Heading into 2022, officers and leaders in the corrections sector of law enforcement find themselves at the intersection of many familiar issues to the profession and law enforcement as a whole – recruitment and retention, officer wellness and readiness, and working conditions. While these intersecting issues in corrections have been documented and studied for decades, it is the second year of a global pandemic that has brought renewed attention and, in the best cases, an urgency to address these issues. In this article, we’ll look at how research into how these issues intersect and how unpacking those connections contributes to a more holistic understanding of corrections officers’ needs and experience on the job.
Retaining current staffers is a perennial top priority throughout law enforcement. Retention in the field of law enforcement has been studied and discussed for decades but, due to a combination of interconnected factors, including the so-called Great Resignation, there is evidence that the problem is growing. While potential causes of staffing shortfalls will continue to be investigated by researchers, it is clear now that turnover rates in some regions are approaching a crisis level. As of the publication of this article, some corrections departments are seeing annual attrition rates greater than 50%.
The need to retain corrections officers bears a lot in common with arguments for retaining law enforcement officers generally – training is costly and time-intensive, and there is an additional, implicit cost to knowledge and experience “walking out the door.” Much like in other law enforcement fields, corrections officers often leave the profession seeking better pay and working conditions, along with greater access to opportunities to develop skills and career advancement opportunities. Retention challenges also contribute substantially to staffing shortages which are a primary source of stress among corrections officers (more on that later), creating a cycle that is difficult to “break.”
Difficulties in retention and recruitment contribute to an oft-cited problem in the world of corrections: issues with staffing levels. A study from the RAND Corporation and the National Institue of Justice published in 2018 showed that surveyed corrections officers ranked recruitment as the top issue facing their profession. At the federal level, staffing shortfalls are an issue, but the most dramatic examples of shortfalls can be seen in states across the country. These gaps in staffing and shift coverage lead to the kind of working conditions that increase attrition and endanger the safety of corrections staff and prisoners.
Like many issues in government and public policy, additional funding would likely go a long way to improving corrections officers’ salaries, benefits, as well as access to training and career advancement opportunities. Research-driven tactics for improving recruitment, much like retention, are centered on better understanding the needs of potential recruits. The same RAND Corporation study identified establishing and promoting competency standards for recruits, supporting those standards with practical and evidence-based training, and involving corrections officers in decision- and policy-making as proactive steps the corrections sector can take to improve recruitment outcomes.
Burnout & Officer Wellness
Burnout is a complex set of symptoms and circumstances involving one’s occupation that generally involves feelings of exhaustion caused by chronic stress that isn’t well-managed. Research suggests that burnout affects anywhere from 9 to 30% of working adults. Among corrections officers, that figure is as high as 37%. This can lead to diminishing organizational commitment and counter-productive attitudes around safety, security, and inmate rehabilitation, as well as feelings of callousness.
Though burnout is a known issue in law enforcement, evidence suggests the problem is especially acute among corrections officers. In one Florida-based study, researchers examined differences in stress levels among police and corrections officers and found stark differences in how the two groups experienced workplace stress. A particularly dramatic example occurred when the two groups were asked about staffing shortages. 26.4% of police officers reported it as causing a high level of stress, whereas 73.3% of corrections officers said it contributed to high levels of stress.
Prison overcrowding is another issue at the intersection of many of corrections officers’ challenges. A recent Pew Research Center study shows that, while the US prison population has receded slightly from a historic high, it remains quite large. Tightened budgets, policy decisions, and often inadequate facilities contribute to overcrowding at many prisons, especially at the state level. Though consistent data from states is somewhat difficult to obtain, the most recently published federal statistics show that as many as 36% of prisoners are currently being held in facilities operating at more than their rated or design capability.
The effects of overcrowded prison facilities on corrections officers are felt throughout the profession. Increased incidence of assault and riots are correlated with overcrowding, putting officers in greater danger. The Corrections Officer Association of Delaware, for example, estimates overcrowding combined with understaffing leads to a 57% attrition rate of officers over a three-year span.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has further revealed many of these structural issues and added greater urgency to the need to address long-standing challenges in the corrections profession. Corrections facilities, especially those operating beyond their capacity, are ideally suited for spreading highly transmissible diseases. Like police officers, corrections officers have seen COVID emerge as the leading cause of duty-related death since the pandemic began.
The additional strain caused by the global pandemic has contributed to ever-growing rates of attrition and retirement. Though it will likely take another year or two for comprehensive academic studies to reach publication, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to point out that systems and corrections officers are approaching a breaking point.
Though the issues facing corrections officers and leaders are substantial, other law enforcement sectors have shown there are evidence-based tactics to confront what can seem like intractable problems. At the root of many of these overlapping issues are needs expressed by corrections officers that are not being adequately met by their work conditions. Agencies find that employing research-based early intervention and officer management solutions can create meaningful change for officers by giving leaders the knowledge and tools to manage their workforce effectively while mitigating risk.