By Jennifer Burks
"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
What does our prison system say of society in the United States, a system that has disproportionately incarcerated African Americans and has criminalized mental illness? The United States has a long history of incarceration practices that have included depriving individuals of their basic needs. Historically, prison officials believed that criminals could not be reformed; they had to be subdued by harsh conditions and contained in an institution capable of providing discipline by administering corporal punishment. Out of this belief came the inhumane incarceration practices of the United States prison system today, a system that is broken and in need of overhauling.
As a result of the disproportionate mass incarceration of African Americans and the transinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, United States prisons have become overcrowded and dangerous. This is having negative effects on all those who become justice involved. Many people who have come in contact with the criminal justice system are left stigmatized as formerly incarcerated individuals.
There is a common misconception in the United States that the more aggressively we punish for criminal activity, the safer our communities will be. According to psychologist Christine Montrose, M.D., who has visited prisons in the United States and abroad, searching for understanding as to how those who are mentally ill inside our
prison systems are treated, "the goal of our criminal justice system is to provide safety and security to our communities;" however, "this goal is undermined as our correctional practices "prioritize vengeance and suffering over justice and rehabilitation" (5).
History of Incarceration
The current state of the U.S. prison system is a result of centuries of experimentation on incarcerated individuals. Ted Conover is a journalist who studied the prison system by becoming a corrections officer after several rejections of a request for an interview from prison officials. He published the book New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing in 2001, which gives an inside look into how corrections officers are negatively impacted by the United States prison system. Conover states that William Penn, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, along with his colonial government "experimented with incarceration as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment" (Conover, 2001, p. 173). The goals of the Quakers included protecting society from harm, deterring crime and encouraging "penitent reflection," by having convicted persons separated from society to reflect on their actions, and preventing criminal behavior is the future. Out of this theory, the penitentiary was born.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, founded in 1829, housed incarcerated individuals in solitary cells, cells in which the individual had no possessions except for a Bible. They would perform individual work assignments, keeping their minds occupied and providing the state with free labor. This penitentiary became the model for penitentiaries across the nation.
Auburn Correctional Facility, established in New York in 1818, became the next prison to practice solitary confinement. Auburn Correctional Facility began building cells where incarcerated individuals could stay in "solitary confinement," completely separated from human interaction for the duration of their sentence. The result was not reformation; instead incarcerated individuals began suffering with depression, suicide attempts and insanity. Auburn Correctional Facility subtracted the labor aspect and opportunities for exercise, found in the Eastern Penitentiary model, at the suggestion of Elam Lynde, the facility's warden. This was proven to be too harsh. As a result, Lynde incorporated work and opportunities for physical activity into each day of an incarcerated individual's sentence. This was key to keeping the incarcerated individuals from going insane, giving birth to what we know as the United States prison system today.
Today, the U.S. incarcerates individuals at an unprecedented rate. As stated in "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "From the mid-1970's to the mid -'80s, America's incarceration rate doubled, from about 150 people per 100,000 to about 300 per 100,000. From the mid - 80s to the mid - 90s it doubled again. By 2007, it had reached a historic high of 767 people per 100,000, before registering a modest decline to 707 people per 100,000 in 2012" (Coates, 2015, p. 12).
From 1970 to 2015, the American prison population increased seven times, from 300,000 people to 2.2 million people.
The United States, comprised of five percent of the world's population, imprisoning 25 percent of the world's incarcerated individuals (Coates, 2015, p. 12). Disproportionately, this population consists of Black males between the ages of 20 and 40. According to Coates, "In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared to only 13 percent of their white peers" (12).
The United States Prison system has put a strain on Black communities throughout the nation. With incarceration rates of Black males being significantly higher than that of their white counterparts, Black communities have become riddled with societal issues as a result of incarceration. These societal issues create a demand for services that are not readily available in Black communities, and when they are available these services are not easily accessible. The societal issues surrounding incarcerated individuals include substance abuse, physical and mental health issues, joblessness, and poverty. Consequently, the issues justice-involved individual face trickle down to the families and communities of incarcerated individuals.
The following statistics show how many Black families are affected when an individual is incarcerated:
- ï As of the year 2000, more than one million Black children had a father in jail or prison (Coates, 2015, p. 17).
- ï According to the National Research Council, over half the fathers who are incarcerated in state prison report being the "primary caregiver" (Coates, 2015, p. 18).
- ï Between 30 and 50 percent of Black individuals released from prison, in San Francisco and Los Angeles alone, are homeless (Coates, 2015, p. 18).
Families have also reported a loss of income as a result of supporting those who are incarcerated through the cost of phone calls, travel costs for visitation, care packages, commissary, and legal fees (Coates, 2015, p. 18). These issues contribute to the cycle of justice involvement for Black individuals in the United States. Children who have at least one parent incarcerated are more likely to have behavior issues that follow them into their adolescence. Those who care for the incarcerated individual are financially burdened, which can lead to criminal activity in order to make ends meet. In his essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Devah Pager, a sociologist from Harvard University, saying "Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation's most marginalized groups. Rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood" (16).
