The hidden impact of COVID-19 on correctional staff

Fears have been weighing heavily on staff for more than a year now, undermining their health and well-being, and most likely affecting their job performance

In my experience talking with correctional employees for the last 21 years, the reason most of them who have families give for working in corrections is that they do it to be able to provide for their families. And when asked what is most important in their lives and what brings them joy, most of them once again mention their families.

Yet, with the advent of COVID-19, correctional employees (particularly custody staff who are designated to be essential employees who have to report to work) have faced a quandary. Their job, which they took in order to take care of their families, now threatens to hurt their families, perhaps irreparably.

What I am referring to here is a topic that is not discussed much to date in correctional circles or in the media: the impact of COVID-19 on custody staff’s family’s life and well-being.

Since they are considered essential, correctional staff had to report to work (and continue to do so) throughout the pandemic.
Since they are considered essential, correctional staff had to report to work (and continue to do so) throughout the pandemic. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

essential corrections employees

This issue, which is addressed in this article, can be broken down into two main parts:

  1. The essential correctional staff’s abject fear of infecting their family or other household members with COVID-19, and

  2. The effects of COVID-19 realities and related concerns on essential correctional staff’s family relationships.

Since they are considered essential, custody staff had to report to work (and continue to do so) throughout the pandemic. In some cases, their agencies provided them with questionable, even expired PPE, or they had to buy their own. They may have been assigned to COVID-19 units or they may have been tasked with transporting offenders sick with COVID-19 to hospitals, sitting with them in their room for hours at a time, and sometimes watching them die.

From early on in their correctional careers, custody staff in particular have accepted that they serve in a line of work where someday they may not get to go home at the end of their workday. And they have faced communicable (and rather well understood) diseases, such as Tuberculosis, HIV and Hepatitis C. For the most part, staff have made their peace with these realities, and perhaps their families have made their peace with them, too.

Corrections staff have also at times faced threats directed against their family members, threats made by offenders or from offenders’ associates. However, threats of violence by offenders or their associates are a type of danger that they are familiar with and have been trained to confront, a hazard they know how to defend themselves against.

COVID-19 confronted correctional staff with a very different type of threat: a new, little understood, unpredictable and almost impossible to defend against virus that entered the world’s stage suddenly, globally upending life as we knew it. This foe, we found out, could suddenly turn lethal or cause irreparable damage to different organs of our bodies. This foe, we were also told, could live on our skin, on our clothing or on other items for hours at a time, possibly infecting others who came in contact with us or our items. And we might even be carriers of this invisible enemy, and yet not show any signs of having it, blithely breathing it on those around us and making them sick.

For essential corrections employees, exposure to COVID-19 has been practically impossible to prevent due to their being in close quarters with offenders, often in crowded housing units, and at times with inadequate PPE. And this could go on for longer periods of time than a normal workday due to increased mandatory overtime, a direct result of large numbers of staff being sick or in quarantine.

fear of bringing covid-19 home

It is one thing for custody staff to know that they are at risk of exposure to COVID-19, and that they put themselves in harm’s way by going to work. It’s a whole different thing for them to know that they could be bringing this potentially deadly virus home to contaminate their loved ones.

As staff have shared with us, some of them have immunocompromised family members living with them, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, family members suffering from asthma or other respiratory conditions, or other illnesses that (we found out as time went on) render them vulnerable to poorer outcomes if infected with COVID-19. Others may have newborns or young children at home, or pregnant wives, with not enough known about what the effects may be on a pregnant woman and the fetus if she contracted COVID-19.

All these fears have been weighing heavily on essential correctional staff for more than a year now, undermining their health and well-being, and most likely affecting their job performance.

And these worries have only been compounded by grief and a sense of guilt when their worst fears came true, when their housebound family members did become ill with COVID-19, in some cases very seriously or even died, likely due to the staff’s COVID-19 exposure at work.

Here are some anonymous and de-identified comments by correctional officers on living and working with COVID-19. These comments give us a glimpse into the amount of strain essential correctional employees have been under for months at a time.

  • "I haven't been able to be around family in over five months due to being around hundreds of positive cases and myself becoming COVID-positive and very sick. Then, once I was cleared, I was mandated 2-3 days a week and felt restless with the quick turn around and not enough sleep. I wasn't well and healthy enough myself, but it was mandatory. My family with health conditions are still scared to see me or have me come around because they don't want to chance me bringing them COVID, since I'm around it daily. It's very stressful!"
  • "I contracted COVID-19 while working and had to quarantine from my family for two weeks, but it was already too late because I already infected my live-in partner."

"I could sit at home collecting unemployment and be a million times happier. Instead, I get COVID from work and have to live with the guilt and shame of wondering if I'm the reason my __ died from COVID. Live with the fact I may have killed my ____. And the jail does nothing. I received nothing after my ___ passed away, not even an acknowledgement."

