The Pressures of Being a Prison Officer


The difficulties faced by prison officers in the context of a growing prison population is an area which is often ignored by the mainstream media.

I recently visited the Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre (SWCC), where it was evident that officers are far more than just ‘key turners’, with one advising that she is required to be a counsellor, sibling and psychologist – in addition to her ‘normal’ duties – on any given day.

The stress associated with the position can be overwhelming for many, especially those who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of those under their care – often resulting in a condition known as ‘compassion fatigue’.

Professionals who are exposed to the trauma of others – such as counsellors and psychologists – can become emotionally detached and less capable of experiencing empathy, gradually ‘dehumanising’ those they are meant to assist. Compassion fatigue is marked by reduced productivity, increased cynicism and can lead to depression and other stress-related conditions, ultimately leading to burnout.

From a patient or inmate’s perspective, a professional’s compassion fatigue can hamper efforts towards overcoming underlying conditions.

Officer Burnout

Studies suggest that prison officers suffer exceptionally high rates of workplace-related stress.

In 2011, researcher Caterina Spinaris found that 34% of US correctional officers suffer from PTSD, more than double the rate experienced by military veterans (14%) and almost ten times the rate amongst the general population (3.5%).

In fact, correctional officers are the occupational group with the highest rate of mental stress claims in NSW, also displaying high rates of alcohol and drug dependency.

I was advised that most officers within the SWCC’s mental health units leave the position within just a year – the high turnover rate partly being caused by stress-related conditions.

Prison Officer Burnout

There are two major theories which seek to explain the correlation between work environment variables and burnout.

The first is the ‘job demand-control model’, which hypothesises that employees who faces demands with little control are likely to experience burnout.

The role of a prison officer can be demanding, and increasingly so in an overcrowded environment.

The lack of control within the prison environment can arise from a range of factors – including the ever-present danger, strict rules to follow, and inadequate numbers of officers and mental health professionals. Guards may be exposed to violence, injury and even death – events which can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

SWCC guards report being exposed to fights between inmates, attacks on themselves and colleagues, inmate self-harm and suicide attempts. The need for constant vigilance can lead to anxiety, which can in turn accelerate officer burnout. Two guards separately raised concerns about a particular inmate, who they say stabbed another 38 times “for no reason”.

Officers report being verbally abused by inmates, with one saying she has been called a “murderer”, a “pig” and a “white dog” – with graffiti attacks against her appearing in recreational area windows.

A 2014 Texas study found that 441 prison officers reported the incompatibility of their work and family roles as the most significant issue affecting their stress levels.

One SWCC guard told me he could not discuss work with his wife because it was too confronting and depressing.

The second major theory which seeks to explain job burnout is the ‘conservation of resources model’, which posits that employees who are not provided with workplace resources – both practical and emotional – are more likely to become unable to perform their roles.

The SWCC has only two dedicated mental health units – the MHSU and SDU – with a total of just 23 beds reserved for the most serious cases.

Many women who are suffering from mental health conditions are therefore unable to receive the care of specialists, leaving many guards to take on the role of mental health workers despite a lack of formal training.

Prison officers report that they are expected to deal with inmates based solely on a gut feeling. Two male officers told me they were expected to know from mere experience when an inmate is at serious risk.

Matt Bindle has been a prison officer for 17 years. He says the “vast majority” of prison officers have no formal mental health training at all. While limited specialist psychiatric services are available, untrained officers are expected to make recommendations and deal with the day-to-day needs of mentally ill inmates; a situation which poses risks to both inmates and guards.

The high incidence of mental health problems amongst inmates can make an officer’s job far more difficult – and is made worse by shortfalls in specialist mental health staff.

Burnout Affects Both Staff and Inmates

As stated, emotional exhaustion can have adverse effects for staff and inmates alike.

A study of 510 psychiatrists working in 28 different prison units found that burnout was associated with distant or rejecting views of patients. Negative staff attitudes, in turn, are linked to poorer outcomes for inmates.

In the SWCC, signs of burnout include expressions of annoyance at inmates too often requesting help, or criticism of inmates who are believed to be engaging in attention-seeking behaviour. One male guard expressed the view that most instances of self-harm are to seek attention, while another said that a number of inmates are “beyond saving”.

Such views may affect the quality of care given to those who are suffering from mental health problems.

Addressing the Problem

There are certainly ways to reduce the incidence of compassion fatigue amongst prison officers.

Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge the unrealistic demands often placed on officers, many of whom are inadequately trained or equipped to deal with a role that is becoming increasingly difficult due to prison overcrowding.

Increasing officer numbers could help spread the workload; in that regard, the NSW Department of Corrections recently announced its biggest recruitment drive ever.

Providing officers with formal mental health training may help equip them to identify and address issues as they arise.

And of course, increasing the number of specialist mental health workers within the prison system and expanding existing facilities – or introducing new ones – may take some of the pressure away from prison officers, helping reduce the incidence of burnout.


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About Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a journalist and paralegal working on claims for institutional abuse. He has a passion for social justice and criminal law reform, and is a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
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