The increase in the incarcerated population far outgrows the increase in co1Tectional staff. According to the article, "Working in a Meat Grinder," The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who represent federal correctional workers, released information pertaining to the unbalanced number of corrections officers and incarcerated individuals. There was a nineteen percent increase in correctional officers between the years 2000 and 2013. (1) During this same time period, the federal prison population grew by an astounding 41 percent. (1) This imbalance represents the entire prison system in the United States, and causes unsafe conditions in the correctional setting.
While it is important to understand the harmful effects the prison system in the
U.S. has on incarcerated individuals, their families, their communities, and those who are mentally ill, there is another group of individuals in contact with the U.S. criminal justice system whose lives and mental health are also negatively affected. For the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing on this group - our corrections officers. Corrections officers go into our prisons every day and interact with individuals who have been deemed too dangerous to remain in society. They work in the most antagonistic atmosphere, constantly encountering aggression.
Role of the Corrections Officer
According to the "Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis," written by Frank Velentino Ferdik, of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of West Florida, Pensacola and Hayden P. Smith, of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, released by the National Institute of Justice, the responsibilities of a corrections officer include the following:
- ï Acting as "front-line bureaucrats of the prison institutions" (Ferdik & Smith, 2017, p. 1).
- ï Supervising the activities of incarcerated individuals.
- ï Enforcing rules and regulations of the facility.
- ï Affording social services to incarcerated individuals.
- ï Maintaining order.
- ï Responding to administrative demands.
- ï Searching cells of incarcerated individuals for contraband such as drugs and weapons.
- ï "Interviewing to resolve potentially violent disputes" among incarcerated individuals (1).
Corrections officers play a fundamental and essential role in the everyday operations of the facility of which they are a part. According to the National Institute of Justice, corrections officers "represent the single most important resource available to any correctional agency" (The Psychological Effects, 2019, p. 1). This job description alone places a large amount of responsibility and stress on the individual.
Occupational Dangers and Risks
Corrections officers work long shifts, facing dangerous circumstances. The dangers experienced include
- ï Gang activity
- ï Disruptive incarcerated individuals
- ï Mentally ill incarcerated individuals
- ï Contraband introduced into the facility
- ï Infections and communicable diseases
Every time a corrections officer steps into a prison, their life is in danger. According to Ferdik and Smith, "the risk of death and personal injury are mental-health related risks" (Ferdik and Smith, 2017, p. 3). Perception of danger and risk along with preparedness to handle any given situation influences the degree in which an officer is affected by stress.
In addition, widespread budget cuts are responsible for lack of preparedness corrections officers experience. They must use outdated equipment and are offered limited training. This leads to distrust of administrators who lack leadership skills, which affects the entire facility. Officers begin to show less desire to engage in job activities, this increasing the potential for violence of the incarcerated population. To deal with rising violence, officers are given handcuffs and a small can of pepper spray; corrections officers may not carry service weapons while inside a facility and they may not use other forms of non-lethal protection such as tasers to keep themselves and others from being harmed or killed while on duty.
Low morale is another occupational hazard affecting the mental health and well being of corrections officers. Mistrust in leadership is the leading cause of low morale within correctional facilities. Confusing directives that guide all activities within the prison system, established by the American Correctional Association, add to the low morale among corrections officers. These directives offer officers little to no autonomy, while they are expected to react in a self-sufficient manner when issues arise within the facility. Another issue leading to low morale is the notion that incarcerated individuals are afforded more social services than officers are, including the opportunity to attend college. This allows for animosity to build between corrections officers and the volunteers who make these programs possible for incarcerated individuals. Mistrust, confusion and animosity lead to conflict in the correctional environment: conflict between officers and administrators and conflict between officers and incarcerated individuals leading to volatile conditions in correctional facilities.
Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity
According to the National Institute of Justice, role conflict and role ambiguity add to the stress experienced by corrections officers. Ferdik and Smith note, "Researchers have linked heightened stress as a result of role conflict and role ambiguity" (Ferdik and Smith, 2017, p. 9). When officers must or are requested to comply with one set of directives given by administrators or senior security staff, it makes it difficult to comply with other aspects of the job. Correctional philosophies are constantly changing in the United States. Philosophies fluctuate in degrees of treatment and rehabilitation, reprisal, deterrence, and incapacitation of incarcerated individuals. Rule regarding the treatment of incarcerated individuals change often, along with the rules incarcerated individuals must
follow. Most of the time these changes are not communicated to the officers. Communication between corrections officers and administration is lacking, and relationships between the two levels of security personnel is strained due to poor leadership trust and support, little to no input on decision making, inadequate resources and inadequate employment benefits. These are two factors leading to officer burnout.