ANECDOTES of staff feeling overwhelmed, helpless

Even less mentioned than these grave concerns, is the impact of COVID-19 on family life as staff desperately attempted to prevent contaminating their household family members. Examples include staff following rigorous decontamination routines when they get home, not hugging family members, or staying away from their families for weeks and even for months at a time, living in their garage or in RVs, and spending holidays together online. The strain of having to apply these measures and the impact on emotional intimacy can be hard to fathom.

  • "Since the pandemic started, when returning home from work, I've had to enter my home through my garage, remove my uniform in my garage, and wash it separately from all other clothes (then sanitize my washer afterwards) in order to combat spreading it to my family. This practice alone is stressful. Not to mention having to distance myself from my family and my family from other people (both in my household and outside my household), i.e. afraid to hug or kiss my wife or children or take them to visit any family members out of fear of spreading it to them. I've been uninvited from holidays, small gatherings, and many other things specially because of where I work. It's one thing to deal with the stress of being a CO and risk my well-being daily, but now we risk our families’ well-being by potentially exposing them to COVID-19."

  • "Work has affected my home life more than management knows. I have not slept in the same bed with my wife in almost a year. I get undressed in my garage. My work uniforms stay in the garage until I wash them all together. I then sterilize the washer before it can be used again."
  • "I'm high risk for COVID-19. My family members are also very high risk. Additionally, one family member has a compromised immune system. To safeguard them, upon arrival at home after work, I strip naked on my porch, place all clothing in a garbage bag before entering my home. Then, immediately wash clothes and take a shower. I have not hugged or kissed my family since this pandemic started and I sleep alone."
  • "Since this whole thing began I've had to spend extra time away from my family to make sure that they are protected. I have to change out of my work uniform and boots before entering my house. I have to run directly into the shower before greeting my wife and children. I have to stay away from some family members because of where I work and how easily they virus spreads there."
  • "I had COVID-19 that I can guarantee came from working on a COVID unit, and I spent Christmas alone at home and missed everything. I had to just talk on the phone with my family so I didn't expose them."
  • "I caught COVID from an inmate that the jail knew was positive. Then had to be quarantined in a trailer in my driveway over Christmas. I watched my family have Christmas on FaceTime."

And due to no longer being able to operate as a team at home because of the COVID-19 distancing, it was even more of a burden for families with children to navigate the responsibilities of assisting them with their online schoolwork, and/or to find childcare services. This, of course, was magnified for single parents and for those who were required to work the night shift.

  • "Lots of changes are happening in everyone's lives. School for our kids especially. The kids are home now and childcare has become very difficult."
  • "Many of us have trouble with mandates due to childcare. Times are different with having to homeschool, and to find a daycare that will take toddlers is very hard or impossible. Yet management wants to discipline you for not taking a mandated due to childcare. Times are not the same when we first signed up for the job."

All these challenges have resulted in essential staff feeling overwhelmed, helpless, taken for granted, and wondering if the paycheck and the benefits are worth dealing with such high degrees of strain with no clear end in sight. And in some cases, it resulted in correctional employees leaving the profession.

  • "I will be leaving my career in corrections sooner rather than later as risking my life is not worth it."
  • "I used to be DOC proud and now I'm looking for a new job so I can actually spend time with my family."

What can correctional agencies do to support their staff under these circumstances?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Ensure that staff have access to sufficient and current (not expired) PPE, such as N95 masks, goggles, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and gloves, and that these are used as recommended by CDC.
  • Ensure COVID-related policies that aim to prevent virus transmission are followed by both staff and offenders.
  • Rotate staff out of COVID-19 units and hospital transport positions.
  • Regularly thank staff for their sacrifices due to the COVID-19 threat and consequent restrictions, and validate their ordeal and struggles.
  • Ask about the staff’s families’ health.
  • Provide staff with tools for anxiety management, such as mindfulness practices, and provide them with short online training and literature that they can take home to their families.
  • Consider offering essential staff hazard pay when they work in housing units or do hospital transports.

And, in closing, here are the thoughts of one correctional officer about the subject:

  • "I do believe that (staff) needs to be compensated financially for what we have endured over the last year. We signed up for a job that involves more risk than most. We could be murdered on any given day as we were reminded by the recent murder of _____ at the hands of an inmate. But we understood we would be compensated for that risk when we took the job. Well, now we are dealing with even more risk. And that risk comes from being exposed to COVID because of our job and possibly causing our own death or the death of our family members. And I believe that because we are now enduring more risk we need to be compensated to reflect that."

NEXT: Post-pandemic mental health challenges for correctional staff and inmates: What leaders should know

Reprinted with permission from the May 2021 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

2020 © Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

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