The iceberg that could sink the correctional ‘Titanic’
Addressing the biggest issue impacting correctional officer safety in the New Year
Sometimes, the real threat is hiding in plain sight, evading our attention while we’re engrossed in the assumption that we are plowing ahead safely toward our destination.
In correctional work environments, there is a very real threat that has been grave for years, relentlessly grinding staff down, and extremely so since 2020. This threat is undermining the foundation of correctional operations while hiding in plain sight because it is accepted “as the way things are” in correctional work environments today.
This threat is equivalent to the iceberg that sank the “Titanic.” And we have fewer excuses for not addressing it head-on because it is much more visible than the actual iceberg was to the crew of the hapless “Titanic.”
The correctional iceberg
I pose to you that the correctional iceberg that is threatening to sink the correctional “Titanic” is staff’s relentless partial chronic sleep deprivation.
Due to dire nationwide correctional staff shortages, with agencies operating with frighteningly high levels of staff vacancies, custody/security staff (and perhaps medical employees) may work mandatory overtime several times weekly, for months and even years on end. 
The result is that these employees may sleep on average for 3-4 hours per 24-hour period several days each week, much less than the recommended 7+ hours.  These sleeping conditions constitute partial chronic sleep deprivation.
This type of sleep deprivation is partial, as opposed to complete, because staff can still get some sleep in a 24-hour period. And it is chronic, because it goes on for months, and even for years.
These living conditions constitute a mission-critical threat on two levels, as they involve the deleterious impact of partial chronic sleep deprivation on (1) staff’s health, and (2) their functioning.
We are not even addressing the equally as important issue of sleep quality here. We are only looking at quantity of sleep time in this article. And we are not addressing the detrimental outcomes of excessive mandatory overtime and the associated sleep deprivation on staff’s family life.
1. Impact on staff’s health
Sleep is a biological necessity for body organs to function properly, and, because of that, it is an indisputable essential for physical and psychological health and functioning.
A recent study  reported that for 50-year-old participants, sleeping 5 hours or less per night was associated with a disconcerting 30% increase in their risk of developing serious multiple chronic diseases over time than for those who slept at least 7 hours per night. For 70-year-old participants, that risk rose to a devastating 40%.
Participants in that study were found to be at higher risk for developing diseases such as diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, depression, arthritis, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. These are not new findings. They merely expand on a plethora of prior data on the subject of the consequences of insufficient sleep. [4,5]
Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, 1948, of the United Nations, states that people have a “right to a standard of living adequate for [their] health and well-being.” And the World Health Organization, in its 1946 Constitution, states that “[t]he enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.”
Could the partial chronic sleep deprivation of correctional staff due to their working conditions border on a human rights violation, in addition to being a serious detriment to their physical and psychological health? 
2. Impact on staff’s functioning
When we are significantly sleep-deprived, parts of our brain go into sleep mode even while the rest of our brain is awake.  An apt way to describe this would be that, when we are sleep deprived, “We are not running on all eight cylinders.” Our eyes may be open, and we may be standing up, but important parts of our thinking brain are succumbing to microbursts of sleep.
It is no surprise then that partial chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with cognitive impairments, such as the ability to pay attention, react to stimuli, plan, problem-solve, reason our way through decision-making processes, and remember information. Partial chronic sleep deprivation is associated with the deterioration of mood and impulse control, as well. Another recent study reinforced these types of concerns in relation to shift work of correctional employees. 
What this means is that essentially correctional agencies may be staffed with cognitively and emotionally compromised employees who are quite possibly also becoming progressively more unwell physically, due to partial chronic sleep deprivation.
Staff talk about struggling to fight off “brain fog” and “cobwebs in their brain” due to their suffering from insufficient sleep, acknowledging that sometimes they forget to perform steps essential for the facility’s security, such as locking a door, or they do not make rounds as they are supposed to do, because they are exhausted. Other staff report tripping and falling down stairs or running into walls, due to not being fully awake, or being unable to resist falling asleep at their desks. To compensate, some staff sleep in their cars after their shifts or rent a motel room instead of trying to drive home, because they know that they are unable to stay awake, in spite of how many cups of coffee or energy drinks they may consume. Staff even mention that incarcerated individuals in their care notice the staff’s extreme fatigue, and tell them that they feel unsafe because of that, and because of the ongoing short staffing.
