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Reducing Correction Officer Stress by Improving Prison Climate: The Importance of Support and Safety

Prior research has identified the importance of social climate in psychiatric and correctional facilities. In studies of correctional officer stress, organizational measures are typically the strongest correlates. This article combines these research areas, examining the ...

Published onSep 30, 2023
Reducing Correction Officer Stress by Improving Prison Climate: The Importance of Support and Safety
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 Abstract

Prior research has identified the importance of social climate in psychiatric and correctional facilities. In studies of correctional officer stress, organizational measures are typically the strongest correlates. This article combines these research areas, examining the relationship between prison climate and correctional officer stress. Analyzing data from a sample of 239 officers in a northeastern state, findings indicate that prison climate, particularly system maintenance, contributes to both officers’ work-related and generalized stress and anxiety. Perceptions of personal growth among those incarcerated is also associated with decreased generalized stress and anxiety. Officers should feel supported and safe at work to improve the prison climate and reduce officer stress.

Keywords: correction officer; prison climate; stress; social support; conditions of confinement


Correctional institutions are unique work environments where employees face many demands uncommon in other professions. Officers are paid to supervise potentially violent people held against their will, risking their safety for the sake of their job. Numerous studies have found that correctional staff have greater stress and wellbeing concerns than employees in other fields, such as policing (Goldberg et al., 1996; Johnson et al., 2005; Summerlin et al., 2010). For example, Florida correctional officers reported higher levels of stress than police officers across most organizational categories, including perceptions of inconsistent leadership and staff shortages (Summerlin et al., 2010). Moreover, of workers in 26 professions, correction officers were ranked the highest in job dissatisfaction and higher than police officers concerning physical health and psychological wellbeing concerns (Johnson et al., 2005, p. 183). Despite such findings, research on police officer stress far exceeds that of correctional officer stress; more attention should be paid to understanding the sources and consequences of stress specific to correctional officers.

Similar to police officers, correctional officers’ elevated levels of stress can have medical, behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional consequences (Finn, 2000). Stress-related health problems are extensive for correctional officers, including heart attacks, heart disease, hypertension, and ulcers (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Cheek & Miller, 1983; Costello et al., 2015; Finn, 1998; Härenstam et al., 1988). Correctional officers’ mental health can also be compromised by their heightened stress, with officers exhibiting high emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and mental health concerns (Butler et al., 2019; St. Louis et al., in press). Perhaps most striking, correctional staff have a higher risk for suicide than workers in other occupations (New Jersey Police Suicide Task Force, 2009; Stack & Tsoudis, 1997), with correction officers, police officers, and non-protective service workers having unique risk factors for suicide (Zimmerman et al., 2023). The rate of correction officer suicide is particularly high in the state of the current study, exceeding that of the general public and the incarcerated population (Carson, 2021; Frost & Monteiro, 2020). Correction officers may exhibit maladaptive coping mechanisms (e.g., drinking, anger, abuse) to alleviate their heightened stress (Bierie, 2012). Accordingly, absenteeism and turnover are both problems in the correctional workforce, as is substance abuse, sleeping issues, and divorce (e.g., Cheek & Miller, 1983; Finn, 1998; Lambert et al., 2010; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000).

Given the varied consequences of stress for officer wellness, it is crucial to identify the determinants of correction officer stress. Prior research on correction officer stress has highlighted the importance of organizational factors as opposed to officers’ demographic and job-related characteristics for officer outcomes (Butler et al., 2019; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Finney et al., 2013). For example, a meta-analysis of 20 articles examining correction officers’ job stress found that the perceived danger of correctional work was the strongest predictor of work stress (Dowden & Tellier, 2004). A second meta-analysis of 34 studies examining officers’ work-related stress further revealed that a lack of supervisor support and, to a lesser extent, peer support are also key predictors of increased stress (Butler et al., 2019). In both meta-analyses, officers’ demographic characteristics were found to be, at best, weak correlates of work-related stress (Butler et al., 2019; Dowden & Tellier, 2004). Job-related characteristics (i.e., contact with the incarcerated population) also had a weak association with increased stress (Dowden & Tellier, 2004).

