PTSD in prison employees

PTSD in prison employees

It is commonly acknowledged that working in a prison can be a stressful occupation, however, research has shown that prison officers in the United Kingdom face a higher risk of work-related stress compared to most other jobs.

Caring for, safeguarding and working to rehabilitate sometimes dangerous and unpredictable individuals can cause high levels of stress, particularly when there are incidents of violence or abuse. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of prisons are considered ‘overcrowded’ and understaffed, and so with heavy workloads, lack of autonomy and support, low resources, role stressors and exposure to aggression and violence, it’s little wonder that prisons can be volatile environments in which to work.

According to research, the number of assaults on prison staff by prisoners has been increasing in recent years. Additionally, the frequency of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, which often require intervention from prison staff, has also risen. This constant exposure to the threat of violence and hostile environment is believed to be more stressful than direct victimisation, which can lead to the development of hypervigilance in prison officers, a symptom commonly found in those with PTSD and C-PTSD.

One prison officer interviewed by Joanna Binley in the report ‘The Experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Ex-Prison Officers’ stated “In prison work, you’ve got to put up a front all the time…Even if you’re scared, you have to put on this persona of ‘you can handle it, you can do this’. You have to be on the top of your game every day, you can’t let it slip even for a moment, if you do the prisoners will have you, they’re predators, I mean you’re working with murderers for God’s sake. If you seem weak, you can very easily find yourself in a dangerous situation.”

‘In addition to the threat of violence, prison officers are exposed to a range of potentially traumatising events. Many prison officers witness violence, self-harm incidents, drug overdoses, and attempted and completed suicide.’ Binley noted.

Around the world, suicide rates are higher among prison officers than the general population. A study by the New Jersey Suicide Task Force in 2009 found that the suicide rate among prison officers is twice as high as that of police officers and the general population. They also found that the average life expectancy for prison officers is 59 years, which is much lower than the average life expectancy of 79 and 83 years for men and women in the general population in the UK.

‘The reason for these elevated rates of suicide could be due to higher levels of PTSD which has been associated with increased levels of suicide‘, Binley suggested.

How many prison officers have PTSD in the UK?

Disappointingly, to date, there has been no study exploring the prevalence of PTSD in UK prison officers, however, studies show that:

  • 33% of the correctional officers studied in Canada screened positively for PTSD,
  • 53.4% of officers screened in American jails had PTSD symptoms.

High levels of PTSD were also identified in prison officers in Australia, France and Canada. It is probable UK prison officers experience PTSD rates similar to their international counterparts.

Female prison workers, BME prison workers and more experienced staff are particularly likely to experience PTSD.

What does PTSD look like in prison employees?

Everyone is slightly different, which means their response to a stressful event or series of events will vary. PTSD and C-PTSD does not consist of a “one size fits all” set of symptoms, but common indicators of PTSD include:

– the victim constantly reliving the traumatic incident(s), or having flashbacks.
– increased anxiety and fear, particularly in a similar environment to that where the incident took place.
– sufferers may become “triggered” by situations, people or objects which remind them of the incident, causing intense feelings of fear and anxiety
– sleep disturbances are common
– sufferers may get intrusive thoughts which are difficult to manage.

What can be done to minimise the risk of PTSD, or to treat its symptoms?

It’s important that staff get appropriate support and assistance as soon as possible after a violent or otherwise stressful incident. This may include:

– Prompt access to talking therapies such as counselling, CBT or EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing)
– Support from management and colleagues
– Appropriate time off or work-related adjustments as necessary.

It’s important for staff and management to be mindful of the signs and symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviours, and feelings of guilt or shame.

It’s also important to take the time to talk about the emotional and psychological impact that working in a prison can have. If you or a colleague are struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. It’s also important to take care of yourself and colleagues by practicing self-care techniques such as exercise, relaxation, and meditation. Creating a supportive and non-judgmental environment where people can talk openly about their experiences and emotions, and encouraging peer support and team-building activities tis vital.

Despite these relatively easy to implement practices, it is recognised that in some establishments, appropriate support still doesn’t exist. Another ex-prison employee interviewed by Joanna Binley said  “I had a manager tell me the more fraggled (‘fraggle’, is used amongst officers to mean an individual with workplace caused mental health issues) you are the better you’re doing your job. Another senior manager told me being a fraggle was a badge of honour and he told me to pull myself together.” and attitudes like this show the clear need for more support of prison staff.

To date, there have not been many studies set up to evaluate stress-reduction interventions in prison officers. However, a study by McCraty et al. (2009) found that a program that taught things like identifying potential health risks, managing emotions, using special equipment to help with stress, improving communication skills, and using what they learned on the job helped improve physical health markers and reduce stress.

After three months of the program, the group that did the program had better physical health markers like cholesterol, heart rate, and blood pressure. They also reported feeling less stressed and had better feelings of support, motivation, clear goals, and productivity.

There is a clear need for more research on interventions within the prison service to inform initiatives that help improve the wellbeing of officers. Although various  stress management options are available, the programs should be specific to the challenges that come with working in a prison to help best support their staff.

  • Dugan, A.G., D.A. Farr, S. Namazi, R.A. Henning, K.N. Wallace, M.E. Ghaziri, L. Punnett, J.L. Dussetschleger, and M.G. Cherniack, (2016), ‘Process evaluation of two participatory approaches: Implementing Total Worker Health® interventions in a correctional workforce’, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 59, 897-918.
  • McCraty, R., M. Atkinson, L. Lipsenthal, and L. Arguelles (2009), ‘New hope for correctional officers: An innovative program for reducing stress and health risks’, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 34 (4), 251-272.
  • Stress and wellbeing in prison officers
  • Ministry of Justice. (2021). Safety in custody statistics, England and Wales: Deaths in prison custody to March 2021, assaults and self-harm to December 2020. 
  • The Experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Ex-Prison Officers by Joanna Binley
  • Kimble, M., Boxwala, M., Bean, W., Maletsky, K., Halper, J., Spollen, K., & Fleming, K. (2014). The impact of hypervigilance: Evidence for a forward feedback loop. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(2), 241-245.
  • Trounson, J., Pfeifer, J. E., & Critchley, C. (2016). Correctional officers and work-related environmental adversity: A cross-occupational comparison. Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 12(1), 18-35.
  • New Jersey Police Suicide Task Force. (2009). New Jersey Police Suicide Task Force Report. Final(r2.3.09).pdf
  • Fusco, N., Ricciardelli, R., Jamshidi, L., Carleton, N., Barnim, N., Hilton, Z., & Groll, D. (2021). When our work hits home: Trauma and mental disorders in correctional officers and other correctional workers. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 1-11.
  • Jaegers, L., Matthieu, M., Vaughn, M., Werth, P., Katz, I., Ahmad, S. (2019). Postraumatic stress disorder and job burnout among jail officers. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 61(6), 505-510.
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