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Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness — What We Learned from the Research Literature

A new NIJ-supported paper identifies risks officers confront, assesses officers’ perspectives on workplace risk, notes key limitations in the research literature, and recommends policies designed to enhance officer well-being.
Date Published
July 23, 2017

Correctional officers play a pivotal role within the prison system. Yet, working as a correctional officer brings with it stressful and dangerous conditions that are unique to this line of work. Research has shown that correctional officers experience high stress levels, burnout, and a variety of other mental health-related consequences as a result of their jobs.

Together, the negative physical and mental health outcomes for correctional officers can have harmful effects on the wider prison institution. Staffing shortages and officers missing work create a dangerous cycle where low officer-to-incarcerated person ratios and high turnover in staffing threaten a correctional facility’s ability to implement appropriate security mandates.

The dangers that correctional officers face are explored in an NIJ-supported paper that analyzes existing research. In drafting this paper, the authors identified risks officers confront in their work environment, assessed the officers’ perspectives regarding workplace risk, noted key limitations in literature related to this topic, and recommended policies designed to enhance officer well-being.

As documented by the research on institution-related dangers, officers in today’s correctional environments are being asked to accomplish more with fewer resources, which elevates their mental health risks. For prison facilities to operate efficiently, it’s important that they be staffed with officers who are physically and mentally sound and able to respond to the numerous challenges that this line of work presents.

The authors identified three broad categories of dangers correctional officers confront: work-related, institution-related, and psycho-social dangers. These categories cover everything from gangs and contraband, to demanding work obligations, to work and family conflicts.

Each category is associated with a number of negative outcomes for correctional officers and corrections agencies, including negative health effects such as higher stress levels and injuries. Diminished work performance, burnout, and absenteeism among officers, for example, can lead to higher incarcerated person-to-officer ratios and reduced security levels within entire penitentiaries.

This research also shows that correctional officers are aware of the dangers they face. Even low-level security and juvenile detention facility officers expressed some degree of concern about their general safety and wellness. Across a range of facilities, officers reported that they think they were (or are) at higher risk for injury and other negative outcomes as a result of their jobs. These perceptions could also contribute to consequences such as stress, burnout, and turnover.

Finally, researchers found that various policies and programs have been introduced across prison facilities with the specific purpose of enhancing officer well-being. However, few of these programs have been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation, thus limiting the understanding of their effectiveness.

According to the authors, in general, the health and safety concerns of correctional officers have been largely neglected by correctional researchers, administrative officials, and prison systems. This is a crucial area of focus given the important role that officers play in maintaining order in correctional facilities.

The authors state that improvement of correctional officer health starts by changing the mindset of administrative officials and other stakeholders in the corrections field. Administrative officials are encouraged to consider policy interventions designed to minimize the injury risk connected to dangers such as contraband, incarcerated persons with mental illness, and gangs.

Policies that could be implemented (if a facility has not already done so) include:

  • Heightened intake procedures to identify problematic incarcerated persons.
  • Improved communication channels between correctional line staff so they can discuss potentially threatening persons convicted of a crime and what can be done to handle them.
  • Separation of gang members to limit their ability to correspond with one another.
  • Ensuring that officers always have backup support when dealing with troublesome persons who have been convicted of a crime.
  • Instruction and training for officers on mediation tactics that de-escalate volatile situations.
  • Provision of additional therapeutic services for persons convicted of a crime who have mental disorders.

The implementation of such policies, targeted at decreasing and addressing dangers in correctional environments, could have the dual benefits of enhancing officer wellness and establishing wider institutional order.

About This Article

This article is based on the paper Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis (pdf, 36 pages) by Frank Valentino Ferdik, University of West Florida, and Hayden P. Smith, University of South Carolina.

Date Published: July 23, 2017