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Sleep Difficulties of Corrections Professionals: Nothing to Yawn At
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 01/01/2018

Sleepdeprivation We have often encountered corrections staff who, for a variety of reasons, are chronically partially sleep deprived. That is, they may get 3-6 hours of sleep per day on a regular basis. This may be due to a variety of reasons, such as working overtime, having rotating shift schedules (which affect the ability to fall and stay asleep), having a part-time job in addition to working full-time in corrections, taking college courses, or suffering from sleep disorders and other conditions that affect sleep (such as generalized anxiety, depression, and PTSD). When we ask these staff members when DO they sleep, the responses we’ve heard are “I don’t,” or “Sleep is overrated.” However, recent research shows that chronic partial sleep deprivation comes with a stiff price tag. In light of this, we are now reprinting this article, with minor edits, from the October 2014 issue of the Correctional Oasis. We intend to continue to address this subject by printing other articles on sleep in the near future, including a summary of recent research on the role of sleep on health. CS

“I have had bouts with insomnia and did not sleep for days.”
“Too much mandatory overtime has affected my sleep patterns.”
“Due to my job I have been put on anxiety pills to help cope with stressors and to be able to sleep at night.”

These are quotes from anonymous corrections professionals. Their comments are not at all unusual. We have also heard of staff bringing two “high-energy” (that is, high-caffeine) drinks to work, to consume during their shift—to force their brain to stay awake and alert while on duty, when in fact it is trying to shut down and go to sleep.

Of DWCO’s national 2011 sample of N=3599 corrections professionals of multiple job types and agency types, 43.3% indicated that they were experiencing sleep problems, with 45.8% of the men reporting sleep problems, and 40.2% of the women (http://desertwaters.com/wpcontent/ uploads/2013/09/PTSD_Prev_in_Corrections_09-03-131.pdf).

These are disturbingly high percentages, and they suggest that almost half the corrections workforce may be battling the short-term and long-term consequences of partial sleep deprivation. Sleep disturbances include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, nightmares, obstructive sleep apnea, and Restless Leg Syndrome.

What are some of the short-term consequences of chronic partial sleep deprivation/insufficient sleep? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 23.2% of US adults 20 years and older reported difficulty concentrating on things in relation to sleep insufficiency (less than 7 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period), and 18.2% reported difficulty remembering things in relation to sleep insufficiency. In corrections work environments, difficulty concentrating or remembering can have life threatening consequences.

According to CDC, insufficient sleep is also associated with high-risk behaviors, such nodding off or falling asleep while driving, and unintentionally falling asleep during the day. And insufficient sleep is associated with low energy and feeling tired during the day.

A study of employees in the transport industry and in the army found that even moderate sleep deprivation produced impairments in information processing and motor performance. These impairments were equivalent to those of alcohol intoxication[2].

Long-term, chronic sleep insufficiency undermines health by increasing the risk of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity[1].

Given the inescapable consequences of sleep deprivation on health and functioning, it seems safe to conclude that every effort must be made to ensure that corrections professionals, and in particular shift workers, are presented with work conditions that allow them to get on at least 7 (SEVEN) hours of sleep per 24-hour period.

Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation that may help promote sufficient and good quality sleep.

Establish and adhere to a regular routine regarding what time you go to bed to sleep and what time you wake up. This helps regulate your body’s biological clock which controls your circadian rhythms to help you go to sleep and to stay awake. Of course, working overtime throws your biological clock off. And changing shift schedule confuses your body even further as to when is should be secreting chemicals to help you go to sleep, and when it should be working on helping you wake up and stay awake. Whenever shift schedules change, staff experience the equivalent of jet lag.

Avoid exposure to bright lights, loud sounds, activities or information that may cause you to get “wound up,” excited or otherwise stressed just before bedtime. Avoid watching the news on television, playing video games, or working on your computer before going to sleep.

Instead, help your brain wind down and shift from wakefulness to sleep mode. If your mind is on things you have to do the next day, write them down and tell yourself that you are going to sleep now, and that you will be dealing with these matters the next day.

Make sure that the room where you sleep is dark and quiet, and that your mattress and pillow are comfortable.

Routinely engage in a relaxing ritual just before bedtime. That could involve drinking a warm nonalcoholic and non-caffeinated beverage, reading, stretching, taking a shower, or engaging in sexual activity with your mate.

If napping during your day interferes with sleeping at your regular bedtime, avoid taking naps, especially later in your day.

Get physical exercise, daily if possible, to help yourself unwind, but do not do that close to bedtime. Avoid consuming alcoholic drinks, tobacco products, caffeine, or heavy or spicy meals prior to going to sleep.

If you find yourself unable to sleep, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading, until you feel tired and ready to go to sleep.

If you continue having difficulty sleeping in spite of your efforts to do so, consult with your physician about it.

Like needing water, oxygen and food, our body (and that includes our brain) NEEDS sleep. Sufficient and good quality sleep is a non-negotiable prerequisite for our health and functioning, and even for our very survival.


[1] Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.
[2] Williamson, A. & Feyer, A. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational Environmental Medicine, 57, 649–655.

This article as been reprinted with permission from the December 2017 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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