Incarcerating the Mentally Ill
It is common knowledge that taking people who have committed a criminal act and isolating them from society has a negative impact on the individual's mental health. When that person is already suffering from mental illness upon entering the prison system, that mental illness is exacerbated by the conditions faced while incarcerated.
Individuals are met with violence instead of the psychiatric help that is necessary to become a productive member of society upon their release from prison. Corrections officers are not trained to deal with mental illness; in many cases they have no other choice than to use force to take control of the mentally ill individual who is in the midst of crisis. This takes a toll on the officers who must force these individuals into compliance.
Transinstitutionalization and the "Criminalization of Mental Illness"
The "criminalization of mental illness," describes the rising number of individuals with mental illness being incarcerated and/or being moved from psychiatric rehabilitation facilities to correctional facilities in a process known as "transinstitutionalization." Individuals with mental illness, including but not limited to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are unable to control their actions, often resulting in criminal behavior and leading to incarceration. As part of a study released by the National Institute of Justice in 2017, "Significant growth in the population of inmates with mental illness made Los Angeles County Jail, New York Rikers Island and Cook County Jail in Chicago the "three largest psychiatric institutions in the country" (Ferdik and Smith, 2017, p. 7). The increases in the number of mentally ill incarcerated individuals in the above jails are as follows:
- ï Los Angeles County Jail went from housing 15,000 incarcerated individuals with mental illness to 23,000 (7).
- ï New York's Rikers Island went from housing 5,500 incarcerated individuals diagnosed with mental illness to 10,000 (7).
- ï Chicago's Cook County Jail went from housing 5,000 incarcerated individuals diagnosed with mental illness to 10,000 (7).
The incarceration of individuals with mental illness has posed significant challenges to correctional staff, specifically corrections officers. Corrections officers are not trained or educated in the needs of mentally ill incarcerated individuals. These individuals need extensive medical services including therapy, detoxification and substance abuse treatment, medication, and care for chronic physical health issues. Mentally ill incarcerated individuals are susceptible to sexual abuse and physical violence. They are a threat to themselves and others within the correctional setting.
Insufficient resources along with the complexity of the needs of these individuals add to the stress corrections officers face. As seen in the following interview with a former corrections officer, the "criminalization of mental illness" and the practice of transinstitutionalization have had an impact on how corrections officers deal with individuals inside as well as outside the prison walls.
Interview - How Corrections Officers Are affected by Transinstitutionalization and the "Criminalization of Mental Illness" from The Perspective of a Former Corrections Officer
In my effort to understand how corrections officers are affected by the job and changes in the environment they work in since the transinstitutionalization of those who belong in psychiatric care, I conducted an informal interview with a former corrections officer. I asked him the following questions:
Question: How do you feel about transinstitutionalization, the practice of moving psychiatric patients from psychiatric hospitals to prisons?
Response: We are simply not trained to deal with mental illness. This puts us at a disadvantage when incarcerated individuals begins to "act out" as a result of their mental illness. They need help from trained professionals to talk them down; instead we find ourselves meeting them with force. Violence is the fastest way to subdue a person in the midst of a crisis, but it is certainly not the healthiest for the person with mental illness nor the one using violence against them.
Question: How has your outlook of the job changed since the criminalization of mental illness?
Response: Knowing that the mentally ill are now being warehoused in the United States prison systems changes the way we look at incarcerated individuals as well as individuals outside the prison walls. Corrections officers do not receive professional training in assisting incarcerated individuals or to protect them, for that matter. On the job training teaches a CO [corrections officer] that they must act quickly to protect others on their watch when a mentally ill incarcerated individual is in crisis. Some officers such as myself, with experience, become capable of determining which individuals are "acting out" due to a behavioral issue and those who are "acting out" because they are mentally ill. However, there are many officers who do not care to see the difference, because the outcome will still be the same - using force to get the incarcerated individual to comply and quickly remove them from general population. The difference in the treatment of individuals who are in the midst of crisis comes after the harm is already done, harm to the individual and harm to those who had to use force, both mentally and possibly physically. If the issue is seen to be completely behavioral they end up in "keeplock," (author's note: being somewhat isolated for a period of time in one's own cell or a cell designed for this purpose or completely isolated from others in the prison's Special Housing Unit, commonly known as SHU or the "box"].
Those who have a past history of mental illness or are seen to be in the midst of a mental health crisis are put on a Therapeutic Behavior Unit (TBU), where they spend more time outside their cells, in order to attend therapy groups, than they would have if they were put in SHU. Having some contact with other incarcerated individuals in the same position they are in and receiving some psychiatric care, aids in suppressing mental illness.
