Unlocking the Future: The Path to Revitalizing a Strained Corrections Workforce

This article is part of MACo’s Policy Deep Dive series, where expert policy analysts explore and explain the top county policy issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Policy Deep Dives.

Detention centers fulfill a unique role in the public safety sphere as the rehabilitative arm in the process by helping incarcerated individuals avoid recidivism. It is unlike most other careers because these facilities operate at all hours of everyday and must be able to rely on a robust and talented group of individuals to carry out the job. But research over the last few decades has shown a severe decline in the mental health and wellbeing of corrections officers. Modernizing wellness and trauma response services for these professionals has the potential to mitigate some of the damage and hopefully establish a more appealing trajectory for a workforce in dire need of revitalization.

The Trouble with a Career in Corrections

While there are a number of administrative roles within detention centers, the corrections officers interact with incarcerated individuals most hours of every work day. They play the role of therapist, friend, and disciplinarian, often interchangeably, and with vulnerable populations, which exposes them to second-degree trauma in daily intervals. At the same time they are at risk of exposure to first-degree trauma as the victims of physical and emotional abuse inflicted by detainees who are experiencing crisis.

Research has shown for many years now that the experience of these professionals is taking a significant mental and physical toll on their wellbeing. It has been widely reported that corrections officers have an average life expectancy of 16 years less than the general population as well as higher rates of depression, PTSD, and suicide. The Vera Institute offers a wealth of statistics on this reality.

Retention and burnout amongst this group was a problem before the pandemic, but has since been compounded by workforce shortages that have arisen in its wake. Facilities are being forced to rely on the good, long-term staff they have even more under these circumstances. Working 16 hours shifts multiple times in one week is a regular occurrence, and has employees in a high stress situation, clocking 60-70 weekly hours in some instances. This leads to longer exposure in consistent intervals to the kinds of stressors discussed here, with an insufficient amount of time for recovery before being re-exposed.

Managing Mental Health and Wellness for Officers

Some of the standard costs of poorly managed mental health are patience, composure, clear thinking, and proactiveness. These are often replaced by fatigue, irritability, compulsiveness, and confusion, which can be not only detrimental but fatal in the public safety setting. A major pilar, particularly for retention, is appropriate time off to recover from the day to day stress of the job, and this is a key factor whether an officer experienced a first-hand traumatic incident in the course of duty or not. This is paramount to ensuring the quality of work they produce on the job is high.

In the case of an incident, staying on active duty should not be a short-term option, particularly because officers are trained to have a sense of duty that often requires they put the needs of others above their own; therefore, they are significantly less likely to admit they need to recover. These policies have the potential to help officers avoid burnout, which is a major barrier to keeping good, long-term staff.  Carrying enough employees to avoid continuous double shifts will help officers re-focus on the fulfillment they feel in a job where they are able to help vulnerable populations.

A second pillar to officer wellness is peer support groups, which are considered a best practice for the mental health of correctional employees. When done properly, these programs are shown to have a positive effect on relationships in the workplace, which is essential for individuals in managing their day-to-day interactions. An article written by a former officer for a public safety journal outlines the six foundational elements of establishing a peer support program for corrections officers which are:

      1. Confidentiality
      2. Administrative support
      3. Mental health professional (MHP) support and guidance
      4. Personnel selection
      5. Training
      6. Reviews and audits

A third major component to increasing wellness amongst corrections officers is to build some of the maintenance requirements for the job into the workday. Good physical fitness is a standard for entry into the role and is required to be maintained over the course of a career. Working out is also beneficial to relieve stress and enhance cognitive functioning. It can also be done in group settings that help build a sense of connection with the larger team. Making this component a part of the workday at scheduled intervals not only gives employees hours back in personal time but helps with team building amongst staff, increases brain health, and effectively maintains the required physical standards.

Wellness Relies on Numbers so Recruitment Needs to Evolve

Some of the applications above would serve to keep good candidates in the role longer but a steady stream of new candidates is vital. The future of the profession will hinge on the ability to appeal to younger generations but also explore candidates who do not fall on the typical corrections career trajectory that has been a theme of the past. For instance, corrections officers can come from a variety of backgrounds, but there are a few sectors that see the most crossover, which are often former police officers coming into corrections as well as former military. This is a natural transition because the physical and psychological standards for these jobs are similar.

Broadening the recruitment pool to other disciplines such as students majoring in psychology, sociology, and other health sciences has the potential to bring a skill set to corrections that even more closely serves the goal of rehabilitation. A Route-Fifty article earlier this year touched on this exact strategy:

The aim is to better market the profession both to the public and to a much broader spectrum of potential employees. “Someone with a degree in sociology could be a great corrections officer,” says Joyce. “In my mind, it’s always been about helping people.”

Work-Life Balance will Be Non-Negotiable for Future Success

In looking to the future, the major non-negotiable component is work-life balance. This is because it is a key element for younger generations that could be achieved by applying many of the strategies discussed above, in addition to shoring up existing talent. This is what drives engagement in a career path for younger generations, even without a hybrid or remote option. Careers in corrections are known by candidates to include the potential to work nights, weekends, and holidays. This is not a problem typically as long as officers are not working every night, weekend, and holiday.

The ability to anticipate schedules has been complicated by inadequate recruitment tactics and increases in turnover, which is why a long-term health and wellness strategy that addresses these problems is so important. Corrections officers work in a public safety profession that requires a number of sacrifices. But the fulfillment of doing a hard job while supporting people in their weakest moments, like incarceration, is a significant reward if health and wellness policies can help these professionals achieve that satisfaction.