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Correction Officer Stress (1977-2007): A Review of the Literature

William J. Morgan, Jr.*

William J. Morgan, Jr. is ABD at Capella University, a criminal justice professor at Erie Community College, and
a correction officer in the New York State Department of Correctional Services.

Abstract: This article examines the literature for correction officer stress for the years 1977-2007. Topics include
all general forms of correction officer’s stress, such as stress from inmates, administration, media, public, and the
organization. Stress consequences from working in the correctional environment are many and dire that has far
reaching affects for not only officers but their families and the organization. Recommendations are made for
future directions in the study of correction officer stress.

KEYWORDS: Correction Officer, Correctional Facility, Officer Stress, Organizational Stress

elements of correctional work (Kallestad, 2006; Mills,

INTRODUCTION 2007); this is contrary to a U.S. Bureau of Justice
Department Statistics report that approximately two-
thirds of rape cases reported that female correctional
On a daily basis, inmates outnumber the staff engaged in sexual misconduct with male inmates
correction officer where the ratio can be as high as (Green, 2006). However, the focus of this paper is
100:1. The administrative rules created by general stress for correctional officers as delineated in
correctional agencies are often ambiguous and leave the following pages for the years 1977-2007.
the officer with little autonomy to manage the dorm,
cell block, messhall, recreation yard or other area
observed. Violence can erupt at anyplace and at
Correction officer stress
anytime. An officer may be called upon to use force The literature proposes sources of stress for
on an inmate to protect a co-worker, self- correction officers (Anson, Carlson, & Thomas, 2003;
preservation, or an inmate. Correctional Black, 2001; Finn, 2000, 1998; Morgan, Van Haveren,
administration makes the decision to back the use of & Pearson, 2002; Paoline, Lambert, & Hogan, 2006;
force in a split second decision. Based on reports in Philliber, 1987; Rosefield, 1983; Tewksbury &
the media that portray correction officers negatively, Higgins, 2006; Tracy, 2004; Ulmer, 1992). For
public scrutiny may further close officers into an example, officers may experience role conflict resulting
already closed subculture; the officer may be from emotional dissonance and interactions with
suspended without pay for months until an inmates, as proposed by Tewksbury and Higgins, or
investigation is complete and may lose his or her job that correction officers are portrayed as brutes in the
based on the testimony of an inmate (Hansen & news and popular media (Finn, 2000; 1998). No two
Sinclair, 2005). Health and stress-related problems correctional organizations or facilities are managed the
may occur and affect the personal life of the officer. same but parallels can be drawn between the current
Similar situations happen over a number of years and literature of stress and state correction officers (Craig,
have a major impact upon the officer, their family, 2004; MacKenzie & Mitchell, 2005; Wener, 2006).
and occupation. Male correction officers employed in Research conducted by Morgan, Van Haveren, and
a correctional facility for females have the added Pearson (2002) explored previous studies of correction
stress of accusations of sexual misconduct, officer stress and the inconsistent results that followed;
demonization by the media based on accusations of a future study recommendation suggested the
sexual misconduct, lack of support from exploration of how correction officers cope with work-
administration, and organizational stress, which are related stress. Specific examples of stress experienced
_________________________________________ by correction officers are outlined below.
*Address correspondence to the author:
William J. Morgan, Jr. The causes of stress are inconsistent and complex
Erie Community College although all sources have been explored in prisons
45 Oak Street (Slate & Vogel, 1997). Several authors (Cheek &
Buffalo, New York 14203 Miller, 1982; Cullen, Link, Wolfe, & Frank, 1985;
(716) 851-1246 Finn, 1999; Griffin, 2006; Grossi & Berg, 1991;
Email: Huckabee, 1992; Inwald, 1982; Keinan & Malach-
Pines, 2007; Lasky, Gordon, & Srebalus, 1986;
Marston, 1993) suggested that unique and powerful
stressors are a product of work in the correctional assaultive to other inmates or staff, (Cornelius, 2001;
environment, particularly for those who maintain Finn, 2000). Officers are subjected to traumatic but
security and safety. According to Rosefield (1983), brief incidents of violence enveloped in monotonous
10 major categories of stress, out of 32 primary supervision of inmates (Jenish, 1996). These acts of
stressors, were identified in a study by the North violence can be numerous and serve to impact the
Carolina Division of Prison and listed in descending consciousness of the officer.