Question: How has your job as a corrections officer affected your life outside of prison?
Response: In life, outside of prison, I look at others with suspicion. I question, is this person capable of committing a crime, is this individual mentally ill, having the ability to harm me or those I surround myself with? How will I react if this person goes into crisis with my loved ones around? My answer is always - the use of force, despite knowing that this is not what the person needs, they need help that I cannot provide. My colleagues and I have not been properly trained to defuse a situation in which a person with mental illness is in crisis. If someone begins to become aggressive around those I love and the cause is to commit a criminal act or just bad behavior, not mental illness, I have the sense that use of force is a justified reaction to the situation. However, using force and possibly injuring someone who was in need and crying out for psychiatric help, well. It doesn't sit right with me. I sit there and think, for corrections officers, incidents such as these are not once in a lifetime events, they are a part of everyday life. As a corrections officer, you spend every day knowing that you have nothing to offer the mentally ill incarcerated individual except for more anguish. It makes me question: why I am still doing this job?
Negative Psychological Effects Experienced by Corrections Officers
Corrections officers are often forgotten about in our justice system. They have some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in law enforcement. Many must make personal sacrifices, including loss of familial and other personal relationships and the development of adverse physical and mental health issues, in order to do this job. It is not a surprise that they suffer negative psychological effects from working on the job.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative article, "Working In a Meat Grinder: A Research Roundup Showing Prison and Jail Jobs Aren't All That States Promise They Will Be," corrections officers "are regularly exposed to violence and brutality" (Working in a Meat Grinder, 2022, p. 1). They are constantly threatened by those in their care, custody, and control. Corrections officers are subjected to trauma on a regular basis. As a result, clinical depression is common in correctional staff. They are known to suffer from "officer burnout," have high rates of PTSD, and are prone to have suicidal tendencies, which often result in suicide. Physical ailments also arise from being in a hyper vigilant state at all times. High blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease are common.
In July of 2019, The National Police Fund released a report "The Psychological Effects of Being a Correctional Officer." The findings in this report were based on studies based on the behaviors of corrections officers conducted by the University of California-Berkeley and highlight the negative effects incarceration has on corrections officers.
- ï Thirty-eight percent of the correction officers studied rep011ed having little interest or pleasure in doing things (The Psychological Effects, 2019, p. 3).
- ï Ten percent of those studied had thought of suicide (3).
- ï Twenty-eight percent of c01Tectional officers studied, reported feeling "down" or even hopeless (3).
Physical and Mental Health Conditions Afflicting Corrections Officers
In 2016, results of a study conducted by Michael D. Denhof, Ph.D. and Caterina G. Spinaris, Ph.D. of Michael D. Denhof LLC and Dese11 Waters Correctional Outreach, entitled "Prevalence of Trauma-related Health Conditions in Correctional Officers: A Profile of Michigan Corrections Organization Members" was released. According to Denhof and Spinaris, "These findings reinforce a growing perspective among researchers that Corrections Officers suffer health detriments due to high stress and potentially traumatic occupational experiences comparable to those more widely known to occur for police officers, firefighters, and combat military personnel" (Denhof & Spinaris, 2016, p. 2). Highlighted in this study were examples of the traumatic experiences faced by corrections officers that are responsible for the poor physical and mental health conditions found in corrections officers. These experiences include witnessing both attempted and completed suicides, and enduring threats of physical harm or death.
Denhof and Spinaris note, being exposed to these conditions has been connected to "elevated levels of stress-related health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or depression" (4).
Negative Life Events
As a result of the study, "Therapeutic: Process and Well-Bing in Forensic Psychiatry and Prison," conducted by Frontier Psychiatry, a group of psychiatrists working the field of forensic psychiatry, authors Nina Fusco, Rosemary Ricciardelli, R. Nicholas Carlton, Nigel Barnim and Dianne Groll published the article, "When our Work Hits Home: Trauma and Mental Disorders in Correctional Officers and Other Correctional Workers." This article highlights the negative effects the correctional environn1ent has on corrections officers. They found the work conditions corrections officers experience are associated with adverse physical and mental health, and an increase in work-related stress and negative life events.
These negative life events include compassion fatigue (lack of compassion), work-home conflict, higher rates of divorce than the general population, and a shorter life span. Work-family conflict arises when roles of work and family are not compatible.
According to Brower, "This is the result of shift work, dual work at home and work,chronic fatigue, cynicism, pessimism, sarcasm, flattened drama/stress response and exposure to trauma and other disturbing behaviors" (Brower, 2013, p. 8). Corrections officers begin to withdraw and isolate themselves, preferring not to bring their work home with them. Ted Conover states, "'Leave it at the gate' you hear time and time again in corrections ... 'don't bring it home to your family"' (Conover, 2001, p. 242-243).