As noted by Butler et al. (2019), most studies assessing correctional officer stress do not account for contextual factors; these measures could be vital to better understanding officer stress. Of the few studies that consider facility-related variables in their analysis, their impact on officer stress is mixed. While working in a specialized unit does not predict increased stress (Castle & Martin, 2006), working at a maximum security facility does lead to greater work-related stress (Cullen et al., 1985; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). Facility overcrowding and being understaffed were not associated with increased stress (Castle & Martin, 2006), nor were the prison size and incarcerated population size, assault rate, sex of the incarcerated population, staff-to-inmate ratio, and incarcerated individuals’ reported dissatisfaction with officers (Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). Working at a facility with a lower average daily incarcerated population was associated with less occupational stress (Castle & Martin, 2006). A facility's physical conditions (e.g., noise, cleanliness) can also increase officers’ psychological and somatic symptoms (Bierie, 2012).

It may be that administrative facility-level data cannot adequately capture the culture of the prison environment and that it is this culture that impacts officer stress. In a systematic review, Finney et al. (2013) found that, among the included studies, “organizational structure and climate” (e.g., organizational politics and relationships) had a strong impact on officers’ work-related stress. In addition to individual, organizational, and contextual attributes, a “personality” exists associated with an environment that shapes people’s perceptions, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors (Moos, 1974). This concept of social climate is “a set of properties or conditions relating to the internal environment of an organization, as they are perceived by its members” (Ajdukovic, 1990, p. 422). In the context of prisons, this includes the perspectives of both those incarcerated and staff, including correction officers. Measuring the social climate of prisons is essential, as they are a “complex social system” where “people of various psychological make-ups and social and cultural backgrounds interact with each other in fulfilling their respective roles within the boundaries of a highly confined space” (Wenk & Moos, 1972, p. 134). Prisons simultaneously strive to balance rehabilitation, incapacitation, deterrence, and retribution, and correction officers, in particular, bear the brunt of these mixed messages as they are tasked with both policing and protecting the incarcerated population.

Research on prison and social climate more broadly has emphasized the importance of measuring the “personality” of an environment and how perceptions of that “personality” affect the individuals existing within it. Among a sample of 45 participants across seven mental health units, Bressington et al. (2011) found that a positive social climate is associated with increased staff and resident satisfaction. This included satisfaction with the quality of interactions between staff and residents, the rehabilitative emphasis of services offered, and perceptions of the unit as a safe place for staff and residents (Bressington et al., 2011). Relatedly, a positive social climate can enhance treatment efforts, increasing residents’ motivation to engage in rehabilitation and the perceived strength of the resident and staff relationship (Beazley & Gudjonsson, 2011; Day et al., 2011; Long et al., 2011; van der Helm et al., 2014). A study of 24,508 individuals incarcerated across 224 prisons in England and Wales further affirmed the importance of prison climate, finding that a higher quality of life leads to better outcomes for incarcerated individuals upon release and, specifically, lower rates of reoffending (Auty & Liebling, 2019). On the other hand, other studies have linked negative social climate to higher rates of verbal and physical aggression among incarcerated individuals/residents (Long et al., 2011; Ros et al., 2013; van der Helm et al., 2012).

Current Study

Given the heightened stress associated with correctional employment and the negative repercussions of this work, it is necessary to better understand the correlates of correction officer stress. Prior research on the social climate of psychiatric and correctional facilities has highlighted its impact on perceptual and behavioral outcomes for both staff and residents (see Tonkin, 2016). This article contributes to the growing body of literature on correction officer stress by analyzing the impacts of the prison climate on officers’ work-related stress and generalized stress and anxiety, as well as which factors are associated with more positive perceptions of the prison climate.1 A preliminary analysis by Day et al. (2011) examined staff in Australian prisons and identified significant bivariate relationships between perceptions of a positive social climate and satisfaction with the work environment regarding morale and stress. We expand on their research, using multiple regression to examine the impact of prison climate on both officers’ work-related stress and generalized stress and anxiety (i.e., overall life stress). Scholars have encouraged assessing both types of stress to better understand how problems at work can follow officers outside of the job (Castle & Martin, 2006; Cullen et al., 1985). Should prison climate be a key predictor of increased stress, it is then crucial to learn what factors lead to positive climate perceptions and, as a result, decrease officer stress. Two broad research questions guide this inquiry: (1) What is the relationship between officers’ perceptions of the prison climate and their work-related stress and their generalized stress and anxiety? (2) What work-related factors contribute to positive perceptions of prison climate?

