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Correctional suicides: Doing time takes its toll

“We spend a lot of time focusing on the mental health of our inmates, but not enough time focusing on the mental health of the people who are caring for them”

By Olivia Johnson, DM
C1 Contributor

Doing time is not just slang used for the inmate population. Correctional officers also do time through hours of confinement, witnessing the worst of humanity, human depravity, and the stress experienced on and off duty.

My research has revealed a significant correlation between stress, wellness, and increased suicide risks for first responders.

The life of the correctional officer can be exciting and scary, but with such polarity in roles comes much stress and anxiety. Correctional officers know the importance of getting along, but never become too friendly. They remain vigilant, yet not appearing paranoid. Correctional officers are essentially locked up with inmates convicted of everything from theft to murder.

One must never underestimate the intentions or ability of an inmate. Having to maintain constant vigilance against attack or ambush, in turn, helps to better understand the stress and anxiety produced from ‘doing time’ with such individuals.

The dangerousness of the job is documented in the deaths and injuries officers sustain each year, as a result of inmate attacks. As if the fear of great bodily injury or death was not enough of a deterrent, literature further suggests that a correctional officer "... will be seriously assaulted at least twice in a 20-year career” (as cited in American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, 2012).

One can only imagine how stress and anxiety skyrocket after such an attack. Or how self-doubt and fear come into play, thoughts of being hurt again or even killed, and the stress of knowing you have to return to work. Now compound the issue even more: add being understaffed, overworked, underpaid, and all too often, unappreciated by inmates, co-workers, and administrators.

But is officer safety the biggest stressor for correctional officers? According to Dr. Donald Steele, the answer is no. Steele noted that the majority (i.e., 60 percent) of correctional officers he personally treated indicated ‘administration’ contributed to increased levels of stress (as cited in American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, 2012).

In fact, this response is fairly common among human service occupations. Stress by administrators and supervisors has been linked to questionable leadership decisions, high rates of turnover due to actions by leadership, a lack of leadership, inadequate staffing, and “Monday morning quarterbacking...” (ToersBijns, 2012).

But do these “leadership” issues really contribute to the highest levels of stress for correctional employees? It may appear that way, but stress comes in many forms (e.g., administrators, trauma, critical incidents, violence, personality differences, manipulation by inmates, inmate defiance, exposure to disease, fear, etc.) and not managed appropriately can and does kill. One of the most elusive aspects about stress is that the effects of bad decisions and poor choices are not always immediate, leaving many to take health and wellness for granted.

Occupational stress, conflicts with administration, disagreements with co-workers, a lack of trust, and being exposed continuously to the depraved human condition, contributes to breakdowns in psychological and emotional resilience. Doing time is taking a toll on your body and mind.

The lack of the appropriate resources and coping mechanisms to deal with stress can lead to stress-related illnesses. The burden not only falls on the individual officer, but on correctional families, co-workers, and employers. In fact, stress-related illness are so common that they account for a majority of all doctor visits and costs employers hundreds of billions annually (Occupational Health & Safety Administration, as cited in WebMD, 2012).

We are constantly told:

  • “Everyone has stress.”
  • “Stress is a natural part of life.”
  • “Not all stress is bad.”

But what we fail to realize, if not managed appropriately and timely, stress can be hazardous to one’s health and wellness. Unmanaged stress has been linked to unhealthy eating habits, poor coping skills, anxiety, anger, rage, substance abuse, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, sleep deprivation, depression, and even suicide (ToersBijns, 2012a).

Correctional officers suffering from stress-related illnesses have higher rates of premature death, increased rates of substance abuse, and even higher rates of divorce.

There is no doubt the role stress plays on the life of correctional officers. Whether directly or indirectly, stress-related illness contribute to long-lasting, negative impacts.

However, the leading killer of correctional officers is not attacks by inmates, unhealthy eating, or a lack of sleep. The leading contributor to correctional officer death is suicide.

How can this be? Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said it best: “We spend a lot of time focusing on the mental health of our inmates, but not enough time focusing on the mental health of the people who are caring for them” (as cited in ToersBijns, 2012).

All too often, the mental health of employees is taken for granted. Doing time is killing our correctional officers and believing otherwise is a deadly mistake. How do we change this? How do we reduce stress, while increasing resilience? How do we decrease the number of correctional officer suicides?

My next articles will begin a conversation about alternatives, resources, and tools that correctional officers must possess in order to remain resilient. This conversation will include ways to reduce stress on and off duty, ways to build personal resilience, and skills to enhance personal empowerment.

It is my hope that future conversations will open doors to understanding, so suicide will no longer be seen as a viable option.

About the Author

Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix – School of Advanced Studies. Perseverance in raising awareness to officer wellness resulted in her being named the Illinois State Representative for the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation. This role led to her being invited to speak at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit’s 2010 – Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness (BeSTOW) Symposium. Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force and a former police officer and collaborates with several journals regarding law enforcement issues. She writes for Law Enforcement Today as their police leadership expert. Her services were contracted out by Crisis Systems Management to train military personnel worldwide on Critical Incident Peer Support (CIPS). Correspondence can be sent to:


Hayes, L.M. (2010, May 29). National study of inmate suicide. Retrieved January 22,

2013, from:


ToersBijns, C. (2012). Stress, the correctional officer’s silent killer.

Retrieved January 22, 2013, from:

ToersBijns, C. (2012a). Suicide – correctional officers cause & effect of workplace stress. Retrieved January 23, 2013, from:



WebMD. (2012). The effects of stress on your body. Retrieved January 22, 2013,


American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. (2012). Who are correctional officers? Retrieved

March 18, 2013,