By Michael Grohs, Contributing Editor

Some jobs stay in the workplace when the shift is over. Other jobs, such as teaching, get taken home so the teacher can grade and prepare for the next day. Some jobs get taken home when the person worries about things like the economy or if a patient might fail and need help. Correctional officers (COs), though, have a job that should be able to stay in the workplace and doesn’t. A shadow follows them home. There is a saying that COs are serving time, too. They just get paid for it. In 2000, the author Ted Conover completed the course at the Albany Training Academy for New York State corrections officers and wrote the book “Newjack” about the year he spent as a CO at Sing-Sing.  The term “eight and the gate” is not an apt one for COs. The thought of not bringing the job home is a good one in theory, but as Conover wrote, “I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands.”
According to insurance data, veteran correctional officers experience a life expectancy of about 59 years, nearly eighteen fewer than the average population. It is a job filled with stress, burnout, and with less reverence from the population than those in other Uniformed Services. Correctional officers deal with actual violence, the constant threat of violence, manipulation by demanding inmates, overcrowding, competition for better assignments among other COs and are often left with feelings of isolation, burnout, and being misunderstood by friends, family and the general public. There is also the matter, as Conover wrote, of “the most stressful scenario a CO could ever possibly face: being held hostage.”
There are more than 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S and about a half million COs, a growing disparity in itself responsible for officer stress. Stress is known to be a catalyst for other health related issues. According to a study conducted by the Archive of Suicide Research, the suicide rate for COs is 39% higher than other occupations. Between 2011 and 2015, 12 COs at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections committed suicide. That figure does not include suicides of recent retirees and those who worked at county jails. Between 2009 and 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which tracks violent deaths, reported 20 suicides in the state whose occupation was listed as “correctional officer.”
Correctional facilities have had a strong economic impact in southern Colorado. They have had a tragic personal impact as well. The suicide rate in Fremont County is nearly twice as high as the statewide average.
Dr. Susan Balaban is a psychologist who runs the Uniformed Service Program at the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont, which offers treatment services specifically geared for, among other branches, correctional officers. She points out that COs are a uniformed group who traditionally do not get a lot of attention yet they are a branch of service who often suffers from high substance abuse rates, PTSD, depression, and suicide. Caterina Spinaris, founder of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and an expert on correctional research and who coined the term “correction fatigue,” found that more than one third of COs suffers from PTSD. (The rate for military veterans is about 14%.)
Correctional officers work in an environment with an intense, looming threat in which they can only be reactive rather than proactive. The stress levels are high. They start seeing gruesome things and are not accustomed to talking about it with friends and family. Witnessing inmates being attacked, COs being attacked, and suicides has a strong impact on stress levels. One issue that exacerbates the matter is the professional environment—the correctional corporate culture. There is a tremendous focus on efficiency, says Balaban. The romanticism the public often associates with the police and the military does not translate to COs, and some of the camaraderie people attach to the uniformed services is not experienced by COs.
A Department of Justice Report called Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies found that 22% of staff viewed “other staff” as creating more stress than any other single factor except for dealing with hostile and demanding inmates. Among the reasons were burned out coworkers constantly venting their frustrations, the competition for a limited amount of choice assignments, and apprehension that a coworker will refuse to back them in a confrontation with inmates because they are too inexperienced as a result of high turnover, or they do not have the physical or emotional strength to be effective. On top of it, the profession tends to have a negative social image. It is a profession not often portrayed in a positive light by the media.
The environment also tends to have less peer support than other uniformed services. It is not a culture where one can easily admit to having problems, and says Balaban, there seems to be more acrimony among coworkers and less peer support than is often found in other uniformed services. Officers are often reluctant to admit they are struggling, which leads to isolation. This is also a stoic population, says Balaban, who are very good at hiding signs. They might not seek help for fear of being sanctioned, and they are also not likely to seek help until it exacerbates, such as missing work, substance abuse, money management, etc. An officer under duress might use all of his or her sick days not coming to work, which can add to the acrimony among her or her coworkers. (One captain who responded to the Justice report judged that 90% of officers abuse sick time in this manner.) Turnover is high, and according to the Justice report, stress has been implicated as a reason for officer disability retirements. The report furthers that incorporating a stress program can reduce turnover. In an instance in which inmates killed a civilian, 17 officers went on disability leave; seven never returned. Five of the 17 went for individual counseling, and of those five, four returned. (The one who did not was the officer who discovered the body.)
