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Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis
By Frank Valentino Ferdik & Hayden P. Smith
Published: 10/02/2017

Coandinmate

The following has been reprinted from The National Institute of Justice's "Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis".

Introduction

Correctional Officer Job Responsibilities

Correctional officers (COs) play a pivotal role within the wider prison system as they are tasked with numerous responsibilities designed to ensure that their respective facilities are operating efficiently. As the front-line bureaucrats of the prison institution (Lipsky, 2010), COs are charged with supervising the activities of inmates, enforcing rules and regulations, affording offenders access to social services, and perhaps most importantly, maintaining order (Crawley, 2004; Kauffmann, 1989). They are also tasked with responding to administrative demands; searching cells for drugs, weapons, and other contraband; and intervening to resolve potentially violent disputes among inmates (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). COs play such a fundamental role in the functioning of any prison system that Archambeault and Archambeault (1982) remarked that officers “represent the single most important resource available to any correctional agency” (p. 72).

Recent scholarship has suggested that COs work under dangerous conditions that can threaten their general safety and wellness. Following several legislative reforms that started in the 1970s and included “get tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and habitual offender laws (Mackenzie, 2001), correctional institutions experienced dramatic changes in the composition of the inmate population. Not only did the total number of incarcerated offenders skyrocket from roughly 300,000 to more than 1.5 million between 1975 and 2013, but the percentage of offenders imprisoned for violent crimes increased from about 40 percent in 1985 to more than 60 percent by 2013 (Walmsley, 2013). Although incarceration rates have declined in recent years, the modern-day CO is still required to interact with and supervise individuals in a dangerous environment (Glaze & Kaeble, 2014).

Officers are further responsible for maintaining safety in a setting with significant numbers of gang members (Lombardo, 1989), offenders with mental illness (Kupers, 1999; Turner, 1975), drug addicts (Ross, 1981), and even terrorists (Crawley, 2004), all of whom pose elevated safety and health risks to COs. Further compounding these issues is that prisons have long been described as “total institutions,” defined as places “where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an … enclosed life” (Goffman, 1961, p. xiii). As a result, officers are required to interact with and supervise potentially dangerous offenders in relatively unsafe and secluded surroundings. Collectively, these observations have prompted correctional scholars and practitioners to characterize prisons as dangerous environments that carry increased risk of harm to the people working in them (Beck, Harrison, & Adams, 2007; Crawley, 2004; Hensley, Koscheski, & Tewksbury, 2005).

Correctional Officer Health Outcomes

The position of CO carries with it the intrinsic danger of physical injury and mental stress. In terms of the former, figures from Harrell (2011) revealed that between 2005 and 2009, the rate of sustained nonfatal workplace injuries per 1,000 COs was 33.0, which, among 26 different professions, ranked third only to police officers and security guards (77.8 and 65.0, respectively). Harrell (2011) further found that in 2011, COs experienced 544 work-related injuries or illnesses that required absences from work per 10,000 full-time officers — the third highest rate of nonfatal workplace injuries, again surpassed only by police officers and security guards. Additional reports from Brower (2013) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2013) noted that between 1999 and 2008, a total of 113 U.S. COs lost their lives in the line of duty — a fatality rate of 2.7 per 100,000 full-time employees — the 22nd highest among 115 professions.

Concerning mental health, there is evidence that COs experience high levels of stress, burnout, and a variety of other mental health-related consequences as a result of their employment (Brower, 2013; Stack & Tsoudis, 1997). According to the Management and Training Corporation (2011), between 22 percent and 33 percent of COs report high stress levels. Other studies (Lambert et al., 2005; Ferdik, Smith, & Applegate, 2014a) found that more than 35 percent of officers in the sample recorded high stress levels. Together, the impact of negative physical and mental health outcomes for COs can have deleterious effects on the wider prison institution. Staff shortages and officer absences from work can create a cycle whereby low officer-to-inmate ratios and high turnover in officer staffing threaten the effective implementation of a correctional facility’s security mandates (Brower, 2013; Crawley, 2004; Ferdik, Smith, & Applegate, 2014a).

Literature Search Strategy

As previously mentioned, the intent of this report is to offer a comprehensive synthesis of the literature so as to highlight any inherent limitations and offer recommendations for future research and policies designed to enhance the overall well-being of COs. Information from published and peer-reviewed journal articles, state and federal government reports, university and academic think-tank reports, and commercially published books was retrieved and summarized. Emphasis was placed on collecting research conducted since 2000 to account for current safety and wellness concerns confronting COs, although some earlier research is referenced to provide a baseline understanding of the various issues related to CO safety and wellness. The search phrase “correctional officer” was cross-referenced with the words “safety,” “wellness,” “risk,” “stress,” “burnout,” “depression,” “danger,” “health,” “wellbeing,” “injury,” and “fatality” in the following literature search engines: JSTOR, Social Services Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts, Criminal Justice Abstracts, EBSCOHost, Academic Search Complete, MEDLINE with full text, Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts, Hein On-Line, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, and Google Scholar.

This initial search led to the dual findings that (1) COs are exposed to unique workplace dangers that can jeopardize their general welfare and (2) exploring CO perceptions of workplace safety and risk is an important and emerging area of research. Using the same search engines, a specialized literary search of specific dangers to which COs are exposed as well as officer judgments of workplace safety and risk was conducted by cross-referencing the search phrase “correctional officer” with “gang,” “disruptive inmate,” “riot,” “mentally ill inmate,” “contraband,” “disease,” “risk perception,” and “safety perception.” Each resulting citation was reviewed by both authors to determine its eligibility for the literature synthesis. Reference pages of all obtained reports were scanned to exhaust all pertinent literature related to the topic of CO safety and wellness.

Several themes emerged that form the basis of discussion for this synthesis. These themes include the dangers and risks confronting COs, CO perceptions of workplace safety and wellness as well as the consequences of their exposure to risk, the policies designed to enhance officer wellbeing, and finally considerations for future research. This report will conclude with a discussion of how the safety and wellness issues of law enforcement personnel compare with those of COs and an overview of the salient findings from this literature synthesis and how they can be used to inform decisions regarding CO well-being.

To view the full report click here.

Frank Valentino Ferdik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. His research interests consist of tests of criminological theories, the application of risk-based analyses to the criminal justice field, perceptual outcomes, criminal justice actor decision-making, and correctional officer job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and health and wellness. He earned his doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina in 2014, and to date has published 11 peer-reviewed articles, three technical reports, two book chapters, and two encyclopedia entries. Many of his publications have been on the topics of correctional officer desires to resign, risk perceptions, power bases, and punishment orientations. His work has appeared in journal outlets such as Journal of Criminal Justice and Psychology, Crime and Law. In 2015, he was invited by the National Institute of Justice to deliver a presentation in Washington, DC on the topic of correctional officer health and wellness, especially for those assigned to administrative segregation units. Currently he is working on numerous other correctional officer-based research projects.

Hayden P. Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. His research interests consist of inmate self-injurious behaviors, the intersection between mental health outcomes and criminal justice processes, correctional officer job satisfaction and turnover intentions, offender behavioral and mental health outcomes, as well as police use of force. He earned his doctoral degree from the University of Central Florida in 2007 in Public Affairs, and to date has published 30 peer-reviewed journal articles, 15 technical reports, two books, two book chapters, and six encyclopedia entries. He also possesses extensive grant management experience, with most of his publications on the topics of inmate self-injury and correctional officer decision-making. His work has appeared in journal outlets such as Justice Quarterly and Criminal Justice and Behavior. He has won numerous awards for his contributions to research, and is currently working on a handful of projects involving offender mental health.


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