In 2011 a correctional officer in a California maximum-security prison went to work and never returned home: he committed suicide. In a note he left behind, he wrote that his job was the reason he had to take his own life.
This is not an isolated incident.
The California Prison Union states that between 1999 and 2015 there were 96 confirmed or suspected cases of suicide among current and retired union members (Thompson, 2018). The annual suicide rate for correctional officers in California was more than the average number for the suicides in the state. To add to that, “about 10 percent of prison guards say they have considered or attempted suicide, a rate nearly three times that of the general U.S. population … It’s even higher among retired guards — about 14 percent, similar to the suicide risk among military veterans” (Thompson, 2018).
California is not unique. In a study done by researchers Thurston-Snoha and Mora, the suicide rate of correctional officers in New Jersey is double the suicide rate for the state and other occupations (2011). The rest of the nation is not far behind.
What is causing such alarming rates of suicide among correctional officers? Research points to stress. There are many factors that contribute to a correctional officer’s stress level, but research indicates that stress level is more closely related to different aspects of the job than to personal matters (Thurston-Snoha et al, 2011).
Job related stress comes in many forms for a correctional officer and can include perceived and real danger on the job, role ambiguity, lack of support from supervisors, rotating shifts, poor sleep, low pay and low job satisfaction (Konda, et al, 2013; Thurston-Snoha, et al, 2013; McCarthy, 2012). Correctional officers work in an inherently stressful environment. The population they must work with is not usually the cream of the crop; many have violence and other grievous crimes on their records. Prisoners, many of whom are held against their will and are therefore uncooperative, constantly threaten the officers. This adds to stress and the perceived risk of danger.
A study done in 2013 revealed that work-related fatalities among correctional officers averaged 11 per year (Konda, et al, 2013). “Among fatal assaults and violent acts, 62 percent were due to homicides and 38 percent were due to suicides by self-inflicted gunshot wounds” (Konda, et al, 2013). Because of this kind of work environment, many officers show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (Thompson, 2018; Thurston-Snoha et al, 2011).
It’s not just fatally violent acts that contribute to officer stress and sense of danger. “With the exception of police officers, correctional officers reported the highest number of workplace non-fatal violent incidents per 1,000 employees” (McCarthy, 2012). For example, the job may at times require the officer to physically restrain an inmate or to break up a fight leading to their own physical injuries. Stabbings, sexual assaults, hostage situations and riots are also possible in a prison environment. Another source of danger is the threat of disease. At the time of their incarceration many inmates are increasingly infected with communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and tuberculosis (McCarthy, 2012).
Role ambiguity also contributes to officer’s stress (McCarthy, 2012). Not knowing exactly what to do or being told different things from different supervisors is stressful. Tied to this is the lack of support and direction from supervisors and administration. Officers have reported that their supervisors have a lack of communication skills both for giving feedback and listening, and they don’t include the officers in decision-making. The militaristic environment of prisons may contribute to this kind of leadership, but it also contributes to an officer’s stress level.
Shift work also creates stress because it interrupts natural circadian rhythms. People on shift work generally suffer from a lack of sleep, which decreases a person’s ability to cope with stress.
There are a few things that prison administrators can do to help their employees cope with stress related to their jobs. Some people, despite looking like a good fit on an application, are not able to handle the stress of working in a prison. Research suggests that in the hiring process administrators should also assess the applicant for any psychological or emotional problems that would be aggravated by the job (McCarthy, 2012).
Other research has found that when officers were given the opportunity to help in the decision making and supervisors listened, the officers were happier and less stressed (McCarthy, 2012).
Employee Assistance Programs are commonly used to help overly stressed officers. These programs can offer a wide range of services that help the officer with job, family or personal problems (McCarthy, 2012). Researchers in California are urging the state to pass stricter confidentiality laws that will protect the officers who seek help; they are also pushing the state to provide social workers at each prison to give support to the officers (Thompson, 2018). Worksite wellness programs that focus on behavior theory have also proven to be useful (McCarthy, 2012).
Officers can also take measures to control their own stress levels. Some positive steps include finding social support, relaxation techniques including yoga and deep breathing, making short and long term personal and career goals, learn time management skills and living a healthy lifestyle (McCarthy, 2012).
There is a push to create a national database to track correctional officer suicides, much like law enforcement agencies do, with the intent to use the data to help other officers in times of need (Thompson, 2018). The hope is that with a rise in awareness of the issue, more officers will seek and have access to help before it is too late.
Konda, S., Tiesman, H., Reichard, A., & Hartley, D. (2013). U.S. Correctional Officers Killed or Injured on the Job. Corrections Today, 75(5), 122–123.
McCarthy, W. D. (2012). Causes of correctional officer stress and its consequences – social sciences – ProQuest Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/socialsciences/docview/1015172217
Thompson, D. (2018, Jan 9,). California examines prison guards’ high suicide rate. ABC News Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/study-california-prison-guards-suicide-rate-52235182
Thurston-Snoha, B., & Mora, L. E. (2011, Dec 1,). Correctional workers and stress: Providing mental health support. Corrections Today, 73, 55. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/925333964