Roundtable: How the corrections profession was challenged in 2023
This may be the year of correctional burnout
Our nation’s prisons and jails faced a series of significant challenges in 2023. We witnessed the effects of widespread burnout among correctional staff over the past 12 months, as facilities continued to struggle with recruitment and retention. We asked our experts to provide strategies and solutions that prisons and jails can implement in 2024 and beyond to address these challenges.
- Mike Cantrell, host of The Prison Officer Podcast, has been in corrections for over 28 years.
- Lt. Gary Cornelius, retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
- Craig Gottschalk is an assistant ombudsman for the Nebraska Ombudsman Office
- Leandro “Leo” Perez, Jr. is a supervisor for the Hidalgo County (Texas) Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
- Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado.
- Gary York worked as a senior prison inspector for 12 years.
Corrections salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living
Salaries have been and will always be the biggest issues in corrections, community supervision, parole and probation. The rate of inflation has not helped our profession. I speak to probation officers every time I present at conferences. Every one of the officers tells me the same thing: they are struggling to cover everyday expenses. Between the rise in costs of homes, vehicles, car insurance, tuition and groceries, the struggles are real. For the past 18 years, I have worked in the field of community corrections, and for the past 18 years, I had a part-time job. I would not be able to survive in today’s economy without my part-time job. And for a professional who had to go to a university and obtain a four-year degree just to apply for a position in community corrections, that is very unfortunate. Even as wage growth rose to its highest in years during the pandemic, officers in many counties and states saw little to no major increase in their pay. If there is a challenge worth some type of research, the incomes of all who work in corrections should be researched and adjusted in order to keep pace with the rising costs of everyday services. — Leo Perez
Staff morale is a two-way street
During my travels this year at different county and state correctional facilities I was informed correctional officers are leaving the job in large numbers. The main complaint was consistent: “Our supervisors do not care about us or back us up.” While speaking face to face with supervisors and frontline staff I have concluded that the morale problems in any facility is a two-way street. The finger-pointing must stop and working as a team must begin now.
What are some of the front-line officers saying?
Frontline officers want a supervisor who will take the time to listen and consider their point of view. Officers respect a leader who gets up from behind the desk and checks on them and communicates with them. A leader who will back them up when they are right and teach and guide them when they are wrong. This helps everyone become a team player. One big issue I found is that officers do not like favoritism in the workplace. It lowers morale and makes for a toxic work environment. Preferential treatment or leaders who favor a specific officer does not sit well with other frontline staff. Officers respect a leader who treats everyone fair and impartial. Every officer is different due to personality and cultural beliefs, but everyone understands and respects fairness and equality. I also learned from speaking with officers that the pay scale is very important, but it is not the key factor that holds them to the job. The key factor is how well and how fair they are treated by their supervisors and upper management. Trust and allowing officers to do their job (correctly of course) is another issue officers have concerns about.
What are some correctional supervisors saying?
Supervisors work under stressful conditions just as the frontline officers. Assigning tasks, training officers, evaluating the work of officers, maintaining officer well-being, and controlling the inmate population is a huge responsibility. Officers in many cases feel the supervisors have a cake-walk job but in reality many officers have no idea what responsibilities a supervisor has. Supervisors have to deal with not only a long list of responsibilities including paperwork but with workplace behaviors. Officer gossiping causing anger and aggressive issues, excessive absenteeism in an already short-staffed environment, officer procrastination and disorganization issues. Not to mention emergency issues with the inmate population and dealing with inmate family calls and complaints. Many supervisors feel the front-line staff have no idea what they deal with on a daily basis working between the front line and upper management.
Let’s fix the problem together! It’s a two-way street.
When I hear an officer say a leader’s job is to protect me from the stupidity of management bells go off in my mind. This officer is clearly on the wrong track and needs guidance for a better understanding of what a leader does. When I hear a supervisor say a certain officer has no chance of making it and needs to be gone, it brings to mind the question; Have you been counseling, guiding, and training this officer in an attempt to save him or her?
Good leaders and good officers work together as a team and set an example for other officers not on board to follow. Ensuring everyone understands the mission as a group and as individuals is vital to everyone’s success. Communication and interaction with each other are the key.
When people feel safe enough to raise their hands and say, “I made a mistake” or “I need some help.” The leader has created an environment where people feel safe to be themselves.” Simon Sinek
— Gary York
Doing more with less
Stress has been described as the outcome of demands exceeding available resources. This statement captures the biggest challenge facing correctional agencies today.
Due to conditions outside of their control, correctional agencies may have been operating for years under the motto of “doing more with less.”