Method

Data and Participants

This research relies on original data collected through a National Institute of Justice-funded study (Griffin et al., 2014). We focus on data from the first phase of a two-phase study: officers randomly selected from the population of 2,371 officers and sergeants working at one of eight prison facilities in a single northeastern state. As per the design of the broader study, only line-level officers with the rank of officer or sergeant were eligible for participation. Of the 350 randomly selected officers and sergeants, 259 elected to participate in the interview (for a response rate of 74%). This response rate is substantially higher than that of comparable studies, which range from approximately 18-58%.2 We attribute this to union support and the on-site/on-shift, in-person, one-on-one nature of the interviews. No significant differences were identified between the population of the state’s correction officers, the entire sample, and the final sample of respondents regarding age, gender, tenure, and other demographic and work-related factors.

Twenty of the 259 participants were removed from the analysis due to missing data on one or more key variables. This resulted in a final sample size of 239 correction officers. The 239 officers worked in eight different state correctional facilities of varying security levels, including two maximum, four medium, one minimum, and one combined (minimum and medium) security facilities. Of the eight facilities, one was a female-only medium security facility, and another served the seriously mentally ill. All officers participated in a one-hour, structured, one-on-one interview, providing information about their demographics, work-related characteristics, mental health, and perceptions of the work environment.

Measures

The work-related stress scale (WRSS) was developed by Cullen et al. (1985) and has been analyzed by several other scholars assessing the stressors of correctional employment (e.g., Dial et al., 2010; Ferdik, 2016). The scale is comprised of six questions, such as “my job is a stressful job,” “when I am at work, I often feel tense or uptight,” and “I usually feel that I am under a lot of pressure when I am at work.” All questions were answered on a six-point Likert scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” with a “neither agree nor disagree” option. Higher scores indicate more work-related stress. Responses to the six questions were averaged, forming the resulting WRSS variable (alpha=0.85).

Generalized Stress and Anxiety

Extending the analysis from work-related stress to generalized stress and anxiety, the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen et al., 1994) assessed how “unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded respondents find their lives” (Cohen et al., 1994, p. 4). According to questionnaire documentation, the PSS is the most widely used psychological instrument for measuring stress (Cohen et al., 1994). The eleven questions comprising this scale all began with “in the past month, how often have you…”, with some examples being “felt nervous and stressed,” “been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly,” and “felt anxious, worried, or upset.” Response options included five categories ranging from “never” to “very often,” which were averaged to generate the PSS variable (alpha=0.86). Higher scores indicate greater generalized stress and anxiety.

Prison Climate

Officers were asked to complete the CIES at the start of the interview to assess the prison climate. To measure the complexities of the prison environment, Moos (1974) recommends considering the social, emotional, and material considerations of climate within the prison facility. The CIES categorizes prison climate into three dimensions: (1) relationships, (2) personal development, and (3) system maintenance. The relationships dimension refers to the “intensity of personal relationships among residents and between residents and staff” (Wenk & Moos, 1972, p. 141), measuring prison involvement and peer support among the incarcerated and officers’ support for those incarcerated. Personal growth refers to rehabilitation among the incarcerated, including becoming more self-sufficient, taking responsibility for their decisions, learning practical skills for release, and maturing emotionally. System maintenance relates to the functioning of the prison as “orderly, clear, organized, and coherent”  (Wenk & Moos, 1972, p. 142). Specifically, system maintenance measures the extent to which the prison is well-organized, there is a day-to-day routine, and staff remain in control. Twelve true-or-false questions were averaged to generate each of the three prison climate scales.3 These include: (1) relationships (KR-20=0.56), (2) personal development (KR-20=0.65), and (3) system maintenance (KR-20=0.68).4 Higher scores suggest more positive perceptions of the prison climate.

When assessing work-related stress using the same scale as the current study, Cullen et al. (1985) found that peer and supervisory support were associated with increased stress. We use adapted versions of their support scales in the current study. Peer support (alpha=0.60) and administrative support (alpha=0.91) were each generated by averaging participants’ responses to three and five questions, respectively, asking participants their level of agreement (5-point Likert scale) to a statement. Examples of peer support include, “I know I can get help from my coworkers when I need it” and “My coworkers respect my work and abilities.” Examples of administrative support include, “the administration here values my input” and “I know the administration here will stand by me if something should happen.” Higher values indicate more perceived support.