Being cautious about those who know what you do for a living (being a corrections officer) can take a toll on one's social life. It puts a strain on relationships that used to be easy. Conover explains, "The world was too small, and both my safety and my livelihood were at stake" (246). There are risks associated with being employed as a corrections officer. A formerly incarcerated individual may want to exact revenge on an officer for something done on "the inside." Others who are still incarcerated may ask someone in the street to exact revenge for them. Corrections officers must safeguard themselves from family and friends of incarcerated individuals asking for favors, such as introducing contraband into the prison system. Officers who deny such requests put themselves at risk to become a victim of a revengeful plot to harm the officer or their family. This adds to the stress a corrections officer must endure.
Keeping the stress of the job inside, not sharing it with anyone, is dangerous to the individual's mental health and puts up barriers in all relationships. Moods can become dark at any given moment. Conover explains, that he would try "to hide them [dark moods] by acting civil, but 'civil' came off as chilly and robotic" (246). Corrections officers tend to become less patient over time. This not only takes place in adult relationships but also takes a toll on relationships with their children. Over a short period of time, as Conover explained in New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing, corrections officers become enveloped by the emotionless person they must portray on the job and eventually lose the relationships that have been strained as a result of being a corrections officer.
Switching between the behaviors appropriate for home and the behaviors appropriate on the job becomes difficult for corrections officers. Frustration is often directed toward spouses and children. According to the "Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety Literature Review," author Jaime Brower, Psy.D., of the US Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center, explains, "Family conflict can impede an officer's ability to handle both family and work demands" (Brower, 2013, p. 8). Negative life events lead to symptoms of depression, adding to the mental health issues developed as a corrections officer.
On the Job Stress and Officer burnout
Job stress and officer burnout have been found to be related to the environment corrections officers work in. According to Brower, job stress and job officer burnout, while related, have two different definitions. Brower states, "Job stress can be defined as the relationship between the person and their environment, where the environment is taxing or exceeding the person's resources or endangering his well-being" (Brower, 2013, p. 6). Job stress includes feelings of tension in the workplace, anxiety, frustration and distress. Without receiving the assistance needed to deal with job stress, con-ections officers develop job officer burnout. Brower explains, "Job officer burnout is the gradual loss of caring or emotional exhaustion about a job, coworkers or clients" (6).
In the correctional setting, officers cite administrative tension as a source of job stress. Organizational factors including paperwork, deadlines, shift work, job dissatisfaction, ove1iime, inadequate pay, conflicts with coworkers and superiors, staff shortages and staff turnover lead to job-related stress. Perception is also key in understanding contributing factors leading to job stress and ultimately officer burnout. The way in which officers view the Department of Corrections' policies and practices, and agency support impacts job stress in the correctional environment. Officers often have negative perceptions of administrators, particularly their poor decision making practices and lack of management skills, causing increases in cases of job stress and officer burnout.
It is important to understand that prison work does not affect every officer in the same way. Psycho-social stressors are a combination of perceptions of stress and external sources or social influences that produce internalized stress responses. This category of stressors produce stress for one corrections officer while another officer may remain unaffected. One may withdraw easily from conflict, while another may act aggressively when conflict is present in the correctional setting.
With the experience of working in prison affecting each individual officer differently, symptoms of mental health issues manifest themselves in different ways. Manifestations of mental illness include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide. According to Brower, corrections officers experience "memory impairment, depression, sleep difficulty, obesity and skin conditions" (Brower, 2013, p. 11). The effects of these symptoms and rate at which these symptoms occur are specific to the individual.
In the Academy
Those who attend academies for corrections officer training immediately enter an environment that perpetuates violence. The "us against them" mentality is the first thing instilled in the minds of future corrections officers. Incarcerated individuals are degraded by instructors at the academy, encouraging corrections officers to look at them as objects instead of human beings in need of rehabilitation. According to Ted Conover, the ability to succeed as a corrections officer lies in the ability to dehumanize incarcerated individuals along with the ability to sustain abuse themselves.
Conover states, "Abuse was the perfect preparation for prison work" (Conover, 200 I, p. 37). As trainees, new corrections officers must face a multitude of physical and mental abuse from the instructors at the Academy. Instructors are "in your face" the way they are in a military boot camp. While in the academy, future corrections officers must fight each other, regardless of their size and gender. Exercises such as push-ups and sit ups are used as punishment for infractions committed by the trainee or one of their peers. This encourage the mentality, carried throughout the prison system, that results in individuals having to pay the consequences for others' misconduct. Corrections officers and incarcerated individuals feel the effects of this mentality. They must also be able to withstand the release of chemical agents without gas masks in an enclosed area.
