I’m a Corrections Officer, but I Feel Like a Prisoner

A corrections officer is a first responder occupation in every sense of the words. It’s a job that is characterized by the stigma of low status, high stress, and burnout. With high rates of chronic job-related stress, it’s easy to see how corrections officers can feel as trapped as the prisoners they guard. However, when the job is right, a healthy career in corrections is possible when you make tackling stress a priority.

Effects of Stress on First Responders

Correctional officers are daily subject to verbal abuse and life-threatening physical assaults. Inmates use manipulation and intimidation tactics to commit crimes inside the facility or to make prison life tolerable.  Rotating and overtime shifts combine with understaffing and supervisor demands to create excessive amounts of fatigue, irritability, and burnout.  It’s a career that stresses multiple bodily systems that lead to major health issues including heart attack, high blood pressure, ulcers, and more. It’s a career path that wreaks havoc on even the strongest person’s emotional balance and shortens life span. Veteran correctional officers can expect a life expectancy to age 59, as compared with age 77 for the overall U.S. population, according to insurance data.

Rates of PTSD

Most people who work in jails or prisons believe they are immune from emotional stress—that it can’t really be that bad. In fact, 31% of corrections officers will suffer from PTSD, a rate that is comparable to combat veterans. PTSD is an invisible wound that grows silently over time. Officers don’t realize the impact of severe stress until their normal functioning ability is compromised. Supervisors often notice the impact of stress before their subordinates as detected by sloppy work, careless searches, filthy units, and failure to follow rules. PTSD could be the culprit for subpar work performance.

Potential for Stress-related Addictions

Facing daily hypervigilance and stress causes some corrections officers to seek unhealthy coping strategies such as taking drugs or alcohol to relax and de-stress. Officers may not be given time to debrief between stressful incidents and may be required to complete paperwork before the incident has even ended. After surviving a shift of chronic stress, officers can have trouble transitioning back to their families, where they cannot recount the day’s events. The officer becomes stuck where there is no outlet for dealing with stress and isn’t able to discuss job-related addictions in any setting.

Approach Health and Wellness Proactively

Those who feel that a job in corrections is right for them can maintain a healthy career by addressing stress proactively. On-the-job positivity goes a long way. Avoid worrying about the next incident which robs you of enjoying the rare moments when things are going well. Off the job, attending regular sessions with a therapist can provide a safe setting where a corrections officer can release feelings and emotions about traumatic events at work. Rather than de-stressing after work at the local bar, make time for healthier outlets like exercise, meditation, fun, or relaxation. Help your body gain the upper hand on stress by giving it the fuel it needs by maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.  Looking forward to enjoying activities outside of prison walls can help a corrections officer feel less boxed in.

Mental Health Awareness

Corrections workers should not discount the high rates of suicide risk caused by severe job stress. In 2021, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) published a webinar (available here: https://nicic.gov/promoting-wellness-and-resiliency-correctional-staff) a 39% higher risk of suicide among correctional officers than the general population. This number has remained constant for decades.

Notice the signs of severe stress including:

  • Emotional numbness
  • Feelings of sadness, frustration, or helplessness
  • Recurring feelings of fear and anxiety
  • Anger, tension, and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Reduced interest in activities you formerly enjoyed
  • Wanting to be alone and avoid others
  • Loss of appetite or eating too much
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Headaches, muscle pains, and stomach problems
  • Smoking or increased use of alcohol or drugs

In addition to taking charge of your health, most government agencies have an Employee Assistance Program, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed. Seeking help can save your life.

Despite the inherent risks of the job, by being aware of job-related stressors and taking steps to keep the mind and body from going into fight or flight mode, a career as a corrections officer can be healthy and fulfilling.