Working in a corrections environment is often referred to as “working in a pressure cooker.”

In a recent study done by University of California-Berkeley (Lerman, 2017) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, many of the physical and mental issues encountered by corrections officers (COs) in jails and prisons were highlighted. While one in seven combat veterans has experienced an incident resulting in PTSD, one in three corrections officers experiences events which have similarly resulted in PTSD (Lerman, 2017).

The risk of CO suicide is increasing and particularly disconcerting. Even though suicide has become a major public health problem, Finley (2007) reported the suicide rate for COs is 39% higher than the average for other occupations.

The Issues COs comprise 63% of criminal justice professionals. Johnson (2008) observed officers often felt they were “also doing time” through hours of confinement, working with the worst of humanity, seeing cases of human depravity, and experiencing stress both on and off duty. Many officers would joke that “I am doing 25-to-life work release hoping for two-for-one status.”

The California Corrections Association bumper sticker reads “I work the toughest beat in the state.” Most corrections officers would agree this also applies to their county. In the article “Risky Business,” the National Institute of Justice staff (2018) concluded “COs routinely insert themselves in harm’s way to shoulder the burden of ensuring inmates’ safety.” This exposes them to high levels of stress on a daily basis.

While COs feel most supervisors and administrators were competent, Lerman (2017) reported 50% of officers felt their supervisors did not care about their feelings. COs feel a sense of powerlessness, which has placed them in a more precarious position because of “low staffing levels, changes to the inmate security classification system, overcrowding, inadequate training, disengaged staff, low organizational commitment, inexperienced leadership” (Eklin, 2015).

This sense of powerlessness can be related to the effects of budget restrictions on institutional custody, security, and safety (Eklin, 2015; Lerman, 2017). Both Johnson (2008) and Perez et al (2017) found COs who receive higher levels of supervisory feedback encounter higher cohesion (support) with their peers, work jobs with greater variety and autonomy, and experience lower job-related stress, resulting in more commitment to both their jobs and their agencies.

Personal Financial Problems. Most COs live paycheck to paycheck. The need to make more money to survive can put stress on the individual and their families. Lerman (2017) found 69% of COs were willing to transfer to another job if it paid the same or better. When given the opportunity, officers will work overtime and outside jobs to make ends meet. The stress of long hours when trying to resolve financial issues can cause tension with the individual, family, and work.

Family Issues. Working in corrections can be stressful for COs and their family/friends. While most COs are successful at separating work from home, some may find this difficult to accomplish. Lerman (2017) stated:

• 41% of the officers felt they could have been a better spouse, parent, or friend if they did not work in corrections,

• 53% felt they had become less trusting toward family/friends after working in corrections,

• 65% were told they judge more people harshly,

• 47% of the officers did not feel safe at work, and

• 39% constantly felt tired.

In addition, when trying to keep work separate from home, COs often feel they cannot discuss their feelings about work stressors with their families. Work Relationships. While most corrections academies teach new officers not to trust inmates, they do not emphasize that it is acceptable to trust other staff members, family, and friends. Over the years, incidents (in corrections and law enforcement) have resulted in serious negative impressions and feelings with the general public and family and friends, thus placing a strain on COs and resulting in a higher stress level. See Case Study 1.

Health and Stress. Warren and colleagues (2000) found stress-related symptoms increase rapidly with seniority among COs. Their study concluded “a career in corrections can be quite costly to COs’ physical and

Case Study 1

A CO was in a bad marriage. His wife (who had some mental issues and hated police) did not like his working in the jail. She demanded he remove his uniform prior to entering the house. His religion did not allow divorce.

The supervisor had spoken with him on several occasions. Counseling was suggested to help with the situation. One day, the officer stated “Don’t worry about it, Sarge. I have everything figured out.” The officer appeared to be very happy.

A few days later, he committed suicide.

mental health.” Numerous other studies have found COs with higher levels of job stress (Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000), cardiovascular disease (Abdollahi, 2000), and elevated suicide rates (Stack & Tsoudisa, 1997; Tiesman, et al., 2010) compared to the national population.

Brower (2013) found that job stress is linked to multiple physical and mental health issues. Warren et al (2015) found senior COs have “significantly higher prevalence and intensity of physical health symptoms compared to industrial workers.” These physical problems are often a result of the job stress experienced by the officers. However, sometimes physical and mental problems that occur outside of the job can also have an impact on the officer’s attitude. See Case Study 2.

Work-Role Socialization Model. Feldberg and Glenn (1979) noted officer attitudes and behaviors (whether on or off the job) were a function of “occupational socialization, class/status of occupation and social relations of work.” Most individuals actually believe they have two families—one at home and one at work. Unfortunately, COs may experience “guilt by association” from the public for working with inmates. Officers may also be seen as being on a “lower class/status” by other members of law enforcement.

Social relations at work is often seen as being either supportive or dysfunctional (Feldberg & Glenn, 1979). Corrections staff can be seen as “family members” who can provide both physical and emotional support. However, this corrections family can also be dysfunctional, especially when the results are in-fighting, lack of trust, excessive competition, isolation, hard feelings, and other issues (Shuford, 2004).

