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Prisons: Correctional Officers

Correctional Officer Stress

A number of studies have documented that C.O.s experience higher levels of stress than most other occupational groups (Laskey, Gordon, and Strebalus; Lindquist and Whitehead; Honnold and Stinchcomb; and Wright). There are numerous stressors in the C.O.s' work environment. They live by a macho code that requires them to be rugged individualists who can be counted upon to do their duty regardless of circumstances. Both management and C.O.s expect that every officer will perform the functions of their assignment independently, and seek assistance only when it is absolutely necessary, as in the case of physical assault, escape, or riot. This macho code combined with the unpredictability of working with inmates, role ambiguity, and demographic changes in the work force create high C.O. stress levels.

In addition, C.O.s frequently complain of structural stressors associated with the traditional autocratic style of correctional management: feelings of being trapped in the job; low salaries; inadequate training; absence of standardized policies, procedures, and rules; lack of communication with managers; and little participation in decision-making (Philliber). The failure of managers to support line staff has been emphasized by Lombardo and Brodsky. There are also gender differences in stress perception. Zimmer and Jurik have found that female C.O.s report higher levels of stress than male C.O.s because of employee sexual harassment, limited supervisory support, and a lack of programs designed to integrate them into the male prison.

The consequences of stress include: powerful feelings of alienation, powerlessness, estrangement, and helplessness; physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and ulcers (Cornelius); twice the national divorce rate average; and high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and heart attacks. Cheek reports that C.O.s have an average life span of fifty-nine years compared to a national average of seventy-five years. The organizational consequences of stress include high employee turnover, reduced job productivity, high rates of absenteeism and sick leave use, and inflated health-care costs and disability payments (Patterson). Some C.O.s also respond to stress by engaging in corruption or inmate brutality.

Correctional managers have responded to these consequences by seeking to recruit and retain individuals who have the psychological resources to handle the stress of institutional life. Application selection methods rely on psychological testing, background checks, and rigorous interviews. Those applicants who are hired are required to complete a probationary period that is, on average, ten months in length and includes 232 hours of entry-level training (Camp and Camp, p. 146) before they can be assigned a permanent job within the correctional facility. This probationary period begins with standardized training in a correctional training academy whose instructors are qualified to provide oral instruction, written examination, and practical hands-on application of techniques. Training curriculums are designed to provide trainees with the knowledge necessary to become a human services–oriented professional who can assist inmates as they meet the challenges of incarceration and preparation for return to the community. The typical corrections curriculum includes instruction in such diverse areas as: the professional image; interpersonal communications; assertive techniques; development of observation skills; prison subcultures; classification of inmates; legal aspects of corrections; inmate disciplinary procedures; fire prevention; security awareness; stress awareness and management; control of aggressive inmate behavior; cultural sensitivity; emergency preparedness; HIV; report writing; suicidal inmates; mentally disturbed inmates and special behavior problems; principles of control; basic defensive tactics; standard first aid; use of the baton; firearms training; drug awareness; search procedures; use of inmate restraints; transportation of inmate procedures; and weapon cleaning and maintenance. Increasingly, academy curriculums include ethical behavior, cultural sensitivity, and awareness of diversity courses designed to help C.O.s adjust to a work environment that has become increasingly multicultured. State correctional systems now require C.O.s to annually participate in, on average, forty-two hours of in-service training designed to help them maintain high levels of professional efficiency and ethical behavior (Camp and Camp, p. 147).

In addition, correctional managers are increasingly adapting a participatory management style that emphasizes employee empowerment through shared decision-making and input solicitation, unit management, and formal mentoring programs (Cushman and Sechrest; Freeman). This management style is associated with higher levels of employee morale and job satisfaction than is the traditional autocratic management style (Duffee, 1989). As management and training philosophies become more sophisticated C.O.s will be better prepared to manage the stresses inherent in their critical role as human service professionals in an increasingly complex work environment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: Correctional Officers - The C.o. And Rule Enforcement, Organizational Culture, Changes In The Correctional Officer Role