Cullen et al. (1985) also found that officers’ perceptions of their job being dangerous increased their work-related and overall life stress. Other scholars have since affirmed the importance of officers’ safety perceptions while also identifying exposure to violence as an occupational stressor (Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). We account for both experienced and witnessed violence exposure and perceived staff safety. Assaulted by incarcerated individuals was a dichotomous variable where one represented the officer having been assaulted by incarcerated persons at least once during their career. Witnessed staff assaults was also a dichotomous variable where one signified the officer having witnessed fellow staff being assaulted by incarcerated persons in the year prior to their interview. Perceptions of staff safety was generated by averaging participants’ responses to two questions (alpha=0.85). The first question referenced male staff and the second female staff: “How safe or dangerous do you think it is for [male/female] staff members who have frequent contact with [incarcerated individuals] in this prison?” Response options included “dangerous,” “somewhat dangerous,” “somewhat safe,” and “very safe.”

Finally, we account for facility-level measures to build on prior studies that yielded mixed findings on their relationship with officer stress (Castle & Martin, 2006; Cullen et al., 1985; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). Facility security level was dichotomized, where one represented maximum-security facilities. Data on the average length of stay for the incarcerated population were pulled from the department’s 2016 institutional fact cards produced by the department’s Research and Planning Division. Each facility’s average daily population in 2016 and operational capacity were also available on these fact sheets and the Division’s 2016 Prison Population Trends report; facility crowding was calculated by dividing its average daily population by its operational capacity.

Control Variables

Demographic variables were included in the analysis to account for respondents’ characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender, and age. Given this state's high percentage of white correction officers (82%), race/ethnicity was dichotomized into non-white and white. Gender was also dichotomized, where one represented male officers, and age was a continuous variable. We also controlled for officers’ tenure, a continuous variable measuring the years that officers were employed by the state’s department of correction, and position/rank. Position/rank was dichotomized, where zero and one represented officers (CO I) and sergeants (CO II), respectively.

Analytic Strategy

Correction officer stress was assessed through two OLS regression models, the first predicting work-related stress and the second generalized stress and anxiety. To understand which factors impact officers’ climate perceptions, we conducted a second set of three OLS regression analyses predicting each prison climate dimension: relationship, personal growth, and system maintenance. We screened all model variables to ensure normal distribution, assessing skewness, kurtosis, and histograms. There were no multicollinearity concerns, and the highest VIF is noted in the corresponding table of each regression model. Finally, a sensitivity analysis, including fixed effects by facility, yielded similar results regarding variable significance, directionality, and magnitude. However, these models were not included in the final analysis due to degrees of freedom and multicollinearity concerns.   

Results

Reducing Correction Officer Stress

We use two OLS regression models to predict correction officers’ work-related stress and generalized stress and anxiety. Findings indicate that prison climate is a key contributor to both dimensions of officer stress. When officers perceive increased system maintenance (e.g., organized facility with staff in control), both their work-related and generalized stress and anxiety decrease. Moreover, officers’ perceptions of more personal growth among the incarcerated population (e.g., skill-building) is associated with decreased generalized stress and anxiety. Further, organizational variables were significant predictors of officer stress. Officers who perceived less peer and administrative support faced increased work-related stress and generalized stress and anxiety. While being assaulted and witnessing staff assaults did not predict increased stress, officers with greater concerns about staff safety experienced more work-related stress. Expectedly, demographic variables (e.g., race, age, gender) and job-related characteristics (e.g., tenure) were not associated with officer stress. We also found mixed support for the importance of facility-level variables, with only facility overcrowding leading to increased generalized stress and anxiety.

[ Table 2 about here ]

The effect sizes of these variables further reveal that administrative support is vital to understanding officers’ increased stress, having the highest beta weights among all model variables in both regression models. However, other variables feature beta weights only slightly lower than administrative support, including peer support and staff safety in the work-related stress model and personal growth and peer support in the generalized stress and anxiety model. System maintenance also moderately impacts officers’ work-related stress, though its effect is half that of administrative support. Moreover, facility crowding and system maintenance have a moderate effect on generalized stress and anxiety, slightly lower than that of the next strongest predictor: peer support.

