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UMass Lowell professor is working to bring stress relief to correctional officers

UMass Lowell Assistant Professor of Nursing Mazen El Ghaziri (right) is working on a program to improve the health of corrections officers with Saint Louis University Associate Professor Lisa Jaegers (center) and UConn Health Professor Martin Cherniack (left).
UMass Lowell Assistant Professor of Nursing Mazen El Ghaziri (right) is working on a program to improve the health of corrections officers with Saint Louis University Associate Professor Lisa Jaegers (center) and UConn Health Professor Martin Cherniack (left).University of Massachusetts Lowell

Working inside a jail exposes corrections officers to personal danger on a daily basis. Less well known is the high level of stress and trauma many experience from that hazardous life.

Now, a University of Massachusetts Lowell nursing professor is devising new strategies for addressing the mental health needs of the nation’s 500,000 correctional officers.

Mazen El Ghaziri, associate chair and an assistant professor of UMass Lowell’s Solomont School of Nursing, and a Missouri colleague were recently selected by the National Institute of Corrections to recommend stress-reduction training for corrections officers. When completed, the recommendations will be provided by the institute to jails and prisons across the country.

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Through the yearlong project, which comes with a $160,830 grant from the institute, El Gaziri and Lisa Jaegers, associate professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at Saint Louis University, will also propose training for correctional managers to ease job stress for their line officers.

Concern for the health and well-being of correctional officers “has lagged behind that of other hazardous duty officers,” El Ghaziri said. “Unfortunately the jobs they do are underappreciated and forgotten behind the walls of prisons. You don’t see them like you see a firefighter or a police officer providing a public service.”

Correctional officers are particularly prone to stress, El Ghaziri said, citing their exposure to potential violent behavior and the resulting need to be always “hyper-vigilant.” Many also work long shifts, resulting in sleep disruption.

Moreover, officers facing problems are often reluctant to seek help “because of the stigma associated with that and how it might affect their jobs,” he said.

Chronic stress results in poor overall health for many officers, the researchers said, including hypertension, obesity, and depression.

For their project, launched in November, El Ghaziri and Jaegers are working with a task force that includes state correctional officials, union representatives, and other stakeholders.

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Some of the stress-reduction training the researchers expect to recommend for corrections officers include the need to follow a healthy diet, and to practice mindfulness or other relaxation techniques rather than resorting to alcohol and other substances.

For correctional managers, the researchers expect to propose measures such as creating “decompression” rooms where officers can seek calm after a critical incident, and reducing overtime.

A native of Lebanon, El Ghaziri earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in public health from the American University of Beirut. During graduate school, he worked briefly as a registered nurse, but a later job as local coordinator of a US-based accreditation program at the university’s medical center shifted his career goal to teaching and research.

“My experience in the program made me think a lot about how every nurse has a right to a positive work environment,” he said.

Moving to the United States in 2010, El Ghaziri earned a doctorate in nursing at the University of Maryland, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Conn., before joining the UMass Lowell faculty in 2015.

While at UConn, El Ghaziri did research focused on corrections officers at the Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace, a program jointly run by UConn and UMass Lowell. He said that experience made his UMass Lowell job “a perfect fit.” Dr. Martin Cherniack, the center’s codirector, is an advisor to the current project.

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El Ghaziri and Jaegers have collaborated often since meeting in 2014, including in planning consortiums for the National Corrections Collaborative, a network of researchers and others in the prison field that El Ghaziri formed that year to explore health issues for the profession.

“We’ve uncovered problems through our research,” Jaegers said of the stresses facing corrections officers. “So now to actually get to try and do something about it is really exciting.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.