A symposium was held at Suffolk University this month to address the myriad health and safety hazards for the nation’s correction officers, who watch over inmates in state and federal prisons and ensure their smooth entry into society upon release. To highlight the problems and strategies to alleviate them, Metro Minute spoke with one of the symposium’s organizers, Mazen El Ghaziri (above), an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Solomont School of Nursing. (Comments condensed for brevity.)
What types of challenges do correction officers face?
It is a demanding job in which the officer really has no control in terms of scheduling, the number of incarcerated people they have to attend to, and the work environment itself. And this is affected by the criminal justice system in the United States with overincarceration and the staffing shortages, which relate to budget cuts.
It’s a risky job given that you are dealing with inmate assaults; they have a four-times higher rate of getting off the job due to nonfatal injuries, whether it’s due to physical assaults or other injuries.
I’ll also mention having to be always on alert. Given the nature of the population they are working with, the hypervigilance is really high and becomes second nature. And within this workforce you always need to be sure that you are tough — this machismo that dominates the job spills over to your life, as well. And to be always on alert — it affects your physical and mental well-being. So this is a population that has high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and in the last few years we’ve seen increases in suicides, as well.
The life span of a correctional officer is almost more than 10 years shorter than the average life span of the national population. Many correctional officers don’t eat healthy, and through our research we’ve seen within three years on the job they get to be obese, they get to be more into the hypertensive state, and you can see this affecting sleep patterns.
One final thing that isn’t talked about is that [correctional officers are] underappreciated compared to police officers or firefighters or even EMS, given that they work behind prison walls and they are unseen by the public. So their job is thankless, underappreciated, and stigmatized by society to start with.
What sort of solutions would you propose to improve the lives of correction officers?
There’s no one solution. One thing we should do is look closely at the form of the criminal justice system and restorative justice [an alternative approach to enforcement that focuses on mediation]. Because working on one side, on the workforce alone, does not solve the problem.
We also need to look at the resources made available for this workforce like peer mentoring or training on the job or resources for mental health and physical health. And they need to be able to trust these resources.
One final thing is the importance of having the voice of the correctional officer being part of the solution. You cannot find just one solution for every officer; they need to be able to have a voice in what solution works best for them. And general health promotion and occupational health and safety into the workplace are interrelated. So you cannot think about safety separately from health promotion. We need to think about their physical health and their mental health.
Corey Dockser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.