When it comes to COs obtaining help, there is often an uncooperative or even an obstructionist atmosphere. One CO Balaban spoke to sought financial help after he was attacked on the job. He was told by supervisors that he did not have PTSD because he did not immediately report it, which is not how it works. (It takes about a month to present.) Another CO at a facility in Colorado, as reported by the Denver Post, was attacked by an inmate wielding a six-inch shank. The officer was stabbed in the face and neck numerous times while other inmates shouted, “Kill him! Kill him!” It was more than three minutes before backup arrived and intervened. Following the attack, the CO’s supervisors offered no counseling. The warden simply asked the officer when he would be back to work. The officer is now a railroad employee in Texas.
Says Balaban, it is up to those running the facility to support Employee Assistance Programs and ensure that there is more of an incentive to seek help, and if an officer does seek help, they must be assured that they will not be in trouble such as if they are seeking help for substance abuse, they will not be punished. The onus, Balaban says, is not for supervisors to find solutions to problems; it is to not shame an officer if they need help. Furthermore, there is also not a clear system for COs to get help. Officers are often not given information on how to seek help, and there is usually no across-the-board policy and little, if any, centralization. Most advocacy programs arise from COs and families of COs. (Massachusetts has introduced a Bill [Resolve S. 1254] to create “a special commission to study the prevention of suicide amongst prisoners and correctional officers in Massachusetts correctional facilities.” It has since been referred to the committee on Senate Ways and Means.)
Comorbidity of PTSD and Depression
Studies have found that individually depression and PTSD contribute to higher rates of suicide, but a real concern with correctional officer well-being, says Balaban, is comorbidity. “I’ve never seen anyone with chronic PTSD who did not suffer from depression.” She furthers, “The stress is going to get dealt with. It’s a high pressure environment, and it’s going to come out somehow.” Particular problems, she points out, are combinations of trauma, chronic stress, and chronic pain from injuries. (A chronic phenomenon across the country from which COs are by no means immune is addiction to pain killers. In an occupation wrought with physical injury, the slope to opioid abuse is not a long one. Opioids numb pain, and they numb feelings.)
Signs of Stress
Duty-related stress can affect anyone. According to the Brattleboro Retreat, signs that something might be wrong include having a specific critical incident playing over and over in an officer’s mind. A CO might feel exhausted yet edgy and unable to relax. A nagging injury may lead to depression. The job might start affecting an officer’s marriage and home life, he or she might spend less and less time with friends and loved ones, and of course drinking too much and/or abusing prescription or other drugs. As Balaban points out, oftentimes in schools children with ADHD don’t get treatment until they start causing problems for others. It can be the same with PTSD. Once the matter becomes disciplinary, an officer might be pressured to seek assistance.
One potential solution, suggested the Justice report, might be prevention. The report noted that developing a stress program has benefits. There is a financial benefit in regards to sick time and the subsequent officer replacement overtime. Many administrators also reported that officers involved in a personal crises who were offered stress services returned to work more quickly than those who were not. Stress programs can reduce turnover. (When Conover wrote “Newjack,” the Department was in a period of unprecedented need for new officers due to high turnover and higher-than-usual retirement rates.) Other respondents reported higher morale, improved performance, increased security, and improved relations with the union.  There is, though, says Balaban, not much being done to develop ways of processing stress, yet the concept for such measures is not new. “Even the Romans and feudal Japanese had methods for this.” J
For more information or to contact the Brattleboro retreat, see their website at or call 1.800.738.7328.