What is problematic about this approach? To put it simply, “doing more with less” is unsustainable, resulting in staff malfunctioning and agency malfunctioning. If resources are insufficient for shoring up burdens, and conditions continue unabated, whole systems eventually buckle under the excess weight. As one sergeant sarcastically told me, “Doing more with less is doing less with less.”
The outcomes of such malfunctioning at work are many. Individually, chronic stress and partial chronic sleep deprivation caused by mandatory overtime disrupt brain functioning, and decimate health and wellness. Operationally, policies are not followed; mistakes are made; accidents happen; angry outbursts and other inflammatory reactions replace de-escalating responses; unprofessional conduct abounds; lawsuits ensue. Consequences of corrections fatigue snowball. People die.
Agencies have also been requiring that staff focus on rehabilitative efforts of justice-involved persons in their care, a necessary but Herculean feat under the best of circumstances. For rehabilitation to have a chance to happen, key ingredients are needed, starting with staff safety, training and wellness. When employees operate chronically under-staffed, under-trained and exhausted, and while navigating considerable policy changes about the management of violent individuals, veritable rehabilitation remains a pipe dream. As one employee told me, staff are “being hit over the head with unachievable expectations. Make the most violent people behave like saints, with just good vibes.”
The end result is that all who are touched by the correctional system — staff, justice-involved persons and their respective families — may end up harmed in some fashion.
So, correctional staff with years of invaluable experience disengage or leave, doing the minimum, or opting for other jobs, or taking early retirement. And the word gets out about the extremely stressful and dangerous working conditions, discouraging potential candidates from applying and further exacerbating the staffing crisis.
What can be done if this noble and much-needed profession is to be salvaged and advanced? In 1950, Norway was at a similar crossroads. Decision-makers opted to tear down the old malfunctioning system and renew their thinking about the purpose of correctional systems. They ended up choosing to invest in the front end, starting with staff selection, education and working conditions, and treating custody/security work as a true and respectable profession. They reasoned that even though this approach was expensive at the front end, the long-term savings would make the cost very much worth it. Today the Norwegian prison system is a light in the darkness, recognized worldwide as a best practices model. Similarly, good places to start in the United States begin with educating top levels of our legislature about correctional realities and investing in improved working conditions, including staff numbers and staff training. May the resources finally match and even exceed the demands.
— Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC
The year of correctional burnout
For many in the medical profession, 2022 was known as the “Year of Burnout.” Medical staff who worked since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were overwhelmed, working long hours, and making life-and-death decisions regularly at work. While these medical professionals were faced with these stressors every day, the ability to decompress, relax with family and friends, or just spend some time doing something other than work was removed from them by a lack of “free time” or “non-work time.”
Most correctional professionals can sympathize with these issues, after all, we face many of the same problems. Shift work, overtime and understaffing have caused the same lack of decompression time faced by most medical professionals.
I teach classes around the country and get to talk to many of our correctional staff every week. I hear the recurring theme of “burnout” so much that I am naming 2023 as the “Year of Correctional Burnout.” I have spoken to staff who have worked three, four, or even five double shifts in one week. The amount of sick leave usage is up and the “shift pizza party” has become a joke.
Overtime is also off the charts. The Boston Globe reported that more than 30 Massachusetts correctional officers made over $300,000 in overtime dollars in 2022, and two officers made more than $400,000. That is a staggering amount of overtime for anyone to work, but I have to be honest, my mind goes to what level of work are you getting out of an officer who has logged more than 160 hours in two weeks. Are security checks being accomplished correctly? Are staff sleeping on the job after more than 16 hours of continuous work? This sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Unlike posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), burnout is not recognized as a mental disorder. Despite that, many mental health professionals recognize burnout as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Many of these feelings already exist for the professionals who work in our prisons and jails. Being a correctional officer can be tough on the best days, so adding these pressures and feelings are only exacerbating an already fragile mental health situation.
For the employee who is feeling the effects of burnout, the best advice is to prioritize self-care both physically and mentally. Eat good food and avoid fast food as much as possible. When you do get the chance to sleep, make the best out of it. Buy “black-out” curtains, go to a quiet back room of your house, and try to resist napping unless necessary. Even if just for a few minutes, find activities you enjoy doing. Can’t take a day off to go fishing? Then spend 30 minutes at the pond in the local park.
If you’re having trouble finding time for these activities, give yourself a week to assess exactly how you’re spending your time. This can be done on a piece of paper or journal. Record each time you do any activity including work or sleep. Then rate how you felt, and how valuable this activity was. This will help you find opportunities to increase your investment in those activities that boost your energy; and make space for restful, positive time away from work.
