|By Terry Campbell, Professor, Purdue University Global|
Imagine you are walking the prison hallways and a fight breaks out in a barracks. You and other officers run to the barracks and access the incident and restrain inmates. The inmates are escorted to the infirmary, and the incident is being investigated. Now that the adrenaline ceases, you begin to feel a tightness in your chest, recognize shortness of breath, you become dizzy, and other officers notice this and ask what is wrong. The next thing you know you are in the infirmary being checked by medical personnel. Your heart is no longer racing and you are much calmer. Vital signs are checked and you are okay for now. Also, medical personnel advise you to check with your doctor. Now it is decision time; do you follow up with your doctor or continue to ignore the warning signs.
You begin to feel better and convince yourself you do not have any issues. Besides, you are embarrassed by what other officers and your family may say. The clock is now running and you may be on borrowed time before something life-threatening occurs. That night at home you talk with your wife and begin to think about a variety of things and recognize this is the time to do a self-assessment and seek medical care. Years have passed since you first began the academy and now you suddenly realize you are overweight, have not exercised in years, do not watch what you eat and drink, and have not been to a doctor in years. You finally accept you are part of the problem and this has carried over to home where there has been a disconnect with your family. Now is the time for change and to talk with professionals. Your family can become stronger and you will often find family will be supportive. This is not only your choice, but the opportunity to make positive choices and change, and repair some family issues.
The tragedy here is two-fold: How many of these types of scenarios exist and the number of officers who choose to continue down this destructive path and will not change? We really do not know and there has been very limited research in these areas. There are some interesting facts I wish to discuss and hopefully you can relate too. Corrections, as you know, is a very difficult field and one where a lot of stressful work conditions exist and the propensity for violence is daily. This alone will create undue stress for officers. As I discussed previously, if left untreated, this can cause further health issues, become problematic at home and work, and create security risks on the job. Lyle Moran in an article summed this up well: “Ineffectively managing stress has been linked to relationship issues, substance abuse, disease, and even death.” (Moran, February 2013).
Officer wellness is not a new phenomenon, and yet some agencies do not have this as a priority for a variety of reasons. Our officers and staff are our most precious resource. Without them the prisons cannot operate. Corrections spends a tremendous amount of money with human resources, recruitment, hiring, training, and facility assignment. We need to ensure our training academies offer health and wellness training (and many do) and also we must get away from just hiring someone to fill a vacant position. The role of an officer is just not another job, but a profession. One we can be proud of and rightfully so. Many prisons' administrations recognize that our officers face a lot of stress on a daily basis. Some are better at handling stress than others.
One of the current trends corrections faces is the number of officers taking sick leave. This may be due to legitimate illness, time off to watch a sporting event or other activity, stress at work, inadequate coping skills, and other related issues. More and more officers are taking sick leave time and this leads to some additional problems at work. Shifts have less number of officers on a shift, overtime concerns, inmates recognize this and the potential for increased security risks, officer and staff safety, and other concerns. At the same time, statistics show an increase in the number of officer suicides related to job.
Many of our corrections administrators recognize the problems confronted by officers on a daily basis and some of these administrators have taken proactive steps to help alleviate this ongoing problem. The organizational culture plays an important role in officer stress. Our administrators play an important role in setting the tone and ensuring all supervisors are trained in effectively communicating with officers. In addition, supervisors must recognize the signs of stress. Ongoing Wellness Programs need to be in place and an emphasis placed on participation. This will assist in providing a safer environment, improve emotional and physical health, and quality of life. Also, there needs to be in place adequate counseling and referral services for all staff and officers.
Our prisons also need to have in place critical incident reviews to assess incident response, outcomes, and potential for additional officer stress and follow up. We recognize not all officers respond to stress in the same way. Stress, if not recognized and left untreated, can result in not only work related issues but family problems as well. Family support is a must and the spouse must recognize signs of stress and have an avenue open for reporting this to administration. Also, we must improve recognition of officers as we are often reluctant in being appreciative of the service our officers provide. This may improve overall health and wellness among staff.
Terry Campbell is a criminal justice professor at Kaplan University, School of Public Safety and has more than 20 years of experience in corrections and policing. He has served in various roles, including prison warden and parole administrator, for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Terry may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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