severity. This list wraps correction officer stress into
a neat package, to include inmate perpetrated stress, In the subjective views of inmates, Cornelius (1994)
organizational, administrative factors, and outside indicated that violent behavior is a means to survive
sources of stress. The first category is general stress, and cope with incarceration and not thought of as
with the most significant sources emanated from nefarious behavior. Cornelius further contended that
inmates. The second source originated from role inmates use violence as a tool to reflect self-importance
definition during a crises and expectations of job due to interpersonal failures and lack of nurturing in
performance. Third, stress resulted in poor control early life. It was cited by Finn (2000, 1998); Cornelius
due to overcrowding, understaffing, and the need for (1994) that specific acts of inmate violence that impact
structure in the correctional facility. Fourth, stress is officers pre- and post-incident include hostage taking,
increased when a forum is not provided for officers to riots, homicide, rape, fights, and inmate suicide. Black
voice concerns about personal safety. Related to (2001) further alluded that stress may occur because of
personal safety, the fifth issue is isolation and the weapons that inmates may carry and use in violent
personal problems associated with the correctional assaults, the attempt to gain inmate compliance to the
environment. Sixth, officers found other job related rules may encounter a sudden outburst of
pressures such as rigid work load and preventing violence/anger resulting in injury or death, or may
escapes; this ties into the seventh issue of work load experience guilt over situations that they cannot control
or the discomfort officers feel because of the amount (Kauffman, 1988). To a lesser extent, officer’s point out
of work they are expected to perform. Eighth, that stress emanates from inmates’ bad attitudes that
officers find stress created by inmates “setting lead to stereotyping of inmates may occur from the
officers up” and the difficulty of giving inmates more subtle means of coercion (Gray, 2002).
orders. Ninth, officers found that the community does
not respect the occupation of corrections officer. Inmate demands and manipulation is another key
Finally, officers find that preventing escapes as a factor in correction officer stress, according to
further source of stress. Specifically, the literature Cornelius (2001, 1994, 1992); Finn (1998); Marston
below addresses the caveats of correctional officer (1993); Woodruff (1993), through manipulation of
stress in the four general areas of stress from inmates, officers, inmates attempt to gain some modicum of
organization, administration, and outside sources. control over the prison environment that undermine
security. Cornelius referred to inmate manipulation as
Inmate Role in C.O. Stress the attempt to control others through subtle means, or to
get something he or she wants; inmates attempt
Several sources, such as Castle and Martin (2006); manipulation through lying, narcissism, blaming others
Armstrong and Griffin (2004); Drory and Shamir for their problems, and a lack of empathy (Cornelius;
(1982); Cullen, et al., (1985); Grossi and Berg Finn, 2000). It has been further cited that correction
(1991); Triplett, Mullings, and Scarborough (1996, officers who deal with constant demands or
1999) elucidated that employment in corrections is successfully manipulated by inmates experienced
stressful because correction officers perceive and extreme stress. Black (2001) found that stress in the
deal with people who have violent records where correctional setting is most related to inmate matters
fear, confrontations, and violence is ever present such as demands, requests, or complaints. Ironically,
(Long & Vogues, 1987; Keinan & Malach-Pines; inmate related stress is not experienced by security a
Finn, 1998; Kauffman, 1998; Martinez, 1997). staff that has significant interaction with inmates, but
According to Camp, Gaes, Langan, and Saylor, officers that have periods of shorter duration because
(2003); Finn (1998); Inwald, 1982, increased inmate they are not as equipped to deal with the inmate
violence, inmate crowding, inmate density, population (Garland, 2002). Security staff that have
dangerous gang activity, physical setting, and lack of negative and intense incidents with inmates may fall
recognition of officer authority intensified stress. victim to “secondary post-traumatic stress,” as cited by
Black (2001) contended that officers are concerned Janik (1995, ¶ 5). Inmates are only one source of stress
about concentration of inmates in certain areas of the that correction officers are subjected to on a daily basis.