Improving Prison Climate

Having established prison climate's impact on correction officers’ stress, we conduct three OLS regressions predicting relationship, personal growth, and system maintenance to understand what contributes to better climate perceptions. Recall that the relationships dimension measures prison involvement and peer support among incarcerated individuals and officers’ support for those incarcerated. Personal growth measures the prison’s treatment orientation (e.g., practical and emotional skill-building). System maintenance measures the extent to which the prison is well-organized, with staff remaining in control. Across all three models, administrative support and staff safety significantly impact officers’ prison climate perceptions. Officers that report more administrative support and staff safety perceive improved relationships, personal growth, and system maintenance. Additionally, the average length of stay is also associated with climate perceptions, where officers working at facilities with a higher average length of stay for those incarcerated report greater relationships, personal growth, and system maintenance.

[ Table 3 about here ]

Focusing on the relationship model, gender and age have the strongest effect, where female and younger officers report stronger relationships. The remaining variables have a similar effect size with average length of stay the same as age, followed by administrative support and staff safety. Concerning personal growth, administrative support has the strongest effect, followed by average length of stay, gender (where females perceive greater personal growth), and staff safety. The staff safety effect size is less than two-thirds that of administrative support. Finally, facility security level has the strongest effect on system maintenance. Officers working in a maximum-security facility – where there is typically more cell time, stricter rules, and a rigid routine – perceive increased levels of system maintenance. The next strongest effect is administrative support, followed by average length of stay, the effect of which is approximately half that of facility security level.

Discussion

Overall, this article extends the existing literature on correction officer stress by examining a unique set of organizational correlates: three dimensions of prison climate. We initially believed that prison climate would substantially impact work-related stress and, perhaps to a lesser extent, generalized stress and anxiety. The latter measure accounts for officers’ overall stress, which may include work struggles and but also other factors, such as financial stress or relationship stress. Therefore, if prison climate variables also predicted officers’ generalized stress and anxiety, we would interpret this as officers ‘taking the stress of the job home with them’ or not effectively separating their work and home lives. Results revealed the opposite of what we had predicted: system maintenance predicted work-related stress, and both personal growth and system maintenance predicted generalized stress and anxiety. While system maintenance predicted both stress variables, its effect was slightly higher on generalized stress and anxiety; moreover, personal growth had nearly the strongest effect on generalized stress and anxiety compared to the other model variables.

The relationship between system maintenance and correction officer stress is intuitive. If officers feel they do not have the level of control necessary to do their jobs, then it would make sense that they feel more stress. This is particularly true if their lack of control is accompanied by a lack of order/routine and unclear policies. For example, Cheek and Miller (1983) found that officers considered “lack of clear guidelines” and “facility policies not being clearly communicated” to be the two most stressful aspects of working in corrections. Other stressful aspects included “not being treated as a professional,” “criticism from supervisors in front of [incarcerated individuals],” and “poor physical conditions and equipment.” Further, Dowden and Tellier (2004) found that officers' lack of participation in decision-making was one of the strongest predictors of work-related stress across twenty studies. Since these elements are so integral to an officer’s job, they impact not only officers at work but also off-duty, thereby affecting their overall wellbeing.

Interestingly, personal growth predicts generalized stress and anxiety but not work-related stress. This finding may be related to role ambiguity and how officers balance policing yet rehabilitating the incarcerated population. As Dowden and Tellier (2004) emphasize, “correctional officers who espouse a human service/rehabilitation orientation may be in direct conflict with the predominant or equal emphasis placed on the custody/control functions of the correctional officer” (p. 41). Officers’ concerns about rehabilitation may not be an immediate stressor while on the job, where they are instead focused on, for example, system maintenance and safety. However, it may be something that officers consider while reflecting on their workday or discussing their careers with friends and family, impacting their generalized stress and anxiety but not their work-related stress.

The relationships dimension predicted neither work-related stress nor generalized stress and anxiety. This result may be due to the scale’s lower KR-20 value being just below the acceptable range. It may also be attributed to officers’ differing perspectives regarding the incarcerated population’s involvement in the prison and peer support. Some officers may view this greater sense of community as a threat and fear that those incarcerated may band together in a way that may harm officers. Other officers may believe a lower sense of community among the incarcerated population leads to disinvestment in the prison community and more misconduct. It is possible that the competing perspectives are being averaged in the analysis to suggest a non-significant relationship between the relationships dimension and correction officer stress.

