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Correctional Officers and Compassion Fatigue

The emotional impact of COVID-19 on our nation's prison and jail officers.

I know firsthand how toxic working in corrections can be—if you let it get to you—but I also know that there are proven strategies that can minimize the stress, burnout, and cynicism that inevitably finds its way into our lives serving as jail and prison professionals. If you do not address it, it will consume you, which can contribute to a host of self-destructive behaviors, including suicide. These thoughts and behaviors are unfortunately embedded deep with the culture of corrections and as such, they remain compelling issues that warrant our attention. (See "Preventing Suicide in Corrections.")

System-wide changes have been slow, which is not necessarily surprising for those of us in this line of work. So, my suggestion is that we redirect our attention from changing the system to changing the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of those who work within the walls of our nation’s prisons and jails. In the words of Tom Ziglar, “Change begins with you, but it doesn’t start until you do.” If we begin by changing our outlook it will inevitably change our attitude. Like negativity, positivity also can be infectious, but it has to start with you, your thoughts, your behaviors, and most importantly, your actions.

Martin Sanchez / Unsplash
Source: Martin Sanchez / Unsplash

According to a 2015 article by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, correctional employees experience higher rates of stress-related illnesses that contribute to low levels of job satisfaction, which has been linked to burnout and is thought to lead to compassion fatigue. The research on compassion fatigue and correctional officers has been scant, which is why it warrants further attention, especially now that the coronavirus (COVID-19) has infiltrated our nation’s prisons and jails. As "essential" employees who do not have the luxury of working remotely from home, stress and burnout levels are inevitably heightened, especially since we find ourselves in unprecedented times with societal lock-downs and no past practices to guide us in how we are supposed to move forward.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

The National Commission on Correctional Healthcare defines compassion fatigue as a general term applied to anyone who suffers as a result of serving in a helping capacity. When used in this context, compassion fatigue can be seen in all public safety professions, including among our first responders.

Osman Rana / Unsplash
First Responders
Source: Osman Rana / Unsplash

Correctional officers, unlike some first responders, experience trauma directly but also indirectly through the retelling of traumatic events by prisoners. We know that a noteworthy percentage of criminal offenders have experienced some form of trauma, particularly during childhood and adolescence, which has likely contributed to their criminality in some fashion. Working with criminal offenders with trauma histories places correctional officers and other correctional employees at an increased risk of compassion fatigue.

Over time, correctional officers can become desensitized to the plight of those under their care and this lack of empathy can contribute to the initial onset of compassion fatigue. Similar to burnout, compassion fatigue mimics many of the same symptoms such as isolating from others, overeating, excessive drinking, drug use, and other harmful coping measures. Other signs of compassion fatigue distress often include increased irritability, procrastination, and a gradual deterioration of the correctional officer’s physical and mental well-being. Compassion fatigue differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is also very common among first responders.

Larry Farr / Unsplash
Prison yard
Source: Larry Farr / Unsplash

My colleagues recently published an article titled "More Research Needed to Understand PTSD-Related Injuries," in which they emphasized that emotional or mental exhaustion at the time of a directly experienced trauma was highly correlated with PTSD. However, compassion fatigue differs in that the trauma can be experienced indirectly through the constant retelling of traumatic stories involving physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment experienced by a significant percentage of our nation’s incarcerated offenders, particularly female offenders. (See "Corrections System Fails Female Prisoners: One Woman's Story.")

We cannot discount the importance of prevention and intervention efforts in combating the onset of compassion fatigue, or at the very least, lessening the grip it has on our emotional well-being.

What Can Be Done?

Those of us who work in helping professions tend to put others first, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but we are not as diligent about taking care of our own physical and mental well-being. We tend to give great advice, but we rarely heed our own advice when we find ourselves in our own times of darkness.

The National Commission on Correctional Healthcare suggests that we:

  • Find time for self-reflection and acknowledge that the emotions we are experiencing are typically warning signs—or rather, your mind and body’s way of telling you that you need help.
  • Recognize the need for, and importance of, self-care (physically and mentally). Being big and buff is often necessary in corrections, but do not neglect the importance of mental health care, which is equally important, if not more so.
  • Give yourself permission to seek help. Yes, we know you are emotionally and physically strong and that this may soon pass—but in the absence of treatment, it will often worsen, not get better. WE are all human and therefore, vulnerable to compassion fatigue. The superiority complex that stems from working in this profession can be our worst enemy. It is time to get over yourself and push your ego and pride to the side.
  • Trust the process. Therapy is intended to help you, but you must trust the process and be honest and direct with the therapist. Have realistic expectations and continually work on yourself. A one-hour session will only touch the tip of what is likely a giant iceberg of emotional distress that you have been trying to conceal from others for quite some time.