facility, such as the yard, visit room, or messhall,
which are considered “hotspots” for violence. Attacks
Organizational role in stress
on property or persons within the facility are
common because inmates are bored and frustrated, According to several authors, (Beehr & Newman,
and may threaten, or become verbally/physically 1978; Cooper & Marshall, 1976; Drory & Shamir,
1982; Katz & Kahn, 1978; Keinan & Malach-Pines, of organizational stress that the female correction
2007; Samak, 2003, organizational factors were officer is exposed.
significant sources of stress for officers that have
consequences for both the individual and the In a more gender neutral form, understaffing,
organization. In the meta-analysis of correctional mandatory overtime, shift work, rotating shifts, low or
officer stress researched by Dowden & Tellier inadequate pay, role ambiguity/conflict, and problems
(2004), it was discovered that security differences with co-workers lend to organizational forms of stress
were not important to job stress; however, it is noted (Brodsky, 1977,1982; Cherniss, 1980; Cheek & Miller,
that job-related stress in a maximum-security 1982; Childress, Talucci, & Wood, 1999; Delmore,
institution is higher than other types of institutions. 1982; Finn, 2000, 1998; Gerstein, Topp, & Correll;
Several authors (Black, 2001; Kauffman, 1988; Finn, Gillian, 2001; Harris, 1983; Keinan & Malach-Pines,
1998; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000) proposed that 2007; Lambert, Hogan, & Barton, 2002; Rosefield,
variables such as rank, shift work, job assignment, 1983; Shamir & Drory, 1982; Stock & Skultey, 1994).
ethnicity, or gender are important, and given ample Many officer’s report not answering their home
attention in the literature; gender is a significant telephone because it may be the facility calling for
predictor of stress in corrections and traditionally overtime, and that officer’s on duty may be mandated
considered a male dominated profession. for overtime, as cited by Finn; Kauffman (1988). This
is a product of understaffing “prevalent in many prisons
Female officers reported that supervisors served as and jails as a result of unattractive salaries, high
a form of work-related stress compared to male turnover, and excessive use of sick time or disability
officers who rarely report such anomalies (Auerbach, leave” (Brodsky, 1982; Finn, 2000; 1998; Gerstein,
Quick, & Pegg, 2003; Castle & Martin, 2006; Cullen, Topp, & Correll; Lombardo, 1981; Ratner, 1985).
Link, Wolfe, & Frank, 1985, Gross, Larson, Urban, Understaffing prisons leads to consequences, such as
& Zupan, 1994; Pogrebin & Poole, 1998; Triplett, the inability to get time off from work and completion
Mullings, & Scarborough, 1999). Furthermore, of required tasks in a timely manner. Finn further found
female officers may not be considered reliable in that many officers report that extra overtime money is a
emergencies, such as an assaultive inmate or inmates great incentive due to traditionally low salaries;
fighting by male correction officers, which affect however, these same officers find that a product of too
perceptions of female correctional officer much overtime is burnout or a complacent work ethic.
competency (Anson, Carlson, & Thomas, 2003; This is a tautological cycle resulting in the excessive
Tewksbury & Collins, 2006; Zupan, 1992) and cited use of sick time, mandatory overtime, and the use of
by Anson, et al.; Philliber (1987); Belknap (1991, rotating shift work, which affects the main source of
2001); Britton (1997); Griffin (2006); Hemmens, security in the prison: the correction officer. However,
Stohr, Schoeler, & Miller (2002); Jurik (1985); Owen these are only a few of the organizational consequences
(1985); Pogrebin & Poole (1997, 1998); Pollock- of officer stress.
