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Mental health matters: How leaders can ensure correctional officers have healthy, sustainable careers

It requires a conscious effort to build emotional resiliency and develop positive coping mechanisms


In this Aug. 17, 2011, file photo, concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

Personal mental health is extremely important to a healthy, sustainable career within corrections. Working in corrections is typically accompanied by a negative and, at times, hostile environment. Correctional officers see, hear and respond to situations that can cause post-traumatic stress in numerous ways. Most of the time, it can be difficult to acknowledge the stress because after an incident COs are expected to complete paperwork, resume their posts and continue with normal operations.

Prison is a well-oiled machine that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is time for all correctional leaders to stop assuming their employees operate the same way. Trauma is real and it impacts all of us differently. Trauma shows its face in three different forms: primary, secondary and vicarious.

Primary trauma

Primary trauma is when you personally experience an event. For example, being assaulted, witnessing violence or watching someone commit suicide are all forms of primary trauma.

You experience primary trauma largely with your five senses (hear, see, smell, touch, taste). Primary trauma can be the most difficult type of trauma you can experience, which is why its effects last longer.

Secondary trauma

Secondary trauma happens as a result of hearing or learning about a disturbing event. For example, reading an offender’s master file and the details from the pre-sentence investigation or the announcement of a fellow officer’s death are forms of secondary trauma.

Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma is being exposed to other people’s traumas, which in turn causes you to change your view on humanity and the world. For example, school shootings and terrorist attacks vicariously affect all of us.

Working in corrections, officers are exposed to all three types of traumas on a daily basis. This exposure can raise stress levels, which can have a profound impact on a person’s ability to lead a healthy life.

So, you might ask, is there a positive way to respond to trauma and reduce your stress? The answer is yes, but it requires a conscious effort to build the resiliency and positive coping mechanisms required to have a sustainable career in corrections.

How to protect officer mental health

During pre-service, as well as in-service annual training, staff members need up-to-date training on personal mental health. These trainings must include:

  • Positive and healthy ways to de-stress;
  • Current statistics on health issues for correctional professionals;
  • How to recognize when a fellow staff member is at his/her breaking point;
  • Acknowledgment that it is acceptable to discuss feelings of despair.

Correctional leadership must provide education and training for correctional officers to enable them to know how to handle traumatic events, build resiliency and use proactive coping mechanisms.

As an employer, you expect your staff to work their assigned shift, work holidays and weekends, cover staffing shortages, respond to incidents, complete paperwork in a timely fashion, resume your post after an incident, and continue to run normal operations. You expect COs to “do their job” incident after incident. In order to do that, every correctional facility needs to implement initiatives that are designed specifically to address the health and wellness of their employees. Having a department that promotes a healthy, positive lifestyle also promotes a sustainable career in corrections.

Jenna Curren, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in criminal justice studies. As chair of a CJ advisory board, Jenna actively partners with members of the community to integrate current students into internships and prospective law enforcement careers. Prior to working in academics, Jenna held various custody and treatment positions and was a lieutenant for the Connecticut Department of Correction. Throughout her tenure, she supervised men, women, youth and mental health offenders. A C.E.R.T and honor guard member, as well as a training officer, Jenna has 10 years of experience in the criminal justice and human services fields.