Due to low recruitment rates and staff retention being at an all-time low, administrations feel trapped by circumstances beyond their control. However, some things can be done to alleviate some of the stresses and pressures that contribute to the feelings of burnout among personnel:
- First, no more “pizza parties” at work. Burnout is not a morale issue. This is a decompression issue, and staff cannot and should not decompress at work. Staff need time outside of work. They need sleep and time to see their family.
- Implement flexible work schedules. There is no way to run a prison without 24/7 staffing, but look outside of the traditional “9 to 5” workday. Can some work be done on other shifts? Can production on other shifts relieve the need for some overtime?
- Allow staff to split or flex work overtime. Maybe a staff member cannot work a full eight hours of overtime, but maybe they can work four. Another staff member may be able to work the other four hours. Yes, this will take extra work on the roster or schedule, but your staff are worth the extra effort.
- Allow staff to make recommendations on how to approach flexible staffing. They often have very good ideas.
- Take a look at shift swapping as a way to reduce the use of sick leave. Many staff use sick leave as a replacement for the time off they cannot request. For those supervisors who are tech-savvy, there are even a few apps for your phone out there such as https://workforce.com/solutions/prevent-call-outs.
- Cross-training employees assures that all employees are eligible to work overtime. With a larger pool of qualified employees, you can spread the overtime around, relieving the pressure on those few who are qualified to do the job.
Reducing overtime and stress on your employees is a plus for everyone involved. Corrections will always be a tough job, but with the proper management w,e can help our employees prevent burnout and remain committed to the important work they do. Let’s make 2024 the year “Corrections Conquered Burnout.”
— Mike Cantrell
Trainers must think outside the box
As a corrections trainer, I think that the problems of short staffing and meeting training requirements continue to be a problem for corrections. In many of my classes, there are empty seats due to correctional facilities not being able to send staff members to training sessions. Academy directors tell me that “the jails are hurting.” Corrections agencies must do a better job of publicizing corrections as a “noble profession.” We must “train to retain.” After hiring the best people that we can, from the academies to the supervisors, working in corrections must be portrayed as an important component of the criminal justice system. Hiring bonuses and incentives to be hired help, but from the time a recruit enters the academy, he or she should be shown that corrections can be a field where new skills can be learned, and through good public relations, the job is viewed favorably by the citizens.
Trainers have challenges. The field is rapidly changing, with staff having to securely manage special populations, such as transgender offenders and the mentally ill. As we enter 2024, trainers must think “outside the box” and use technology and a variety of topics to make training worthwhile and to meet requirements. Curriculum must be constantly updated, and staff should be given as many opportunities as possible to become instructors. The field needs them. If staff is to attend training in this age of short staffing, agencies must get the best “bang for their buck.”
— Gary Cornelius
Who’s next to serve?
I believe the concern weighing most heavily on the minds of corrections officers in 2023 is, “Who will serve next?”
In this day and age of defund the police, challenging the criminal justice system and lost value of community service in the general population, officers wonder who can be found to fill their shift, staff their facility and stand the onslaught thrown their way by the public and the inmates they are charged to serve.
Recruitment efforts at facilities nationwide are taking innovative and unprecedented strategies to identify, qualify and prepare individuals to meet the challenge of the most chaotic and at times dangerous careers available. Increased salaries, sign-on bonuses, retention bonuses, recruitment stipends — money initiates the interest but marketing the culture, the service opportunity and career potential for corrections and law enforcement is required to close the deal.
Once on board in a recruitment class the task of onboarding is still steep as most recruiting classes lose between 5%-45% of recruits prior to their first assigned shift as “certified” officers. I have seen reports of classes of 1 or 2 officers remaining following the academy, shadowing and field training components of officer certification that started with 8-20 recruits.
Is it a lack of appreciation for the service aspect of corrections or something else? There is not an eternal pool of applicants that continually refreshes itself with idealistic souls wishing to serve their fellow man. It is a trickle of committed souls who choose to stand the line, absorb the onslaught of disrespect and determine that there is a higher reason to put themselves in jeopardy.
Mandatory overtime, short staffing, over-stressed officers and disengaged administrations are each a symptom of this system of service nearing the breaking point.
The reality is that each officer, administrator, county sheriff and jail manager must take a personal commitment to identify, recruit and pursue the best of the best. It is a process lacking the tools, the resources and innovative paradigms to attract, lure and capture those souls of character and commitment who choose to serve.
I have no answers. I just know the strategies and frameworks currently implemented fall short of fulfilling the vacuum that is being created.
We must find new access routes to those “willing” and chosen to serve.
— Craig Gottschalk