Byrne (1986); Zimmer (1986); Zupan (1992) that
employee traits generally considered masculine in Further organizational stresses for correctional
nature, such as the strength of female officers in officers include role ambiguity and role conflict in the
physical confrontations and a willingness to use force lack of clear guidelines for job performance where low
on inmates, is a reservation with male officers and commitment and high turnover is a consequence to the
inmates. organization. Problems may arise from supervisors,
such as unclear expectations, difficulty interpreting the
A further source of stress for female officers are rules, and imprecise role definition that lead to stress
the unwanted sexual advances, discrimination, (Brodsky, 1982; Cheek & Miller, 1983; Crouch, 1986;
overt/subtle sexist language, and harassment by Dahl & Steinberg, 1979; Dowden & Tellier, 2004;
inmates, co-workers, or supervisors (Anson, et al.; Finn, 2000; Gerstein, Topp, & Correll, 1987; Hepburn
Belknap, 1991; Black, 2001; Griffin, Armstrong, & & Knepper, 1993; Hogan, Lambert, Jenkins, &
Hepburn, 2005; Philliber; Owen, 1988; Pogrebin & Wambold, 2006; Lambert, 2004, 2006; Poole & Regoli,
Poole, 1997, 1998; Savicki, Cooley, & Gjvesvold, 1980; Rosefield, 1983; Slate & Vogel, 1997; Van
2003; Stohr, Mays, Beck, & Kelley, 1998; Zimmer, Voorhis, Cullen, Link, & Wolfe, 1991; Woodruff,
1986) where female officers tend to report higher 1993), which may lead to low commitment to the
levels of stress than male officers do, greater levels of organization (Lambert, 2004). Cheek and Miller cited
burnout, (Anson, et al., 2003; Carlson, Anson, & that the correction officer is expected to wear the many
Thomas, 2002) and greater levels of absenteeism hats of custodian, disciplinarian, rehabilitator, and
(Brough & Williams, 2007; Lambert, Edwards, many become confused when these elements are
Camp, & Saylor, 2005). Although an extensive coupled with a lack of autonomy, which leads to role
search of the literature failed to find a study conflict. It is within this contextual role that ambiguity
specifically related to male officer stress in relation to is found and where officers are expected to follow all
work with female inmates, gender is only one source guidelines and rules when discretion and flexibility is
paramount to the managerial role, which leads to role relations due to officer perceptions of questionable
overload/conflict and occupational tedium (Cheek & managerial practices (Garland, 2004; Hughes &
Miller, 1982; Drory & Shamir, 1982; Finn, 2000; Zamble, 1993; Keinan & Malach-Pines, 2007; Ulmer).
Gerstein, et al.; Lasky, Gordon, & Srebalus, 1986; Independent of the correctional paradigm, officers can
Lombardo, 1981; Toch & Klofas, 1982) As such, the experience cynicism towards correctional
correction officer is the manager of inmates and the administration for other reasons.
