Is corrections really as stressful as everyone says?

So you wanna be a CO? Find out the truth behind all the media hype, and see if it's right for you

If you are pondering whether or not to pursue a career in corrections, this article is for you.

This article will contain vital information regarding what working in corrections is actually like, as well as stress-management tools that can be utilized to self-regulate, improve quality of life, and help officers maintain equilibrium. There is a surplus of data regarding corrections and stress, and my goal is to confirm the factual data as well as to dispel the myths about a life in corrections.

Shows such as “Lock-UP Raw,” “Beyond Scared Straight,” and “Jail,” portray corrections as a non-stop career filled with turbulence, aggressive inmates, fights, cell extractions, and riots. While these components are very real and collectively included in standardized “daily operations” in corrections, they do not paint the complete picture.

Research indicates that serious assaults committed by inmates on correctional officers are infrequent. Assaults on staff in which hospitalization was not required was determined to be committed by approximately 53 out of 100,000 inmates annually. When the severity of assaults reached the magnitude of hospitalization for non-life threatening injury, then the number decreased tremendously to 2.2 per 100,000 inmates and even lower at 0.5 per 100,000 inmates in which injuries were considered life-threatening (Sorensen and Cunningham, 2011).

These statistics are merely indicative of the low frequency of serious assaults committed by inmates against corrections staff and are not representative of nor alluding to the fact that violence does not occur in correctional facilities. On average, approximately 13 percent of all inmates incarcerated in the Federal Prison System are violent offenders, while roughly 72.1 percent are non-violent offenders with no documented history of violent tendencies (Sentencing Project, 2004).

The fact remains, however, that when individuals are incarcerated, their behavior is subject to change. Inmates can be erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous in order to live by the “convict code,” or to simply survive the cold reality of life behind bars.

Inmates that are incarcerated for larceny may have to act violently in order to not be extorted, be jumped-in to a gang, avoid being sexually victimized, or save face with other inmates. This violence may be specific to the inmate population, or it may very well be aimed carelessly at staff. It’s because of this “culture of violence” behind prison and jail walls that corrections professionals must remain vigilant, non-complacent, highly inquisitive, ultra-aware, and possess a sense of alertness that is very uncommon among civilians.

It’s not so much the actual physical assaults that burden corrections professionals with stress, but the mental fatigue and emotional hardships that coexist with having to always be alert. In my experience, the possibility of potential violence on a day-to-day basis causes more cognitive breakdown than isolated incidents of violence and/or aggression.

Imagine a world in which you question every move a person makes, every word a person says, and you try to locate ulterior motives behind every action taken by an individual, no matter how mundane or frivolous they may appear.

Try to picture yourself being suspicious of every individual you encounter, while maintaining both a professional and interpersonal relationship with them and, at the same time, thinking in your head that “this person could seriously hurt me at any given moment.” What you’ve just done is imagined a brief glimpse into the mind of a correctional officer!

Now, take that glimpse and extend it to meet the criteria for an 8, 10, or 12 hour shift every day for the scope of a career. Living with this aforementioned mentality can have a sane person literally overanalyze and dissect every conceivable reason as to why another individual may want to borrow a pencil or ask for toilet paper. If not monitored carefully and deliberately, this way of life can corrupt a sane person and push them into a sea of paranoia and aggravated cynicism, to say the least.

When you decide to become a corrections professional, you are truly deciding to become institutionalized to a certain degree yourself. You will be locked in, you will have a regimented schedule, you will be immersed in the criminal code, and you will have non-stop dealings with all types of offenders ranging from child molesters to car thieves.

You will be expected to run toward a fire as opposed to away from it and you must possess the mental fortitude to execute all institutional duties while at the same time controlling the inmate population. The mental stress on corrections professionals is outstanding and can lead to such things as high turnover, mental health issues, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

I would suggest utilizing exercise in order to cope with the stress of the career in which you have chosen. Running, weight lifting, and plyometrics are all ideal for “resetting” your mind, working out the kinks, and relaxing your body. In my opinion, mental strength can go hand-in-hand with physical strength and corrections professionals need to have healthy outlets for their hostilities and stress.

Exercise can help officers maintain health and stamina, which they will undoubtedly need for this very challenging and distinguished career choice. Exercise can also delay or detour things that are overly represented in the corrections realm; things such as high blood pressure, obesity, and hypertension. Remember to stay keen, aware, and alert! Don’t let yourself become a statistic.

This career is not for everyone, but it is a magnificent career and can certainly benefit you regardless of which facet of law enforcement you are interested in joining.


Sorensena, J. R., & Cunningham, M. D. (2011). Serious assaults on prison staff: A descriptive analysis. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(2), 143–150.

U.S. Department of Justice, (2004). The federal prison population: A statistical analysis. Retrieved from website: FEDERAL PRISON POPULATION: A STATISTICAL ANALYSIS 514 10TH STREET NW, SUITE 1000 WASHINGTON, DC 20004

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