Working Behind the Wall: Mental Health of Correctional-Based Staff
By Bonnie Sultan for PsychAlive.org
When we think of incarceration, we think about people sentenced to prison. Perhaps we think of those in jail awaiting trial or serving a short sentence. When we think of reentry, the act of person’s returning home from prison, we think about sentenced people coming home. When we think about prison – we think of criminals. We rarely think about persons working in the prisons. People who take the drive or bus ride for two decades and check in and out of correctional facilities daily. But they are there – and when you think about it- their time on the inside is usually much longer than the incarcerated.
When we think about corrections – we need to think about all of the people behind the wall. Incarcerated individuals are a piece of this world, but they are not the entire group. There is a population of correctional officers, health care workers, and other professionals that undergo reentry on a daily basis. Those working in corrections live between two worlds – prison life and the life over the wall. The question is – how do they balance these lives? How do correctional staff live in a secure detention facility for most of the day then pass through the gate and help their kids with their math homework? How can one person be two completely different people each day – an officer and a citizen? How can you remain healthy day in and day out when crossing the wall?
Correctional environments take their toll on all who pass through the gates . When you walk into prison, you are immediately hit by the odor of bodies being housed together, the noise of voices trying to be heard, the sound of footsteps bouncing off of iron and concrete walls, and the feeling of violence looming all around. You are literally on guard at all times. For some, this is where they live. For others, this is where they work.
The impact of this environment on the overall health of correctional staff has only recently been addressed in our research. New work shows the great needs of this population. Rogers (2001) surveyed correctional staff to learn about their stress levels, mental health, and risk behaviors. In terms of their mental health, Rogers found staggering rates of depression, feelings of hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. Twenty-five percent of correctional officers reported feeling a lack of emotional responsiveness, 20 percent reported an inability to find pleasure in anything, and 13 percent report hopelessness and/or worthlessness. It was found that approximately 50 percent of participants reported having no energy or being excessively tired; 44 percent reported frequent headaches, with 12 percent having monthly migraines. “Almost 20% of the [respondents] reported that they felt blue or depressed at least once to a few times a month.” (67). In terms of suicidal thoughts, “3% reported thoughts of ending their lives at least once a month, and an additional 6% report such thoughts 1-2 times in the past six months” (67).
In analyzing the physical health of this group, Rogers (2001) discovered, “approximately 16% reported having trouble catching their breath or shortness of breath at least once a month … 30% have experienced a change in their appetites, and feeling nervous or fidgety” (67). Study respondents also reported abusing prescriptive drugs to alleviate stress and anxiety.
Research shows that working in a hyper-violent environment has serious repercussions on the minds and bodies of correctional staff. Shift work also impacts the lives of correctional staff as well as their families . Working eight 12-hour shifts that do not match the 9-5 working hours of the general population results in families not having dinner together and parents sleeping while their children get ready for school. It has been shown that shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm, or the internal clock that controls sleep and arousal (Grant, 1995). Those with circadian rhythm disturbances report feeling tired, irritable, and nauseous. “The combination of sleep loss, disrupted circadian rhythm, and eating and digestive problems tends to result in irritability and depression, which may have a negative impact on family interaction” (Grant, 41). As the research shows, for those working in corrections, family life can become difficult to manage, and the general population can come to seem further away. The prison world becomes your world, if you let it. Without intentional balance and creating time for self-care, we see that correctional workers become prisoners to the system, too.
Frank Dwyer served 28 years on New York City’s Rikers Island. One of the three largest jails in the United States, Rikers Island holds persons awaiting trial and those serving a year or less of a sentenced term. Nobody serves 28 years on the Island, but Captain Dwyer (Ret) has done just that. In prisons and jails, there are Officers and Security Officers. The best way to describe this distinction is that Security Officers are the eyes, ears, and muscle of the facility. When you need gang intelligence or immediate riot assistance, you call Security. Capt. Frank Dwyer was the leader of that team for the sentenced male population. Security Officers undergo extreme stress, threats, and acts of violence on a daily basis. If you ask Captain Dwyer how he managed to stay sane in an insane world, he smiles and answers simply, “Cathy.”
The Dwyers have been married for 36 years, and Captain Dwyer says that it was the strength and support of his wife that kept him alive and sane. “I give her a lot of credit. To be an officer’s wife you have to be strong. I didn’t do this all myself.” When asked how he managed to keep his mind focused and alert in jail, he motioned to his heart and said, “Everyday I would take her with me – here. I wanted to go home to her, to my kids. That is what kept me going.” When asked how shift work impacted his mind, health, and home life, Captain Dwyer shared, “when you have a steady tour, you have consistency on the job and at home. But work on the wheel (shift work) is always changing. For my wife and kids, they had to be quiet during the day to not wake daddy up. It wasn’t fair to them. Daddy was home but couldn’t do it. I would do the best I could to make up for that. I would take a shift, so I could work lunch duty at their school. It felt like in some way I was contributing. I was just trying to balance.”