Absenteeism and Staff Turnover
The Departments of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) across the nation are having difficulty hiring officers and retaining them. New officers do not want to come to work; they call in sick for multiple reasons. This is referred to as "banging in" by those who work corrections. Senior officers are willing to quit working for DOCCS, taking a loss on or losing completely the pensions for which they have endured so much of their own suffering. In 2019, the New York Post published the article, "Riding Out of Rikers: NYC Corrections Officers Leaving in Droves. Quoted by the article's author, Dean Balsamini, Christine Frank, a 51 year old corrections officer working at Rikers Island explains, she "had sixteen years on the job and was just four years away from retiring with a pension when she left the DOC [term used to describe the New York City Department of Corrections] ... She endured threats of sexual assault and broke up many a drug deal that ticked off inmates who retaliated by 'splashing her' with everything from water to urine" (Balsamini, 2022, p. 6). Corrections officers do not feel safe while on the job, they suffer from "officer burnout," and they are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that goes untreated due to the "machismo" mentality perpetrated by the department. Corrections Officers are often judged and are looked upon as being weak by their colleagues and others working in the department for reporting problems such as mental instability, so they suffer with symptoms of mental health issues without seeking professional help.
Absenteeism and staff turnover lead to an even greater issue within the prison. There are not enough officers to run the prisons safely. Balsamini states, "Safe staffing levels matter. Whether it's supervising housing areas, providing backup when violent incidents occur, preventing suicides, transporting inmates to their medical appointments and running inmate programs, all roads to a safe and secure jail system lead to maintaining safe staffing levels" (Balsamini, 2022, p. 7).
When corrections officers feel unsafe, they do not show up to work. In a study of corrections officers conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, as previously mentioned, inquiries into absenteeism and staff turnover revealed
- ï Thirty percent report being injured at work (The Psychological Effects, 2019, p.3).
- ï Eighty-five percent say they witnessed a colleague injured on the job (3).
- ï Fifty percent of officers in the study did not feel safe at work (3).
The reasons above, together with insufficient pay, lead to staff shortages, increasing the stress put on those who do show up.
An Incarcerated Individual's Experience with Corrections Officers
As an incarcerated individual, I have been in the position to observe the negative effects incarceration has had on corrections officers. I have seen how these officers began the job as an Officer on the Job Training (OJT), eager to make a change in the system and help incarcerated individuals in correcting the behavior that landed them in prison. Years later, the same officers have a completely different demeanor. Of course this is not true of all officers; however, most officers go through personality changes. These changes are noticeable in the way they treat incarcerated individuals together with the way they treat their fellow officers. They also go through physical changes, particularly through weight gain from a lack of physical activity. Instead of coming in with their uniforms pressed, clean shaven, with their hair cut short, they report to work looking disheveled.
I have witnessed "officer burnout." I have seen the effects staff shortages have on the officers who show up to work. Officers are forced to work additional shifts, day after day, causing extreme exhaustion, leading to unsafe conditions on the units and throughout the facility. I have experienced having officers who exhibit signs of PTSD in charge of my peers and me. Officers in the midst of mental health crisis themselves sit crying in their office praying no one will notice; however, because their office doors must remain open it is hard not to notice. It is difficult for many of my peers and me to act as if we do not care. It is similar to what they are taught in the academy - the "us vs. them" mentality holds us back. Just asking them if they are all right is taboo.
A Day in the Life of a Corrections Officer - From the Perspective of an Incarcerated Individual
Despite the variety of responsibilities of a corrections officer mentioned earlier, the job can be mundane. They sit behind a desk at their posts for a majority of the day, or stand on the walkway and in the yard, observing the behavior of incarcerated individuals. Every half hour they make rounds on the unit, counting those who did not leave for programs or appointments, making sure they are not committing infractions of the rules. At least two times during their shift, officers conduct formal facility counts. This includes locking all incarcerated individuals in their cells either manually or if they are lucky, by the push of a button, counting each incarcerated individual in their charge.
In between count times, officers must stay in a state of high alert. They answer phone calls and direct incarcerated individuals where to go for appointments to see physical and mental health professionals, or their rehabilitation counselor. They may not read a book or talk to their colleagues on the phone as it is prohibited by the department.
Corrections officers working outside of the unit face the same mundane circumstances. While they must stay in a state of hyper vigilance, the same as their counterparts working on units, the time spent performing the duties required of their posts is minimal. The rest of their time is spent meeting the demands of administration or sitting around waiting for something to happen. These are the officers who respond to incidents within the prison to provide assistance to the officer in charge (OIC) of a particular area.
The 7:00 to 3:00 Shift
It is 6:45am. From my cell window I see the day's corrections officers with their hands behind their back, legs spread slightly apart, standing at attention: Time for "line up," the time when officers coming on duty catch-up on what has happened in the prison since they were last there. Once they are dismissed from line-up, the officers head to their assigned posts, relieving those who worked the overnight shift. Some of the officers from the overnight shift will go home, while others prepare to work for another eight-hour shift, usually because of overtime mandates.
