Fighting the Enemy Within: Helping Officers Deal with Stress

By Childress, Rebecca; Talucci, Vincent et al. | Corrections Today, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Fighting the Enemy Within: Helping Officers Deal with Stress

Childress, Rebecca, Talucci, Vincent, Wood, Jennifer, Corrections Today

"Every year, correctional officers from across the country gather at a monument in Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C., to honor our brothers and sisters who have fallen in the line of duty," says John Carr, clinical supervisor of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections' (DOC) Stress Unit. "But a little-known fact is that correctional officers are three times more likely to commit suicide than they are to be killed on the job."

In fact, Rhode Island's Stress Unit owes its existence to the suicide of a local police chief 13 years ago. Several months after his death, a stress program was formed for correctional and law enforcement officers in the area. From that initiative, the Rhode Island DOC's Stress Unit evolved.


Correctional officers, much like police officers, operate in a work environment that is characterized by unusually high levels of stress. Although a great deal of research has been conducted concerning the causes and consequences of stress for law enforcement officers, there have been few examinations of the correctional environment. The existing studies of correctional officer wellness identify a number of factors, both environmental and organizational, that are potential stressors. These include, but are not limited to:

* Inmate demands and manipulation

* Low pay

* Overtime

* Poor public image

* Problems with co-workers

* Role ambiguity

* Role conflict

* Rotating shift work

* Threat of inmate violence

* Understaffing

* Unrealistic supervisor demands

The consequences of stress are varied and can include both physical and emotional symptoms. Correctional officers may become vulnerable to a variety of stress-related illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and gastroenterological problems.

Emotional problems also can surface, such as increased irritability, feelings of tension and depression. Addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, gambling and overeating may emerge as well. These problems can cause or exacerbate existing family problems. According to Francis E. Cheek's 1984 book, Stress Management for Correctional Officers and Their Families (American Correctional Association), the average divorce rate among correctional officers is higher than that of law enforcement officers and is more than the national average as well.

Carr's father spent his entire career in law enforcement and corrections. He died at the age of 54. "I feel that is too young, since I am 57 years old," says Carr.

According to Cheek's book, the average life span of a correctional officer is 59 years. If this holds true today, the life expectancy rate for correctional officers is significantly less than that of the general public and also is less than that of law enforcement officers.

Beyond the toll on the individual, occupational stress also is costly for correctional institutions. Officers suffering from stress-related medical or mental illnesses can greatly impact budgets. The financial losses incurred may include high staff turnover and the resultant loss of human resource recruitment and training investment, overtime, sick leave, early retirement due to job-related stress, and workers' compensation claims arising from avoidable injuries suffered or caused by a distracted employee.


In 1994, the U.S. Congress authorized the Law Enforcement Family Support (CLEFS) program through Title XXI of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Assistance Act. This legislation authorized the exploration of methods to ameliorate the harmful effects of stress experienced by officers and their families. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, evaluation and development arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, was designated to award grants to state and local agencies and organizations to support research, demonstration and evaluation projects on stress intervention methods.

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