And tragically, we periodically receive news from across the nation of staff who have been killed or who became paralyzed, invalids for life, due to motor vehicle accidents, or who killed others in motor vehicle crashes while on their way home after yet another mandated double shift.
Recently an administrator exclaimed to me during our meeting, “We are working our people to death! Your job is not supposed to kill you!”
And yet these functionally impaired employees are tasked with highly challenging work duties that are difficult to perform well even under the best of circumstances. At times they have to make critical, even life-and-death decisions. They are expected to implement interpersonal skills to deescalate tensions and to promote prosocial behaviors and rehabilitative practices with incarcerated persons, such as active listening and motivational interviewing. These tasks require presence of mind, sound judgment, cognitive flexibility, capacity for empathy and self-control, which we know are impaired due to partial chronic sleep deprivation.
We cannot expect flawless professional conduct and skillful interpersonal interactions from sleep-deprived staff, at least not on a consistent basis. How many excessive uses of force or other preventable clashes may have been exacerbated by exhausted staff whose self-control “brakes” failed due to sleep deprivation, in similar ways to their failure to apply their vehicles’ brakes while driving home after yet another double shift?
And the negative ripple effects of staff malfunctioning on the job are much broader than individual exchanges and isolated facilities. As was shared with us, “when you factor in the non-correctional/non-Mission-directed interactions that staff have with offenders as a result of this intense fatigue, you are now impacting 2,000,000 people and their families beyond the 400,000+ staff and their families. In other words, our communities.” 
What can be done?
We realize that many correctional administrators across the nation agonize over these horrific realities that are outside of their control, and are doing whatever is in their professional power and in their budgets to reverse these working conditions for their subordinates.
Yet, in spite of their tireless and creative efforts, they may be unable to attract applicants for their correctional positions (thus further requiring current employees to work overtime). Or they succeed in hiring new staff but are unable to keep them for reasons that can range from low pay and benefits to abusive workforce cultures to staff feeling fundamentally unsafe on the job.
So, what may be viable answers to this threat looming over correctional systems, so that staff’s sleep deprivation does not end up being the iceberg that sinks the correctional “Titanic”?
Here are three suggestions that are easy to discuss, but will take much strategizing and investing in order to make them succeed for the long haul.
1. Continue to determinedly prioritize the hiring of additional employees to decrease the continual necessity for mandated overtime shifts.
This can be facilitated through notable increases in pay and benefits, including paid time off, hiring bonuses and retention bonuses. To be able to attract new employees, correctional agencies must be able to compete with other employers, especially other law enforcement agencies, as opposed to being viewed by new hires merely as a stepping stone on their way to law enforcement agencies that pay better and that provide better benefits.
2. Improve the workplace culture to increase the likelihood of retaining employees.
I personally know good employees who left correctional agencies due to harassment by other staff that remained unchecked, due to some staff’s ways of treating the incarcerated that went beyond the pale, and due to supervisors’ unsupportive or antagonistic leadership styles.
Improvements must target what Desert Waters calls staff’s Big 7 needs: physical safety, psychological safety, trust, power, respect, connection and meaning.
Culture improvement efforts are definitely a marathon endeavor, and not a sprint, and require administrative commitment, financial investment and systematic strategizing.
One way that such efforts can be engaged in is through training that targets the health of the workforce cultures. This type of culture-shaping training needs to be customized to address correctional culture issues for both frontline staff and supervisors, as both have a vital role to play in shaping their culture.
And these efforts cannot be based on a “one-and-done” approach. Rather, such training must be periodic and repetitive, implementing regular “hands-on” activities and practical interventions, and accompanied by “quality control” evaluations that assess workforce culture improvement. Yes, that is a lot of work, but it is much preferable to the current working conditions and their potential consequences.
3. Establish policies that are commensurate with recent changes in the management of the incarcerated to increase staff’s perception of their physical safety, and, by doing so, increase the likelihood of retaining employees.