Once they reach their destinations, they prepare for their shift. This involves providing a "phone list" and "stove list" in order for incarcerated individuals to sign up to use the phone and to cook during their allotted time. The officers then make a round, making sure the unit or "gallery" is in the proper condition for incarcerated individuals to come out of their cells. This includes securing doors that lead outside the unit and opening the doors to the shower area, cooking area, and recreation area. They also do a quick fire and safety check, making sure all emergency lighting works. Next, it is time to open the doors of the incarcerated individuals' cells. If the officer is lucky enough, this will entail flipping a switch or two, but many times it involves walking door to door, manually unlocking each one, because the doors are not electronic. Thirty-six cells later and it is only 7:15 am.
It is now time for the officer to sit in the bubble, the desk where an officer sits, outside of their office, where they answer the same mundane questions asked over and over again by incarcerated individuals: "Was Chow called yet?" "Was program movement called yet?" The officer must then wait for the phone call telling him or her to release their unit for chow, referring to an incarcerated individual's morning meal. The officer stands up yelling "CHOW" over and over, making sure every individual on the unit has heard the announcement. This is also the time when incarcerated individuals receive any medication that is not authorized for self-carry. The officer then sits back and observes the incarcerated individuals in his or her charge as they prepare for the day.
It is now 8:00 am, time for the "Program Movement." The program movement allows incarcerated individuals to go to their assigned programs such as school, vocational training, drug treatment, or anger replacement therapy. The officer again yells "MOVEMENT," and all the incarcerated individuals leave, filing out the door. As the incarcerated individuals walk to their program, they pass by the officers whose job it is to stand on the walkway for ten minutes to observe the movement and be alert for any trouble starting or the passing of unauthorized items from one incarcerated individual to another.
Upon entering the areas where they participate in their programs and complete their work assignment, incarcerated individuals encounter another officer sitting at a desk. This officer is in charge of making sure the next three hours go as smoothly as possible. By this time, shortly after 8:00 am, everyone is where they should be until 11:00 am, with the exception of those individuals who need to go to a medical appointment, see their rehabilitation counselor, see their mental health counselor, go to the disciplinary office to receive a misbehavior report or "ticket," as it is commonly referred to, or attend a hearing where an incarcerated individual receives their sanctions after receiving a
misbehavior report. There is nothing left for the officer to do except sit there in a state of high alert, prepared for any type of disturbance to happen. They may not even read a book as the Department of Corrections forbids it, saying that it is a distraction to the officer.
At 11:00 am officers conduct their facility counts. Count time lasts approximately one hour. From 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm lunch is provided for incarcerated individuals. Once this is complete incarcerated individuals return to their designated work assignments and or their institutional programs. For the next three hours, officers spend their time just as they had before the facility count: sitting at their desk in a state of high alert, prepared for a disturbance to take place, until it is time to leave the facility or go to another post, usually because of mandatory overtime, but sometimes voluntarily. Volunteering for overtime allows a corrections officer to choose where they want to work. When they get "stuck," a word used to describe the times when an officer is mandated to do overtime, officers can be put at any post. Volunteering gives them some control over how they will spend the next eight hours. Although overtime puts a mental and physical burden on officers, they often welcome it for the financial incentives. Officers who are close to retirement "rack up" as much overtime as possible to increase their pension funds.
Interview with a Former Corrections Officer - Why Become an Officer?
In trying to understand why an individual would chose to be a corrections officer, I asked an officer who recently left the Department of Corrections in search of new career oppo1iunities the following question:
Question: What drove you to become a corrections officer?
Response: When I started my career as a corrections officer, I was in search of making a change from within the system. I thought that if I got into corrections and showed my colleagues that this job could be different then they would follow my example and change would take place. It soon became apparent that I could not be respected by those in blue (the color of the shirts officer wear) and those in green (the color of the uniforms incarcerated individuals wear) at the same time. Fellow corrections officers feel as though you have crossed some imaginary line drawn between officers and incarcerated individuals when you gain the respect of those in your charge. On the other hand, when you have the respect of the officers you work with, incarcerated individuals see you as nothing but a cop. I began to realize that I had to play two different roles. I have to behave much differently in front of my colleagues than how I behaved in front of incarcerated individuals. This resulted in bringing a lot of stress to my position. I soon felt that this career was not for me. I was too young to be dragged down or burned out by a system that would not change. Initially I looked for ways to get fired. I wouldn't show up for my scheduled shifts; I did not fulfill the requirements of the job and much more. However, the union protecting corrections officers prevented my termination, despite the fact that I really should have been fired for my actions. I finally quit. The job was really changing me and I did not like the changes I saw within myself. I felt I failed in my mission to create change and started feeling bad about who I was becoming.
Inherently Bad Individuals? Or Does the Department of Corrections Create Monsters?