In addition to prison climate, administrative support, peer support, and staff safety predicted increased stress, with the strongest effect across both models being administrative support. These are common findings in related studies, most of which have concluded that less support and perceptions of danger lead to increased stress  (Butler et al., 2019; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Finney et al., 2013). In the current study, officers frequently expressed that the administration too often sided with those incarcerated. Only 8.9% of the officers agreed or strongly agreed that the administration would stand by them if something should happen. Concerning safety, one officer described this best when discussing the purpose of his position: to respond to potentially violent incidents that will inevitably arise. While the job may seem straightforward on a day-to-day basis, where officers spend time supervising, counting, and interacting with the incarcerated, the officer was stressed that, at any moment, an incident could occur that threatens his life.

Maybe this: These findings demonstrate that both administrative support and safety perceptions, in addition to the average length of stay among the incarcerated, predict all three dimensions of prison climate. The administration sets the tone for how the facility is operated, functioning through a top-down approach. If officer support impacts the incarcerated population’s perceptions of prison climate, it would make sense that support from the administration also impacts officers’ perceptions of prison climate. It is also intuitive that officers’ safety perceptions impact their perceptions of prison climate, particularly the system maintenance dimension. Relating to the relationship and personal growth dimensions, correction officers who feel safer at work may be more willing to engage in rehabilitative programming than officers who fear for their safety and prioritize rule enforcement. Finally, while the average length of stay finding may seem counterintuitive, it would make sense that those incarcerated for longer periods set the tone of the facility that has become their home. Prior studies have revealed that people incarcerated for life in prison without the possibility of parole do not engage in significantly more misconduct than their parole-eligible counterparts(Sorensen & Reidy, 2019). On the other hand, jails can be particularly dangerous and stressful for officers given the constant population turnover (e.g., Ellison & Gainey, 2020; Lambert et al., 2018).

Limitations

The limitations of this study stem partly from potential correlates of correction officer stress that were not accounted for in the analysis. We were not able to control for officers’ shifts and days off, for example, but know that working weekends and holidays can elevate officers’ stress and cause tensions between their work and home lives (e.g., Brough & Williams, 2007; Elliot et al., 2015; Finn, 2000; Swenson et al., 2008). Future research should account for these indicators while measuring prison climate using an updated and more reliable scale (see Tonkin, 2016, for a review of various social climate scales). It would also be interesting to compare the perspectives of officers, administrators, and those incarcerated and assess how their differing perceptions of prison climate may contribute to officer stress. Should future researchers be able to obtain data from more prison facilities, we recommend conducting a multi-level analysis. For example, Steiner and Wooldredge (2015) found that facility-level violence predicted correction officer stress in their analysis of over 1,800 officers across 45 prisons. Facility-level prison climate may impact correction officers differently than their individual-level perceptions of prison climate, which we measure in the current study. Finally, while the present study sampled officers from eight different prison facilities, all participants were from one Department of Correction in a northeastern state. This state has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country and an average officer salary that is among the highest in the country. These are essential factors that should be investigated to provide a clearer understanding of stress-inducing factors as well as prison climate

Implications

In short, we can reduce correction officer stress by improving the prison climate, and a way to achieve both goals is to ensure that officers feel supported and safe while at work. Reforms may involve clearer communication between correction officers and the administration, with new policies based on officers’ feedback from their professional experiences. Given officers’ daily experiences supervising the incarcerated population, administrators may consider giving officers more autonomy to make decisions and supporting officers when mistakes happen. Moreover, as most of the incarcerated population will eventually be released back into the community, officers may consider extending this autonomy to people incarcerated to promote personal development. This increased autonomy for the incarcerated population may improve the prison socialization process, reducing some of the disorders associated with shorter lengths of stay. That said, to reduce officer stress, it may also be helpful to establish routines and standards in minimum and medium security level facilities, similar to those of maximum facilities, that provide clear day-to-day expectations. With a more established routine, in addition to organized and clean facilities, officers' safety and health concerns may be reduced, thereby improving their perceptions of the prison environment. Finally, if correction officer stress persists after such reforms are implemented, administrators may also consider addressing the institutional barriers to help-seeking, such as reducing stigmas and creating more supportive environments (Wills et al., 2021)