Criminal justice reform is desperately needed in the United States. It is needed to improve living conditions for the incarcerated. It is needed to improve the outcomes of incarceration. And it is needed to improve the health of correctional environments for all stakeholders.
A look into the Norwegian prison model gives further insight into reform options. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to experience their system firsthand during a recent tour in participation with the One Voice United delegation.
For the sake of equity, prison reform that improves the treatment of the incarcerated must be balanced out with demonstrable new measures that support staff safety. These new policies are needed to take into consideration the possible impact on staff safety that is brought about by operational changes regarding the management of the incarcerated. It is not enough to change one part of the equation; the remaining parts must be adjusted accordingly.
Such new policies and measures may include increased staffing, additional staff training, and alternative disciplinary and other management tools for dealing with the incarcerated.
In stark contrast with correctional systems in the United States, the Norwegian prison model boasts a ratio of one correctional officer to 10 incarcerated persons. The Norwegian Training Academy for new recruits is a fully paid 2-year learning experience. And, in Norway, incarcerated persons can earn incentives for good behavior and attitude improvement; these include being able to go back to their communities for a few hours or days or stay at a cottage with their family on prison grounds for a few days.
Staff are not likely to remain working in correctional environments where they perceive that their lives are seriously threatened. Staff perceive such threats in light of reduced corrective consequences for serious infractions perpetrated by incarcerated persons and without concomitant increases in staffing or effective management tools that secure safety for all stakeholders. Staff need to know that their administrators “have their backs,” and that they have effective measures in place to address their needs and their plight.
Again, failure to retain staff due to inadequate working environments once again increases the need for current staff to work mandated double shifts and only perpetuates steering the ship in the direction of the sleep deprivation iceberg, sometimes until existing staff also leave or die.
A few days ago, we received these comments from an anonymous correctional officer:
I just don’t know what to do anymore ... I just can’t do it ... I can’t sit and watch my friends die around me with complete lack of concern from administrators ... The lack of concern for our well-being and the overbearing concern for the well-being of the inmates is the problem… We’re dedicated officers who, yes, hate the mandates because they keep us from family and we miss a ton of very important moments in our children’s lives, yet we still do our jobs … The biggest issue is our lives are on the line because administrators don’t know what it’s like to be inside the prison ... Most have very little inside experience and have no idea what we deal with every day … Most are just worried about backlash from the big guys who run the facility from the safety of their offices.”
Even if these comments sound exaggerated or unfounded to you, please take into consideration that perceptions such as these are not rare. We have come across similar staff comments multiple times in our surveys, and through other means of communication by staff from across the country.
Also, please remember that perceptions can have the same impact on choices people make as actual reality. Perceptions can cause staff to quit their jobs just as much as actual facts can. Therefore, staff’s concerns need to be taken seriously and responded to appropriately, if administrators want staff to commit to stay and work at their agency.
Radical and creative measures are needed to eliminate or at least reduce staff’s partial chronic sleep deprivation due to short staffing. Only radical and creative measures can address this very real and devastating iceberg of a threat to staff’s health and functioning, and to the quality and effectiveness of correctional agencies’ operations.
We want the correctional “Titanic” to continue on its voyage safely, and even to improve the quality of its journey, not to sink on the way to its destination. We CANNOT stay on the current course. Iceberg ahead!
* The Titanic analogy was brought to my attention by Corporal William Young.
** Thanks to Daria Mayotte for her contribution of editorial comments.
3. Sabia S, et al. (2022). Association of sleep duration at age 50, 60, and 70 years with risk of multimorbidity in the UK: 25-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study. PLoS Med 19(10): e1004109.
6. Morton G. Sleep … Who Needs It‽ The Complexities Of Excessive Mandatory Overtime And Sleep Deprivation. Correctional Oasis, March 2022.
7. Vyazovskiy V, et al. (2011). Local sleep in awake rats. Nature, 472:443–447.
8. Cavallari JM, et al. (2021). Working Time Characteristics and Mental Health among Corrections and Transportation Workers. Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 432–445.
9. Morton, G. Emailed communication, 8 January 2022.