Usually, when we hear about corrections officer in the media, it is because they
have done something that makes them look like monsters. Whether it is accusations of physical abuse on incarcerated individuals or sexual abuse of incarcerated individuals, it makes corrections officers look bad. Is this because the depaiiment is hiring individuals who are inherently bad or is it because of the conditions they must face while working in the prison system together with untreated mental health issues?
In order to become a corrections officer, one must complete a psychological exam. This exam is administered to show whether the individual applying to the academy exhibits mental stability and weeds out those who do not. This does not mean that an individual who is inherently bad will not slip through the cracks, making it all the way to the academy, then onto work somewhere in the prison system. More research is needed on this topic to understand how this happens.
It comes as a surprise when those who are hired to protect individuals are the ones inflicting the abuse; however, it does happen. When corrections officers make the decision to not seek help from mental health professionals or share the burdens that correctional work places upon an individual with those they trust, it wears them down leading to a condition called officer burnout. Officer burnout leaves officers angry, expressing an "I don't care" attitude toward the job, those in their charge, and their superiors.
Prisons are known by incarcerated individuals, to have "goon squads." These officers are the ones who are called when an incarcerated individual needs to be "taught a lesson." This is usually the case when an incarcerated individual "disrespects" an officer in some way.
"The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults" - Alexis de Tocqueville
The current system of incarcerating individuals in the United States has negative effects on everyone who comes in contact with it. In-depth studies have been conducted to understand the effects incarceration has on the justice-involved individual, but the damage done by the prison system in the United States goes beyond the incarcerated individual. The way we treat incarcerated individuals and security staff exhibits an uncivilized society. The United States is supposed to be a "model" nation; instead its prison system is providing an example of how to be inhumane.
Incarceration is a major contributor to the mental health crisis facing this nation. As a nation, it is time to recognize the need to create a system to better serve those who come in contact with the criminal justice system. For incarcerated individuals this means adding to the already existing mental health services provided in prison and providing a way to continue those services upon release. For correctional staff, the "machismo" mentality of the department needs to be abolished. Corrections officers need to feel safe while seeking help for mental health issues arising from the work they do and the traumatic experiences they encounter, instead of being stigmatized and looked upon as a weak link in the Department of Correction's chain.
The United States prison system poses risks to a corrections officer's emotional well-being, sense of identity, relationships and families. According to Mark Chamberlain, author of"Correctional Officer Mental Health: A Call for Change," "They [officers] must face stressors on their own, supporting their own mental health in silence" (Chamberlain, 2022, p. 3). Officers find themselves relying on each other for mental health support when instead they should be seeking professional help. Depending on those who are facing the same negative effects of a dysfunctional system, is not a productive way to handle mental health issues.
The corrections profession is in crisis. Corrections' culture needs to be overhauled. The prison system is having such a negative impact on the lives of corrections officers and others who come in contact with it that change is urgent. The culture can no longer reflect an "us vs. them" mentality, whether it is corrections officers vs. incarcerated individuals or corrections officers vs. senior staff and administration. It brings dysfunction to the department. According to Chamberlain, "The code of silence and 'never show weakness' mentalities are toxic cultural notions, and they're pervasive in both formal and informal corrections training" (Chamberlain, 2022, p. 4).
Change needs to begin with the academy for corrections officer training, as negative and problematic notions are engrained in corrections officers from the moment they show up for training and carried with them through their entire careers. Imagine a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that begins treating incarcerated individuals with dignity, understanding that an incarcerated individual is more than the worst mistake they ever made. With a positive atmosphere and the right treatment, an incarcerated individual can soar higher than anyone may expect from someone who has resorted to criminal activity in the past. What if seeking professional mental health services for corrections officers was encouraged and provided on a regular basis, or even mandatory? A difference can be made with just these two changes. Corrections officers cannot be expected to shoulder all of the stress, all of the trauma, and all of the mental illness they encounter throughout their career. They need help, and it is our responsibility as a society to ensure that help is accessible.
Society dehumanizes incarcerated individuals, but at the same time it believes corrections officers are super humans who are capable of handling the pressures of the job without seeking professional help. Seeking help through senior staff and/or prison administration is not generally acceptable. Society needs to understand that all individuals coming into contact with the United States criminal justice system are human and need to be treated as such. We are depriving corrections officers and incarcerated individuals of their right to mental health and making it impossible for either group to function successfully in society.
Providing professional help is essential to having healthy corrections officers. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) exist; however, the mental health services provided are inadequate. Often times mental health care providers do not understand the dangers and risks associated with correctional work. Mental health professionals need to become specialized in the issues faced by corrections officers throughout their entire career. Instead of focusing on causes of crimes and incarcerated individuals, their focus must be redirected to the negative impact the U.S. prison system has on its corrections officers.
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