Concluding Remarks

A healthy workforce is vital in all fields, particularly corrections, where officers work to maintain security and enhance public safety. While a “rich body of research” (Zhao et al., 2002, p. 44) has developed seeking to better understand police officer stress, it is also vital to examine correction officer stress. This need is particularly true given their duties of working inside a prison facility, supervising potentially dangerous people being held against their will. This study improves our understanding of prison climate and correction officer stress, further highlighting the importance of organizational characteristics. Similar to prior research on social climate in correctional and psychiatric facilities, prison climate impacted correction officers’ work-related and generalized stress and anxiety. Officers who felt less in control and less of a routine at work expressed more overall stress; officers who perceived low levels of personal growth among the incarcerated population also felt more generalized stress and anxiety. Feeling supported at work by their peers and the administration was also crucial for both domains of correction officers’ stress. To improve perceptions of the prison climate and thereby officer stress, correctional administrations should ensure officers feel supported and safe at work; these variables were key predictors of an improved prison climate. Given the prior research linking officer wellbeing to the wellbeing of incarcerated people, reducing correction officer stress and improving the prison climate is also anticipated to benefit the incarcerated population.

Notes

  1. This project was supported by the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice (Grant Number: 2014-IJ-CX-0026) to Dr. Marie Griffin and Dr. John Hepburn, with the Massachusetts data collected by co-principal investigators Dr. Natasha Frost and Dr. Carlos Monteiro. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institute of Justice or the U.S. Department of Justice.

  2. For instance, Castle (2008); Castle and Martin (2006) feature a response rate of 18%, Taxman and Gordon (2009) 18.23%, Neveu (2007) 57%, and Armstrong and Griffin (2004); Griffin (2006) 58.4%.

  3. These three dimensions are comprised of the nine following subscales: (1) relationship: involvement, support, and expressiveness; (2) personal development: autonomy, practical orientation, and personal problem orientation; and (3) system maintenance: order/organization, clarity, and staff control. Support for the nine subscales' internal validity and factor structure is mixed (see Tonkin, 2016, for a review). In response to these concerns, scholars have proposed other measures inspired by Moos’ (1974) original work. For example, Beazley and Gudjonsson (2011) combined all of the questions from the WAS into one measure of social climate. We follow a similar strategy in the current analysis using the CIES. Rather than combining all of the questions into one overall prison climate scale, however, we measure Moos’ (1974) three dimensions of prison climate.

  4. With a general rule of thumb being that KR-20/alpha values of 0.6-0.7 indicate an acceptable level of reliability, we recognize that the relationships dimension’s alpha falls just below this range. We proceed cautiously and remind readers of this as we present the results.

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Author Bios

Stacie St. Louis, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia Southern University. She holds a Ph.D. in Criminology and Justice Policy from Northeastern University. Her research focuses on the administration of justice, including pretrial detention, case processing, and corrections.

Carlos Monteiro, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Sociology Department at Suffolk University. Dr. Monteiro’s research focuses largely on corrections with a specific focus on recidivism and reentry. In 2015, Dr. Monteiro earned his Ph.D. in criminology and justice policy from Northeastern University.

Natasha A. Frost, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Associate Dean of Research in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Frost’s scholarship focuses broadly on punishment and social control and specifically on the sources and consequences of mass incarceration.

Tables


Table 1. Descriptive Statistics (N=239)

 

% or Mean

n or SD (Range)

Stress Measures

 

 

   Work-Related Stress

3.01

0.79 (1-5)

   Generalized Stress and Anxiety

1.94

0.58 (0.36-3.73)

Prison Climate

   Relationship

0.38

0.19 (0-0.83)

   Personal Growth

0.48

0.21 (0-1)

   System Maintenance

0.52

0.21 (0-1)

Work-Related Characteristics

   Peer Support

3.80

0.50 (1.5-5)

   Administrative Support

2.31

0.92 (1-5)

   Assaulted by Incarcerated Individual

43.5%

104

   Witnessed Staff Assault

50.2%

120

   Staff Safety

1.17

0.84 (0-3)

   Maximum Security Facility

36.8%

88

   Facility Crowding

0.91

0.14 (0.75-1.15)