The impact of jail life stayed with Captain Dwyer after his shift. The constant dance between life and death, fear and safety, was always present. Talking about when he would return from work to his small, sleeping children, Dwyer pauses and reflects on those moments. “The first thing I would do was stare at them. I would walk over to them and wait to feel them breathing. To make sure they were okay. I wanted to assure myself they were alright. Make sure I was alright. I was coming from hell to heaven. With my grandchildren, I still do it now.”
Coming from hell to heaven happens everyday for our correctional staff. They reenter without the guidance of a therapist and without the support of a nonprofit actively engaging both them and their families. There is no reentry plan for officers. No grant opportunity funding programs for their betterment. There is nothing to assist their families to understand what they go through each day. We offer such services to incarcerated persons coming home, but not those who guard them.
Correctional life sticks to your bones, no matter how you try to shake it. Captain Frank Dwyer talks candidly about how jail culture can bleed into your daily life. “I didn’t want [my family] to experience where I was, but I still brought it home with me. I was loud sometimes, angry, less patient, because of what I saw [in jail]. There was the potential to be the same way at home, as I was in there [in jail]. Other officers would talk about beating their wives, go drink at bars, but these were unbearable thoughts to me. I didn’t want to end up being that person.” When asked how he managed to not ‘be that person,’ to maintain a healthy life and family, he smiles and answers simply, “Cathy.” Captain Dwyer credits his wife with keeping him grounded and forcing him to realize that the world is not Rikers Island. When remembering being angry when his kids would not respond fast enough, or others not doing as they were told, Cathy would respond, “excuse me, you are home. You are not in jail now. We are not going to jump for you.”
Creating a balance between the role of a correctional officer and the role of an average citizen is highly difficult. In a correctional setting, officers set the tone, schedule, and movement of other men and women. They say where people can go in facilities, when they can go, and for how long. But on the other side of the wall, you are just one more person in line with no authority over anyone and no control of the environment.
There is a significant amount of power in this work. As a Security Captain, especially, Captain Dwyer was responsible for the jail activity, the officers, the safety of the building, everything. There is also fear in this work. Fear is a natural part of the correctional system. It has always been my belief that law enforcement and first responders are super human. Our instinct when faced with danger is to run from it. Yet, these individuals run toward it. They run in with trained minds and lose their fears, while running. At least, that is what it looks like to an outside observer. But when asked about this occurrence and how he began work in a notorious jail, Captain Dwyer becomes very honest, reflective, and even more admirable. “I always knew I could do this. But on day one, there were big buildings, inmates yelling out the windows. I thought ‘what am I getting myself into?’ I had a child, one just born. I thought about the pay, the medical coverage, and stability. I would make the best of it. Some others (officers in training) quit within the first couple of weeks of the academy. In my mind I thought, ‘Can I do this? I am going to do this. I am going to war.’” When asked what he remembers about his first few moments in jail, Captain Dwyer shook his head and immediately answered, “so much noise, paper being thrown down. There was an officer who yelled at us to stand under the tier (ceiling covering the walkway) in order to save us from inmates throwing garbage that could knock us out. He left a good impression on me. I was impressed by that guy. Now I walk down the walkway just like he did. I don’t know his name, but I remember him. I was scared that day.”
Jim Hart, Chief Deputy of the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office lives 3,000 miles from New York City. Santa Cruz is the polar opposite of New York City. But Chief Deputy Hart and Frank Dwyer could have served on the same security detail. In talking with Chief Deputy Hart about how he supports the staff of his correctional facilities, the themes of respect, balance, and health rise to the surface.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office rotates staff from assignment to assignment. Correctional officers rotate shifts and facilities but remain in the jail system. In discussing the positive and negative aspects of assignment rotations, Hart comments, “The positive aspect is that people don’t get stale. When people get transferred or promoted to other positions… their work product declines, or they get bored with the assignment. Every three to five years, all of our staff get transferred. It doesn’t all happen at once; it’s all staggered. We work on six-month rotations. Generally, people stay a minimum of 18 months in their assignment. When people show certain signs of burnout, or they seem to be disinterested, we will move them to another assignment. …Over the years, this practice has shown solid evidence that it is in the best interest of the individual and the agency to move around.” For correctional-based staff, the change in shift or facility is utilized to combat burnout and fatigue.
