Calling Attention to the Critical Needs of Corrections Officers

By: Kelly Sullivan, BJA NTTAC Communications Specialist Often when we think of those who risk their lives and wellbeing to protect our safety, it is soldiers, police officers, or firefighters who jump readily to our minds. Albeit brave and deserving of our respect, these are not the only courageous souls who put themselves at risk to protect the public. Corrections officers are the “silent guardians” who have one of the most psychologically, emotionally, and physically taxing jobs out there, all the while receiving little appreciation for their dedication. Studies have revealed that corrections officers suffer from higher rates of substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce, and suicide than other public safety professionals. As Fred Wilson from the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) explains, “prisoners come and go from our jails, but many of our full-time corrections people spend their whole lives behind the walls at a great personal cost.” The wellness of these corrections officers was brought to light after a series of high-profile incidents impelled law enforcement and health officials to address these concerns head-on. In the past year and a half, the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office in Massachusetts was hit especially hard by three sudden officer deaths, including two suicides. These deaths provoked Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian to take action, calling on law enforcement and health officials from across the country to convene to discuss the issues facing corrections officers. As Sheriff Koutoujian explained, “our country’s 450,000 corrections officers spend the vast majority of their time outside the view of the general public and inside the walls of our jails, prisons, and houses of corrections standing guard over both convicts and pre-trial detainees. As corrections professionals, we have a duty and a responsibility to take care of those placed in our custody, but we also have a moral obligation to take care of one another.” On December 17, 2012, NSA and the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office, with financial support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC), partnered to host the Conference on Correction Officer Wellness – the first national conference gathering authorities to deal with the rising concerns for officer wellness. The conference brought together 300 corrections officials, researchers, and medical professionals to engage in dialogue and share best practices on how to address workplace challenges and promote the physical and emotional welfare of corrections employees. The hope is that the success experienced at the conference will evoke public attention and respect for corrections officers, while also prompting additional research on officer wellness needs. The conference revealed the need for a newfound focus on ensuring that corrections officers have a balanced lifestyle, strong family support, and community engagement to help them cope with the stress of the job. Even those with strong support systems, however, can suffer from mental and physical issues associated with the job. Thus, it is critical to communicate to officials that there are resources available to help them combat these issues in order to prevent further devastating incidences. As Caterina Spinaris, Psychologist and Founder of Desert Waters Congressional Outreach put it, “these are the forgotten people of the criminal justice system. These are the warriors behind the walls. There are way too many casualties.” With the 2012 Conference on Correction Officer Wellness, NSA and the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office took the first step to prevent future casualties and finally give a voice to these selfless silent guardians. To learn more about the 2012 Conference on Correction Officer Wellness, read the press coverage below.