   Average Length of Stay

752.71

445.29 (187-1,650)

Control Variables

   White

82.4%

197

   Male

84.9%

203

   Age

37.85

9.41 (23-61)

   Tenure

10.38

7.56 (1.16-30.44)

   Sergeant

15.5%

37


Table 2. OLS Regression Analyses Predicting Officer Stress (N=239)

 

Work-Related Stress

Generalized Stress and Anxiety

 

Beta

Coef. (SE)

Beta

Coef. (SE)

CIES: Relationship

0.14

0.58

(0.31)

0.13

0.41

(0.25)

CIES: Personal Growth

-0.12

-0.44

(0.27)

-0.20**

-0.55

(0.21)

CIES: System Maintenance

-0.13*

-0.49

(0.24)

-0.15*

-0.42

(0.19)

White

0.003

0.01

(0.12)

-0.006

-0.01

(0.09)

Male

-0.12

-0.25

(0.14)

-0.005

-0.01

(0.11)

Age

-0.12

-0.01

(0.01)

0.04

0.003

(0.01)

Tenure

-0.03

-0.003

(0.01)

-0.14

-0.01

(0.01)

Sergeant

0.12

0.25

(0.14)

0.04

0.06

(0.11)

Peer Support

-0.22***

-0.35

(0.10)

-0.19**

-0.22

(0.08)

Administrative Support

-0.26***

-0.22

(0.06)

-0.21**

-0.13

(0.05)

Assaulted by Incarcerated Individual

0.007

0.01

(0.10)

0.02

0.03

(0.08)

Witnessed Staff Assault

0.007

0.01

(0.10)

-0.01

-0.01

(0.08)

Staff Safety

-0.20***

-0.19

(0.06)

0.03

0.02

(0.05)

Maximum Security Facility

0.01

0.02

0.06

0.08

(0.11)

Facility Crowding

-0.07

-0.42

(0.33)

-0.16**

-0.70

(0.26)

Average Length of Stay

0.10

0.0002

(0.0001)

0.02

0.00002

(0.0001)

Highest VIF

3.05

3.05

F-test

6.47***

4.34***

R2

0.318

0.238

*p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001


Table 3. OLS Regression Analyses Predicting Prison Climate (N=239)

 

CIES: Relationship

CIES: Personal Growth

CIES: System Maintenance

 

Beta

Coef. (SE)

Beta

Coef. (SE)

Beta

Coef. (SE)

White

-0.03

-0.02

(0.03)

0.08

0.05

(0.03)

-0.08

-0.05

(0.03)

Male

-0.22***

-0.12

(0.03)

-0.18**

-0.10

(0.04)

0.03

0.02

(0.04)

Age

-0.21*

-0.004

(0.002)

-0.12

-0.003

(0.002)

-0.08

-0.002

(0.002)

Tenure

0.10

0.002

(0.002)

0.10

0.003

(0.002)

0.06

0.002

(0.003)

Sergeant

-0.10

-0.05

(0.03)

-0.10

-0.06

(0.04)

-0.03

-0.02

(0.04)

Peer Support

0.07

0.03

(0.02)

-0.01

-0.004

(0.03)

0.07

0.03

(0.03)

Administrative Support

0.19**

0.04

(0.01)

0.24***

0.06

(0.02)

0.29***

0.07

(0.02)

Assaulted by Incarcerated Individual

-0.08

-0.03

(0.02)

-0.08

-0.03

(0.03)

-0.09

-0.04

(0.03)

Witnessed Staff Assault

0.07

0.03

(0.02)

-0.01

-0.003

(0.03)

-0.03

-0.01

(0.03)

Staff Safety

0.17**

0.04

(0.01)

0.14*

0.03

(0.02)

0.17*

0.04

(0.02)

Maximum Security Facility

0.01

0.002

(0.03)

-0.10

-0.04

(0.04)

0.35***

0.15

(0.04)

Facility Crowding

-0.01

-0.02

(0.08)

-0.06

-0.10

(0.09)

0.07

0.10

(0.10)

Average Length of Stay

0.21*

0.0001

0.00003

0.20*

0.0001

(0.00004)

0.17*

0.0001

0.00004

Highest VIF

3.03

3.03

3.03

F-test

5.32***

5.89***

4.35***

R2

0.235

0.254

0.201

*p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001

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