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Corrections Stresses & Mental Health Messes

The mental health crisis within the corrections industry is at an all-time high. This blog highlights the stressors and statistics that got us to where we stand today. You will learn that this is a problem that can’t wait any longer to be addressed. It’s a boiling glass kettle about to explode.
Mark Cowley
Mark Cowley
Kenzie Koch | Marketing Specialist

Mental health is difficult to talk about, especially when it is correlated with a deadly crisis that is rippling across the corrections industry. This is a heavy, uncomfortable discussion that has several layers to unpack. Most of which, we are not professionally qualified to deconstruct. However, given the GUARDIAN RFID team has over 200 years of experience within the corrections field, we can relate to those who feel as if their world is falling apart. And if that doesn’t help, we at least hope that you hear us when we say, “You are not alone.”

Let’s rewind a few steps to discuss why the topic of mental health is so challenging to talk about within the corrections industry. Most would point their finger at the awful unwritten rule that corrections professionals carry with them throughout their career: showing emotion = showing weakness. In order to talk about mental health, you have to open up and talk about feelings, emotions, and vulnerabilities. In fact, you need to be vulnerable to be able to discuss this topic in the first place. Some may portray the word “vulnerable” negatively as it can be perceived as letting your guard down and being defenseless against danger. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” 

To get to the root of understanding why this unspoken rule of showing emotion and being vulnerable is “bad,” we first have to acknowledge why this rule was built in the first place. Officers don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable and they can’t be influenced by the things that they are exposed to during their shift. Day in and day out, correctional staff face stressors that over time become embedded in their minds causing them to be in constant “fight or flight” mode. From the moment they walk through the doors of their facility and strap on their boots, they have their guard up. They have to set their mental state on autopilot in preparation for what they will be tackled with that day. During their shift, they will likely see fights, blood, and suicide. This is a daily occurrence for some officers. Feelings and emotions that were once able to be talked about freely are now stored away behind a barricade that was gradually built up. Without the proper mental check-ins and communicating when you need a shoulder to lean on, that barricade can grow higher and stronger and less resistant to collapse. That mental barrier can get to a point where it can’t be torn down without extreme demolition, unfortunately, in many cases, this is suicide.

One study that focused on the stress of corrections, Families, Officers & Corrections, reported surprising statistics following the study of 3,800 correctional officers in 2001. In this study, the author, John B. Rogers PhD., wanted to learn about the stress, mental health, and risk behaviors of correctional officers. In analyzing the physical health of this group, Rogers discovered that approximately 16% reported having trouble catching their breath or shortness of breath at least once a month while 30% had experienced a change in their appetites and feeling nervous or fidgety. When analyzing the levels of depression and suicidal thoughts, Rogers found staggering levels:

  • 25% of correctional officers reported feeling a lack of emotional responsiveness

  • 20% reported an inability to find pleasure in anything

  • 13% feel hopelessness and/or worthlessness. 

  • 50% experience having no energy or being excessively tired

  • 44% reported frequent headaches with 12% having monthly migraines

  • Almost 20% reported that they felt depressed at least once to a few times a month.

  • 3% reported thoughts of ending their lives at least once a month and an additional 6% reported such thoughts 1-2 times in the past six months

Note that this study was conducted and had its information released in 2001. It is now twenty-one years later, and it has only gotten worse. 

Earlier this year in May, One Voice United held its first-ever Blue Ribbon Commission that spoke on topics surrounding the correctional staff wellness crisis sweeping throughout the industry. The commissioners in this hearing came from all walks of life but were directly connected to the correctional industry. While some had first-hand experience in working behind the walls, others came from disparate backgrounds including mental health, business leadership, and faith-based organizations. No matter the difference in upbringing, each commissioner had a deep-rooted passion for fixing the crisis. Commissioners took testimonies from each of the speakers and listened to their accounts of how their lives have been impacted by the mental health crisis in corrections. It’s fair to assume that anyone who either attended or watched the recording of the Blue Ribbon Commission left feeling an overpowering sense of urgency, let alone tears in their eyes. It was reported that an average of three correctional officers die by suicide each week.  

To fully understand why correctional officers commit or attempt to commit suicide, law enforcement agencies across the nation need to collectively see the value of reporting cases. On June 16, 2020, President Trump signed the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act allowing law enforcement agencies, as of January 01, 2022, to voluntarily submit data on officer deaths. The information is limited to circumstances and events that occurred beforehand, the general location and demographic information, the occupational category (job assignment) of the officer, and the method used in each law enforcement officer's suicide or attempted suicide. As sad as it is, this Act gives facilities an opportunity to look out for trends in any of the cases they have to report. If you have been in corrections for some time, you can probably think of a team member who had some sort of crisis. Did you report it? Why not? Because it was none of your business? Because you were fearful of what the agency would do to the team member? Because you were fearful of what would happen to you if your team found out you were the one who reported it? There are a thousand reasons why you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing that kind of information. However, if suicide was a result of that crisis, you will feel a lot less comfortable knowing that you didn’t say anything to anyone.

During my time as a jail administrator, one of the hardest-hitting events I had to work through was the death of one of my own. She was a bright and talented person. Those close to her were close to the agency. For months, and even today, I go back and think, “Did I miss any warning signs? Were there indicators either I or my staff should have caught?” Trying to work through this caused a crisis of my own. However, I trusted people that worked in the medical and counseling fields that I could speak with in confidence. I realize how fortunate I am to have those resources as most people do not have that advantage.

Mark Cowley
Jail Operations

We all know that correctional staff doesn't have a reputation for coming forward and asking for help, even if they’re deeply suffering. They don’t want to admit they are struggling as they don’t want to be deemed unfit for their job. So, instead of reaching out for help, they remain silent and drowning in despair. The fear-based conception that is engrained in their minds is the reason why suicide sometimes wins. This reason alone shows beyond doubt that team members need to look after each other and be there for one another. If you’re wondering what you can do to help those who are silently suffering, let each one of your partners know that you are a shoulder to lean on or an ear that will listen if they need it. Most of them will probably say that they don't need it, but even if they do deep down, at least they know that you put your best foot forward and are there for them if needed. 

While there is not a “one size fits all” solution, there has fortunately been an increase in the amount of attention being drawn to correctional staff mental health and wellness in recent years. Studies concluded that there is a great need for mental health assistance in the corrections community and as a result, a number of local agencies are bringing this crisis to light and working to positively affect change in the industry with education, intervention, support, and crisis training for staff. We’ve all heard the phrase, “If you have a question, someone else probably has it too.” That applies here as well. If you’re struggling, one of your partners probably is as well. Be the change that can prevent another statistic and don’t be afraid to ask for help or extend a hand to someone who needs help. If you’ve read this far, you’ve allowed yourself to be vulnerable enough to learn more about this dark topic. Please know that GUARDIAN RFID has your back, and we will do everything in our power to get your team home safe.

Mark Cowley is the Director of JailOps at GUARDIAN RFID and uses his 34 years of corrections experience to help jail staff and administrators overcome the challenges of operating and working in a correctional environment.