person with the most contact with the population, but
required to acquiesce to administration. As a Human Educational level, race, length of tenure, and lack of
Service component, Cheek & Miller (p.15) stated that endorsement of rehabilitative goals of officers may
correction officers are considered “developers of negatively impact cynicism towards administration
people,” and the managerial role is destroyed if not (Black, 2001; Castle & Martin; 2006; Dowden &
supported by administration. However, Robinson & Tellier, 2004; Philliber, 1987). For example, Black
Porporino (1996); Tellier & Robinson (1995) found discovered that non-Caucasian officers had less stress
that officers in a programming capacity report less than Caucasian officers did when dealing with
stress than those in the managerial role and have correctional administration. The results are mixed as to
greater job satisfaction, authority over inmates, and education and cynicism as Philliber found that officers
less strain. with more education had a negative impact on job
satisfaction and cynicism towards administration; Jurik,
Occasionally, correction officers perpetrate stress Halemba, Musheno, & Boyle (1985) found less
upon each other because of the correctional officer dissatisfaction for educated officers. Independent of
subculture. A further example of organizational stress occupational factors, correction officers with military
is problems with coworkers. According to Finn service tend to reject cynicism of correctional
(2000; 1998), officers tend to experience stress may administration because of an ability to effectively
occur when a co-worker has inappropriate behavior interact with supervisors within the paramilitary
with inmates, competition with other officers for atmosphere (Moon & Maxwell, 2004; Morgan, Van
limited assignments, anxiety that co-workers will Haveren, & Pearson, 2002; Ulmer, 1992). Not
refuse to back them in an emergency, and constantly ironically, following the September 11, 2001 attacks
venting frustrations to other officers. In some cases, and the previous downturn in the economy, critical
extreme stress with coworkers is much worse than problems arose for corrections as the great need for law
dealing with demanding or hostile inmates, albeit a enforcement jobs became available along with fewer
lesser form of stress compared to other sources. Far skilled and qualified workers, which lead to a lowered
from the officer subculture, Samak (2003) indicated work standard (Kehoe, 2004). Additionally, the officer
that administration is another foundation for officer subculture may negatively impact/contribute to
stress. cynicism toward prison administration.

Role of correctional administration The correction officer subculture socializes new

officers to widespread cynicism of administration,
Several factors contribute to cynicism towards which can severely disrupt the institution (Ulmer,
prison administration of work related issues and 1992). Independent of the officer subculture, Ulmer
factors within the correctional environment as followed-up the discussion of cynicism and tenure by
demonstrated in the literature. The lack of decision emphasizing that through mid-career, officers tend to
making, autonomy, and mismanagement in the form build up cynicism with a drop as one becomes more
of missing or absent mission statements prevent experienced. If the officer subculture is not confident
officers from effectively performing their jobs. that prison administration will back them by bending
Correction Officers, according to Gray (2002), the rules to further the goals of corrections, this leads to
reported that correctional administration ignores and cynicism and stress (Rosefield, 1983). However,
disregards them, which denies them autonomy to correctional administration is only one further source
efficiently and effectively manage, leaving little where stress is originated.
discretion to administer to the daily management of
the prison (Morris & Webb, 1978). The American
Outside Sources
Correctional Association (1983); Ulmer (1992) cited
that correction officer’s are responsible to accurately According to O’Brien and Gustafson (1985)
interpret the rules and regulations, translate the characteristics of other high stress occupations differ
policies and goals of correctional administration by from characteristics in the high stress occupation of
maintaining order, supervising inmates, and corrections due to external influences. Correction
enforcing rules, and most functions within the prison officers may distance themselves from family members,
to maintain a safe and secure environment. Officer friends, and others because of the stigmatization of
frustration and stress can hold negative implications officers from outside the correctional paradigm, such as
for administration in “conflictual and problematic” the media, the public and other law enforcement
agencies (Cheek & Miller, 1982; Gillian, 2001; When police and correction officers feel stress,
Harris, 1980; Keinan & Malach-Pines, 2007; Maghan several behavioral and physical problems may manifest
& McLeish-Blackwell, 1991; Morris & Webb, 1978; themselves, such as heart disease, poor circulation, high
Stalgaitis, Meyers, & Krisak, 1982; Tracy, 2004). blood pressure, teeth grinding, and aches and pains of
The popular media mocks correction officers in the hands, neck, or back (Aabdollahi, 2002; Cornelius,
prison movies as aggressive, ruthless, and 1994; Mearns & Mauch, 1998; Stinchcomb, 2004;
intellectually limited individuals with the desire to Wells, Colbert, & Slate, 2006). Furthermore, Cheek,
make the lives of inmates as difficult as possible 1984; Cornelius; Lambert, Hogan, and Allen, 2006);
where the realities of prison are often ignored Wells, Colbert, & Slate (2006), listed several behavioral
(Brodsky, 1982; Cheek & Miller, 1982; Tracy). problems, such as anger with inmates, family, or
Morris & Webb (p. 69) found correctional personnel friends, impatience, frequent accidents, complacency,
disparagingly depicted as “representatives of a and the use of illegal substances. Several warning signs
repressive, demeaning system” by inmates that the of substance abuse, as indicated by Stock & Skultety
media turns to for information about prisons and (1994), are secretive behavior, avoiding social
officers. Tracy believes this leads to a negative public activities, excessive worrying, and unprovoked
image and stigmatization of correction officers, aggression. Moreover, due to the traumatic experiences
“…[as] lazy, brutal, sexually deviant, or silly,” and correction officers face, substance abuse is often
“…[as] stupid, animalistic, and senseless abusers of equated with post-traumatic stress disorder (Janik,
socially wronged individuals,” as further suggested 1995; Stock & Skultety).
