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Investing in People: Improving Corrections Staff Health and Wellness

Notes From the Field
Date Published
August 28, 2018

Oregon’s investment in corrections staff health and wellness came from a very dark, sad place. In 2012, we had four staff suicides in a 19-month period and have continued to see staff suicides in the years since. The Oregon Department of Corrections relies heavily on research to inform our decision-making, but when we looked to the research for guidance, there wasn’t any. Researchers have studied police officers and firefighters, and the military has made great strides around PTSD, but there was nothing looking at health and wellness specific to the corrections profession. Given this dearth of research, we invited Portland State University to conduct research on the mental health and well-being of our officers, and the Oregon Health Sciences University to study the physical well-being of our staff.

The results of these studies were staggering. One in three of our staff have symptoms of PTSD. The average life span of an individual that has spent their career in corrections is 58 years, which is 16 years shorter than the lifespan of 74 years for an average adult male. Physically, more than 90 percent of staff were obese or overweight, 93 percent had hypertension or prehypertension, cholesterol and triglycerides were high, and good cholesterol was low. We saw an increased risk of certain cancers, high stress, alcohol abuse, and sleep deprivation issues, with corrections officers working in maximum-security facilities at the highest risk.

What worried us the most was that our staff didn’t know this: They knew they were a little overweight or perhaps should drink one less beer at night, but they had no idea they were in these high-risk categories. This meant they weren’t even going to their doctors. We work so hard to have good state health benefits in Oregon, and they weren’t even getting in for their annual exams.

Educational and Program Intervention

These statistics were shocking, but helped us understand what our staff was dealing with and the importance of intervening. In response to this research and in an effort to promote well-being among our staff, we now have more than 160 wellness programs across the state. Many of these programs are grassroots initiatives at a local level, such as walking paths, employee-organized breast cancer screening vans, or volunteer nurses who take staff blood pressures.

We have also brought resiliency training and meditation to our staff, with profound results. We piloted our first staff meditation program with 60 corrections officers, and 550 officers have come through the program to date. This program teaches traditional meditation methods and has been part of a culture shift towards health and wellness in our system.

More recently, we have introduced a virtual reality meditation for staff, in partnership with a virtual reality platform called Provata. Staff watch two, five, or 10-minute sessions through an app on their phones, with the option to use virtual reality goggles. We piloted this program with staff in the Oregon State Penitentiary, our maximum-security facility, and saw a dramatic impact on stress markers and mood. The Provata app is now a certified app on all state-issued cell phones, and we’ve made virtual reality goggles available in breakrooms at all of our facilities.

Corrections officers aren’t the only ones impacted by high job stress — their families are also affected. Given this, we have a family orientation program for new staff, which was developed by our employees. The program helps families understand what corrections officers do on a day-to-day basis and the hypervigilance — with accompanying stress — that the job requires. Families are also taught strategies to recognize and mitigate stress, as well as how to access counseling and other services. We launched this program at our Coffee Creek facility and have since expanded, with very positive feedback from employees and their families.

At an agency-wide level, we’ve implemented a team-based, 12-week program to help staff improve their health. This program is available to all state employees, but the Department of Corrections has the highest participation rate, with more than 50 percent of our staff participating.

Investing in Our People

As directors of state departments of corrections, we have attended the funerals, watched correctional officers be decertified because of DUIs, and held hands through divorces. I presented the results of our research in Oregon to my peers across the country, and they shared my shock and concern. The Oregon Department of Corrections and our counterparts across the country have latched onto this and taken it very seriously.

Corrections is a people-run organization. Our staff are our most valuable asset, and their well-being is inextricably tied to our ability to effectively carry out our mission. If our staff come to work every day with a healthy lens, individuals in custody are going to be better served.

We should have begun this work decades ago in corrections, but now is better than never. This is also a good time to reset the way our corrections system approaches staff well-being, because 62 percent of corrections staff across the country are eligible to retire. As we hire new staff to replace this wisdom and experience, we have an opportunity to recruit staff who are healthy and well, and then give them tools and resources to keep their wellness throughout their entire career and to live long, healthy lives.

About “Notes From the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes From the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes From the Field” is nota research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: August 28, 2018