practical in the sense that it prepares you for a career in corrections. And it isn’t all doom and gloom, there is a lot of negativity associated with it, but the positive is, this is what to expect. And when you expect something, when you anticipate these things down the road, you’re better prepared to deal with those issues as they occur.
I learned through trial and error, unfortunately, and I think a lot of individuals my age that went through corrections did the same thing. You had to find your way dealing with some of these challenges. Fortunately for me, I was able to deal with them effectively, but many do not.
So realizing that there’s going to be issues with mandatory overtime, there’s going to be challenges that you’re going to face with certain inmates, and to be better prepared for that. Also, focusing on how to navigate the corrections field by dealing with frustrations, dealing with, I guess you could say when people explode and you see these videos on social media, people who obviously lost their cool and excessive force then is the end result. What I’m trying to do is implement some of my research and my firsthand experience into, this is how you can control your emotions, which I think is incredibly important. And how to separate what you’re dealing with during the day, so when you go home you’re with your home life and when you’re at work, you’re in your work life. Separating the two is important.
So, it’s essentially input from myself, but also corrections professionals across the U.S. that I’m having their input as well, as to what’s needed to make this a better corrections course. Because, honestly, the way the course is set up now that I teach, is the same way it was when I was a student back in 1985, taking corrections. I’m hoping to change all that. So, this book is going to be more practical, realistic, and definitely useful than all the other textbooks out there.
Leischen Kranick: Well, that’s incredible, Mike, that you can share your experiences, lessons learned through your career, but also more importantly, this is really an opportunity for you to shape the next generation of correctional officers. Like you said, shift their mindsets, prepare them for this career field more than perhaps you were prepared. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who were correctional officers and looking back on it, they had no idea what they were walking into and what to expect. So I think that’s just so important, like you said, to prepare them for this career.
[Related: What to Expect as a New Correctional Officer]
Talking about that next generation, are you hopeful about what they can bring to this? When I think of mental health, I just think how much more open younger people are talking about mental health than perhaps older folks, but do you have a similar belief that you have a lot of hope for the next generation of officers?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Oh, no doubt about that. I do believe that you’re seeing a more tolerant, younger type of population, a group that’s more accepting of these issues that they’re acknowledging them, that it’s not something hidden the elephant in a room. They see the elephant, they’re acknowledging the elephant, and they’re dealing with it. So, I do definitely see the difference in the generations on how that’s being dealt with.
However, we still got to change the culture of corrections. There’s still that distrust of people and others that work in corrections. There’s still the thought that even though we have these policies and programs that are designed to help us when we’re feeling stressed or burned out, but there’s still that thought in the back of their head, it’s just perception, of course, but based on the fact that, well, maybe this is going to be held against me down the road. So, getting over that.
And then, just in general, the profession is predominantly male, males have a tendency not to talk about their feelings. I know that’s hard to believe. And so, that’s part of the issue as well. So, you have that double-edged sword that we have to get in there and get them to change.
Those entering the profession now are more receptive to those changes and are more likely to be successful in this profession than those that have been in the profession for your 20, 30-year people. So I definitely feel hopeful that we’re going to see a lot of positive changes as people retire and new ones come in and take their place.
Leischen Kranick: And something else you touched on, but I know is another passion of yours, is talking about leadership style, especially in the correctional setting. Can you just talk about where you think that needs to go in terms of adapting new leadership styles? You mentioned how it’s fairly authoritative and it’s maybe not as embracing of all levels of staff. So, can you just talk about your hope for the leaders of corrections?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. I focused on transformational leadership, I think since I was a doctoral student, it’s just something that I was drawn to when I first researched it. Never heard of it before, but realized that my personality, my thoughts, my philosophy aligned better with transformational leadership. To me, it works. The research is now supporting that it works, it worked in the business field. Then you have the backing of now the National Institute of Corrections, National Institute of Justice, all saying that transformational leadership is the way to go.
So my experience was, like you mentioned before, that authoritative, quasi-military approach, more punitive than helpful. So, transformational leadership is essentially the polar opposite of that. It’s coaching, it’s mentoring, it’s lessons learned. How could you have done this better? But keep in mind that it’s not, I guess you could say patting people on the back and that whole give-everyone-a-trophy type of mentality.
It has more to do with coaching them and helping them get through it rather than the threats of, well, if you can’t handle the job, go look for another job. I’ve heard that before personally myself and that to me, doesn’t motivate me to do more. So transformational leadership also motivates, it inspires people to do more they feel more valued into place of employment. And this is something that has been shown to be highly effective. So why are aren’t we doing it?
So, I’m definitely a proponent of transformational leadership. I think everything about it is perfect. I think it works with people. People tend to do more when they feel valued and respected. Think about it. The reason why most people leave their places of employment have to do with dissatisfaction with their employer. So, if you can change all that, like we started out in the beginning, most aren’t leaving corrections because of working with criminal offenders, but having to do more with the organizational and the administrative side of things that are more frustrating than working with the offenders.
Leischen Kranick: That’s great. I think it actually leaves me with a lot of hope based on our conversation. It seems like we know all the pieces that need to be put into place, it’s just a matter of getting the right people to understand the issues that exist and then putting in place some of these changes to change the culture, give staff more, both resources and all the things that people need to be happy in their job, from job satisfaction, to frankly, safety and security and working tolerable hours and all of those things. So, I think it’s really exciting. I’m really excited for you. I think you’re on such a great path here with such an important topic, and I know that you’re very passionate about it. So I’m excited to see how this testimony goes and where we can go from here. So any other thoughts or things we didn’t touch on that you want the listeners to know about?
Dr. Michael Pittaro: No. I think when I started this whole, I guess you could say, journey, it was just me in my own research interests, but now it’s blossomed to where I’ve reached out to others within the U.S. that I guess you could call corrections experts, or corrections gurus. And that has now since spread to those internationally. So we’ve become somewhat of a team. And that’s what I love about this. And we’re all tackling this together. So this continues to spread outward and I like that, meeting with like-minded people and we’re all on the same page, sending the same message.
So, that’s really important to me showing that, this isn’t just me, Mike Pittaro on a one man journey trying to make change. This is individuals from all over the U.S. and abroad that are all on the same path, the same journey who want to create these changes. So, I think we’re going to be incredibly successful.
I, honestly, think that the testimonies that we’re going to provide are going to be very powerful. And I definitely think that you’re going to see some positive change come out of it. I’m 100% confident in that, because we have a great group of people with strong messages to tell, strong stories to tell, that I think it’s going to be very powerful.
Leischen Kranick: Excellent. Well, congratulations to you. Good luck with the book and the testimony, and we’re behind you all the way. So great work.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you.
Leischen Kranick: Mike, thank you so much for your time today. I think just talking about mental health issues among correctional officers is just so important. So thank you for all your work. And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. Be well and stay safe.
Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, Leischen.