by Finn (1998, ¶ 1). As such, this leads to public
resentment and empathy for inmates and disparages Stress can have serious consequences beyond those
officers, as suggested by Morris & Webb. This public previously mentioned. Extreme stress-related problems
scrutiny leads to further consequences on a in corrections include depression, eating disorders,
professional and personal level for the correction ulcers, and diabetes (Finn, 1998; Rosefield, 1983); it
officer. was cited by Samak (2003); Cheek and Di Stefano-
Miller (1983); Wells, Colbert, and Slate (2006) that
A consequence of stigmatization, as cited by Finn correction officers in the United States are twice as
(1998); Van Fleet (1992) there may be a refusal of likely to experience cardiovascular disease and other
the officers’ family to advertise that their health related problems. These problems may lead to
spouse/parent works for corrections in order to avoid excessive use of sick time, compensation leave, and
embarrassment or harassment. Other law high staff turnover (Finn, 1998, 2000), use of alcohol or
enforcement agencies, according to Tracy, (2003, p. drugs, gambling or overeating (Childress, et al, 1999),
517) stigmatize correction officers as the “lowest strained family relationships resulting in domestic
scum of law enforcement and professional abuse, divorce, and displaced frustration, and is not
babysitters.” Generally, during times of controversy particularly compatible with parental roles (Brough &
such as prison escapes, officer misconduct, and riots Williams, 2006; Finn, 1998; Gillian, 2001; Lambert,
is when news media pays attention to correction Hogan, & Allen, 2006). Furthermore, occupational
facilities and personnel (Morris &Webb, 1978). For stress in corrections can lead to suicide and premature
example, in a news story written by Richard (2004), a death (Childress, et al; Garland, 2002; Lambert, Hogan,
2003 escape of two inmates from a Correctional & Allen); for example, the study conducted by
Facility in the Northeastern United States prompted Childress, et al, found that the average life expectancy
the suspension of three correctional employees where for correction officers, at age 59, is below the life
complacency was blamed on the part of the officers expectancy for other law enforcement and well below
and supervisors. However, the State failed to mention the national average. Rosefield suggested a high
the lack of a perimeter security fence and correlation between these stress-related anomalies to
understaffing could have been a factor. The president other law enforcement occupations, although there is no
of the correction officers union and the City Mayor definitive proof that these anomalies are caused by such
said that understaffing, the age of the prison, and a occupations.
lack of security contributed to the escape. The current
trend of many correctional paradigms is to close Conclusion
posts and claim that prisons are staffed to current
levels, as indicated by Richards. Not coincidentally, Correction officers are the people who see to the
all of the aforementioned stress sources may have daily management of correctional facilities in the
serious outcomes for officers, their family, and the United States today. Stress for correction and police
correctional organization. officers draw many parallels; however, correction
officers experience special stresses as they deal with a
violent and nefarious population. It is not simply a
Affects of Stress
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and demands from inmates, dealing with
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