The CO may be experiencing a dysfunctional home/family situation, only to find the same situation at work. The officer may be hoping for support, understanding, and guidance from other officers, supervisors, and administrators—only to discover they may not provide the support the officer is looking for. Appreciation and Fairness. COs (and the community) should have a sense of organizational justice. They should feel the criminal justice organization provides fairness and support in its interactions with all parties (Wolff & Nix, 2016). Organizational justice is viewed as a philosophical approach to provide:

• procedural fairness—a reasonable voice in the decision-making process;

• distributive fairness—equal distribution of promotions, salary, opportunities, etc.;

• interactional fairness—respect, dignity, and open and honest relationships with others; and

• community fairness—transparency, trust, dignity, reduction of the dependence on force to gain compliance, and a voice that is heard and acted upon.

COs, criminal justice organizations, and the community must strive to obtain organizational justice and fairness by working together and to better establish the sense of family (Wolff & Nix, 2016). A poor management decision or a conflict with administration that is seen as lacking in justice/fairness can create immediate consequences as well as longer term stress-related issues (Steele, 2001). If the CO does not feel the system is fair, this can have a serious negative impact on the officer’s attitude toward work and possibly his or her home life.

Case Study 2

At 10 p.m., 911 notified corrections supervisors of a CO sitting in his parked pick-up truck at a remote area. As deputies approached his vehicle, he committed suicide.

It was later discovered he was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

Retirement. Many workers look forward to the day when they can retire. While many retire after 20 years, others will continue working as long as possible. Some of the reasons may be financial; they enjoy the job or a sense of belonging to the group. Many officers may be able to find other jobs or volunteer (full or part time) after retirement, but some may not. This could result in a lack of activity impacting the individual and his or her family.

Retirement has an impact on both the worker and family members. A plan needs to be in place prior to retirement to address the question: What is the next step in life? Lerman (2017) found while there is a 10% suicide ideation rate among COs, the rate for retired COs is much higher (17%). See Case Study 3.

Tailgates. It is necessary for officers to decompress from the daily stress and incidents that may have occurred. For many years, officers could talk with each other at a site away from the jail (tailgates). This allowed individuals to calm down prior to going “back to a normal life” that is home. Although this process was effective for most, sometimes alcohol and other substances (which are depressants) were involved, which created bigger problems, such as social alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Employee Assistance Program. Departments do provide alternatives for officers to talk to others to help reduce stress, decompress, and deal with home and work issues. The Employee Assistance Program provides resources outside the department where the officer can contact for help. The department is not notified of the officer’s contact.

Even though this contact is confidential, some officers are still reluctant to use their services. Many criminal justice departments provide access to the Employee Assistance Program for counseling (outside of the department), but research reveals:

• only 18% of officers chose counseling,

• 20% of the COs was concerned about confidentiality,

• 15% expressed concern about possible negative issues from management,

• 13% were worried about possible reactions from peers, and

• 11% feared losing their jobs (Lerman, 2017; Wagner 2019).

Critical Incident Stress Management. The Critical Incident Stress Management system was developed with two goals in mind. The first goal is that responders (including corrections) are allowed to discuss the stressful incident as a group. They are given the ability to express their beliefs, concerns, and regrets with fellow responders. This allows for decompression to occur (reduction in adrenaline) prior to returning to their normal life (Wagner, 2019).

The second goal is to provide trained peers to all staff. An individual may be hesitant to speak with a trained professional, but they may be willing to talk with someone whom they know and trust. A peer can provide support, understanding, and trust. If the peer recognizes the need for a higher level of intervention, the individual could be introduced by the peer (Wagner, 2019).

Conclusion While the tailgates provided an outlet to decompress from the stress of working in jail, the possible presence of alcohol and other substances created a unsafe environment for some. Departments have been for working to provide alternatives for the officers to contact for help. While many dissatisfied workers may choose to quit, others may decide to pursue other options—such as suicide (Greenburg, 1987). Without stress reduction measures, circumstances may have a negative impact on their health, family, finances, and life.


Lorraine Priest is an Associate Professor at the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. She can be contacted at

Frederick Lawrence is an Associate Professor at the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. He can be contacted at

David Mailloux is an Associate Professor at the University of Phoenix, College of Criminal Justice. He can be contacted at

Ray Bynum is an Associate Professor at the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. He can be contacted at

Case Study 3

When a CO retired after 25 years of service, his wife became resentful of his staying home all day. She threatened to leave on several occasions. Even though he pleaded with her to stay, she told him she was leaving.

At that point, he shot and killed her, then killed himself.

Stay or Leave?

The decision to stay or leave the job depends on many factors—which may include the officers’ long-term physical, emotional, and mental health. Was a long tenure in corrections with stressful working conditions and less pay/benefits—compared to road deputies—worth the effort? Some may say “no” and seek employment elsewhere.


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