PTSD in prison employees

PTSD in prison employees

Understandably, and almost inevitably, working in a prison environment can be a stressful occupation, but it’s been stated that ‘Prison officers are at greater risk of work-related stress than most other occupations in the United Kingdom’.

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.

Research shows that prisoner to staff assaults have been steadily rising in recent years. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults (highly stressful situations where prison workers are called upon to intervene) have also increased. This ‘constant threat of violence, either to themselves or those around them… and the consistent threatening ambiance’ is thought to be ‘more stressful than direct victimisation. The result could be the development of a state of hypervigilance, found to be common amongst correctional officers and a critical symptom of PTSD.’

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.

Internationally, suicide rates are higher amongst correctional officers than the general population. The New Jersey Suicide Task Force (2009) discovered rates of suicide to be double that of police officers and the general population. They estimated an average life expectancy for correctional officers as 59 years old in comparison to the UK’s general population life expectancy of 79 and 83 years for men and women, respectively. 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.’

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.

Although it is recognised that in some establishments, appropriate support still doesn’t exist. One ex-prison employee 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.

‘Few studies have evaluated stress-reduction interventions in prison officers. McCraty et al. (2009) reported the findings of a successful case-controlled initiative that included several modules such as identifying risk factors for health, refocusing and restructuring emotions, biofeedback, enhancing communication skills, and how to apply the skills learned in the workplace. Three months post-intervention, improvements were found for prison officers on physical markers of health, such as cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure, and a reduction in self-reported emotional distress was also observed. Perceptions of support, motivation, goal clarity and productivity also improved in the intervention group.

More recently, Dugan et al. (2016) used participatory action research to compare the effects of two methods of delivering health and safety interventions in US correctional facilities; the first initiative was ‘top-down’ (driven by administrators assisted by health professionals); and the second was ‘bottom up’ (developed by frontline officers themselves). Both programmes had mixed success, with the authors noting that setting simple and achievable targets and ensuring continuity through regular meetings were particularly important. Management support and the availability of funding were also among the challenges encountered, with managers sometimes discouraging the implementation of interventions due to security concerns and other operational reasons.

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 primary, secondary and tertiary stress management options are available, programmes should be tailored to the unique challenges faced by correctional institutions and the people working within them.’

  • 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
  • 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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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.