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Rebuilding prison culture to turn the tide on correctional officer burnout

Innovative strategies agencies can implement to rejuvenate their workforce and improve morale



When you ask someone about the impact of prison culture, most answers focus on how it affects the inmate population. Clearly, inmates significantly influence the entire prison culture, but what about our prison staff? We must examine and explore the current agency culture and the daily challenges our correctional officers and leaders face.

The burnout culture

Staff shortages are forcing officers to work under increasingly harsh conditions, with significantly higher inmate-to-officer ratios than in the past. This situation has led to mandatory overtime and extended shifts, resulting in long working hours and fewer days off for recovery. Consequently, officers report feeling drained, experiencing sleep disturbances, and frequently feeling angry and irritable.

These stressors contribute to a rise in alcohol and substance abuse among staff. Additionally, the risk of danger has escalated, evidenced by an increase in attacks on officers by inmates over the last five years. This uptick in violence is directly linked to the staff shortages and a relaxation of security protocols, influenced by external political pressures.

Officers are leaving corrections at an alarming rate due to retirement, resignation, or internal investigations. Recruitment and retention require urgent attention before it’s too late. Instead of overburdening loyal officers and pushing them toward severe burnout, we must create a safer work environment by increasing staffing levels.

Managers need to prioritize tasks from most to least important, understanding that some tasks may need to wait for additional help. Achieving this is impossible without the support of our city and county councils and state legislature. We cannot remain passive with our pleas for help; we must actively voice our concerns. We have created a culture of burnout, and it is our responsibility to remedy it.

How is your agency morale?

The ideal response to this question is that our officers have a “get it done” attitude, respond quickly, and work well as a team. Our leaders collaborate effectively with frontline officers, fostering mutual respect. They project a positive image and provide guidance, training, command advice, counseling, rewards, and, when necessary, discipline.

Unfortunately, some agencies are reporting the following issues that directly cause low morale, early retirements and resignations, exacerbating problems in an already short-staffed environment:

  • Officers often perceive that merely doing enough to complete the task at hand is sufficient, without striving to achieve higher standards. Supervisors must set clear and realistic expectations. Effective communication with frontline personnel involves good listening skills followed by constructive feedback. Such feedback demonstrates support and encourages participation. As a team leader, you significantly influence your frontline culture. Exhibit model behavior by being consistent, dependable, respectful, ethical and professional. A leader’s commitment, passion and enthusiasm are noticeable and inspire similar qualities in their officers.
  • Officers often fear making decisions in emergency situations due to concerns about management’s scrutiny of their performance. While it is crucial to adhere to policies and procedures, each emergency is unique and may necessitate a different approach. Therefore, flexibility in reviewing officers’ actions is essential. Agencies must ensure officers are well-prepared and feel supported when making critical decisions under stress. Implementing scenario-based training that includes dialogue and feedback can effectively address and resolve this issue.
  • The current system does not sufficiently support professional growth. Both the agency and the officer must actively engage in professional development. While the agency should provide educational opportunities, the responsibility for personal and professional growth also rests with the individual officer. It is crucial for officers to take initiative in learning and pursuing educational opportunities to enhance their occupational skills and advance their careers.
  • Our supervisors are lacking in coaching abilities. Effective coaching involves not merely instructing officers on what to do, but rather unlocking their potential by facilitating their learning. True coaching includes recognizing and highlighting officers’ strengths and allowing them to find their own solutions. Agencies need to invest in leadership training that emphasizes these coaching skills to enhance the overall development and performance of their staff.
  • General trust between the ranks has eroded, yet trust is fundamental in correctional environments. Trust is built on good character, competence and commitment, and its loss can deeply impact operations. Everyone makes mistakes, but learning from them and rebuilding trust is essential. If you, as an officer or supervisor, have breached this trust, regaining it starts with a simple apology and admission of guilt. Follow this by consistently demonstrating integrity and setting a positive example. Show real, long-term change by discarding self-serving behaviors and prioritizing the welfare of your fellow officers and the agency. As you embody these values, trust naturally reestablishes, reinforcing teamwork and unity.
  • There are too many internal cliques. Internal cliques within the staff can lead to significant issues, creating frustration and negatively impacting both individual shifts and the broader agency environment. When staff form separate groups, communication ceases, suspicion increases, and productivity plummets. It is crucial for supervisors and management to engage with officers actively to prevent these divisions. Involving everyone in positive activities that enhance the work environment is essential. Efforts should focus on rebuilding trust and loyalty across all ranks. Leaders must emphasize team cohesion, discourage favoritism, and guide those seeking individual recognition back to team-oriented objectives. Keeping the team unified and motivated is key to maintaining a healthy, productive workplace.
  • External pressures and decisions by upper management are significantly hindering the effectiveness of our jobs. Both frontline officers and high-ranking supervisors frequently raise concerns about reductions in state correctional budgets. These financial cuts limit our ability to improve essential resources such as officer equipment, security infrastructure, and staff health programs. Additionally, external organizations are advocating against standard safety measures like handcuffing inmates during transfers, compromising frontline safety. Some agencies have begun to yield to these external pressures, placing officers in precarious situations. While it is understood that upper management often must follow directives from higher authorities, it is crucial for them to advocate vigorously for policies that prioritize the safety and well-being of prison staff above all.