Burnout in corrections is a real and everyday occurrence. The National Institute of Justice reports that officers take sick leave in order to compensate for burnout. “As long ago as 1975, California spent $1.86 million in overtime pay to cover posts for officers on sick leave”(2000, 25) . Burnout is something Hart knows too well as an administrator of three local correctional facilities. “Apathy is the biggest sign of burnout. [When this happens] officers are not doing the daily tasks they should be doing, and it is leading to mistakes and really poor management. There is an abuse of sick time going on.” Officers utilize sick time to take a day off, usually when they are not ill but for other personal reasons. Hart explains, “In order to maintain jail security, administration has to call staff on their day off to work an extra day, or the team has to double up and do multiple tasks to make up the lost work of that individual. It adds an extra burden to the team or to another individual. The financial burden is also significant.” Hart estimates a half of a million dollars per year is over budget due to this sick time abuse.
Apathy is a word that comes up quite a bit in the world of corrections. In the general population, apathy in the workplace can be a document waiting an extra day to be shred or maybe a few unreturned emails. In corrections, apathy quickly leads to a loss of security. In corrections, security is everything. Hart explains, “In terms of housing, we do hourly welfare checks on every body that is in this jail. That includes getting into the unit to make sure the person is alive and breathing, that they don’t need any medical attention, that they are eating. Their daily needs are taken care of. A person who is not engaged will miss those hourly checks or go to the length of indicating they did the welfare check when it didn’t happen. Being locked up for 12 hours a day has a lot to do with burnout.”
Working in a correctional facility can become a struggle for staff. Day-to-day threats of conflict and violence coupled with being locked in an institution far from the general population is not looked upon as ‘normal’ or ‘average’ by any means. It is common, therefore, for correctional staff to be questioned by family and friends about life inside. Jim Hart and Frank Dwyer report having non-law enforcement friends and family inquire about life behind correctional walls. They explain that some want to hear a war story of jail and get excited at the idea of jail violence, but both officers state there is no pleasure in telling the stories of pain. Further, they express the need for self-care practices and ways to disengage from the hyper-violent realities of the workplace.
For Hart, his self-care, or practices utilized to maintain balance and mental health, is as simple as basketball. As a high school basketball coach, Hart finds a balance in mentoring and providing leadership to those on his team. “On the court with kids, I feel good and feel regenerated. The team thinks I am doing them a favor by coaching- but they are doing me the favor. Just being around them and hearing them talk- it energizes me.”
Dwyer talks about the need to separate yourself from the correctional life, not only to stay sane, but safe. “I learned you could never compromise yourself. Integrity comes to mind here. You have to be better. You can’t stoop to a low level just because you are in jail. I have seen people lose their freedom- everything- for bringing contraband to an inmate. For $5,000, they lost everything; they lost their freedom. All because they got lost in the system and where they were in it.” What kept Dwyer sane in insane places, he attributes to two things, “First you have to have a sense of humor. I can laugh at something that may make the average person cry. In this work, you have to be able to laugh. I went to war with the guys I worked with everyday. I had to share a laugh too. Secondly, there is Cathy. She kept me humble. It’s hard to be superman when you have to go home and take the trash out. She gave me balance.”
There is something superhuman in law enforcement and first response work. When the urge to run away is overtaken by the urge to run towards, these people become something more than even they once thought they could be. With this ability comes great responsibilities and stresses. We ask a lot of our law enforcement officers. We ask for superhero strength and superhuman heart. The balance is a difficult one. It causes much strife in personal and professional lives. How does one take off the cape and, once again, become human?
In discussing advice for those interested in joining the force, Hart provides powerful pointers. “Know who you are, what you stand for. Know your core values and ethics. This job will test everything you stand for. Many will get eaten up; inmates will see weakness and take advantage, and staff will see it, too. If you have a challenge with honesty or integrity, or you aren’t clear what your values are, inmates will test you and push your boundaries. You have to know who you are – inside and outside of this place.” For Dwyer, he talked about new officers remembering why they took the job, and what the job is. “You have to remember who you are and where you are. If you don’t, someone may get hurt, maybe you. You have to have something outside, something that keeps you going. For me, it was and has always been, her.”
 Finn, Peter. (2000). “Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies.” U.S. Department of Justice.
 Rogers, John B. (2001). FOCUS I Survey and Final Report: A Summary of the Findings: Families Officers and Corrections Understanding Stress.
 Grant, B.A. (1995). “Impact of Working Rotating Shifts on the Family Life of Correctional Staff” Forum on Corrections (7:2, 40-42).
 See Finn (2000).