The new culture

The era of old-school officers and supervisors is drawing to a close. Recent reports indicate that many correctional agencies now employ a younger group of officers who are ascending the ranks quickly. For the remaining old-school leaders, it’s essential to understand the needs and perspectives of this younger generation to lead successfully. Embracing the values and expectations of these newer officers is crucial for fostering effective leadership and maintaining harmony within the ranks.

Younger officers today seek individualized attention but also expect to be taught and disciplined. Raised in an era of inquiry, they often challenge traditional methods with questions like, “Why are we doing it this way?” and “Wouldn’t it be better to do it this way instead?” While recognition and reward are universally appreciated, they are particularly important to Generation Z and Millennial officers, who may leave their positions quickly if they don’t feel personally fulfilled. Fortunately, most younger officers thrive on challenges and have a strong desire to improve things, making task assignment an effective way to engage and motivate them.

Correctional leaders must maintain strict enforcement of rules, but they should also embrace coaching and listening skills when interacting with younger officers. It is crucial not to hold back the younger generation of officers. Instead, leaders should focus on training, advising, and counseling them, effectively harnessing their energy and curiosity for the benefit of both the shift and the entire agency. This approach not only promotes professional growth but also fosters a positive and productive work environment.

Today, understanding among correctional staff is more crucial than ever. In these challenging times, it’s vital for everyone to stand together for mutual survival and support. Knowing that help is available when needed fosters a sense of security and well-being. Trust in your fellow officers and rely on the assurance that you can depend on each other. It’s time to move away from isolation and actively engage as a committed member of the team.

Areas for discussion

After reading the article on the impact of prison culture on staff as well as inmates, here are five areas for discussion:

1. Addressing staff burnout and high turnover rates

Discuss the underlying causes of burnout and high turnover rates among correctional officers. Examine the connection between mandatory overtime, extended shifts, and the physical and mental health issues faced by staff. Explore strategies to improve work conditions, manage workloads better, and support staff well-being.

2. Improving recruitment and retention

Evaluate current recruitment and retention strategies within correctional facilities. Discuss the challenges of attracting new officers and retaining experienced ones, particularly in the context of an aging workforce and the emerging needs of younger officers. Propose innovative approaches to recruitment and ongoing professional development to keep staff engaged.

3. Enhancing leadership and management practices

Delve into the roles of leadership and management in shaping a positive prison culture. Assess the effectiveness of current leadership styles, particularly in coaching and decision-making support during emergencies. Discuss the need for leadership training programs that emphasize emotional intelligence, ethical behavior, and effective communication.

4. Building trust and team cohesion

Explore the importance of trust and team cohesion in maintaining a secure and supportive work environment. Discuss how internal cliques and lack of trust can negatively impact operational efficiency and staff morale. Propose methods for building trust, including transparency, consistent behavior, and team-building activities.

5. Navigating external pressures and policy constraints

Analyze how external pressures, such as budget cuts and policy mandates from higher authorities, impact the day-to-day operations and safety within correctional facilities. Discuss the role of upper management in advocating for the needs of their staff and the implications of complying with external demands that may compromise safety and operational integrity.

These discussion points aim to foster a deeper understanding of the challenges and potential solutions for improving the culture and operational effectiveness of correctional institutions.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.