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Kansas Seeks To Address Prison Guard ‘Correctional Fatigue’

Julie Denesha


A new program in Kansas aims to improve conditions in prisons, but it’s not for inmates. The state Department of Corrections is one of many prison and jail systems around the country working to overcome “correctional fatigue” — the mental and physical stress that lead to corrections workers burning out.

From Orange Is The New Black to Shawshank Redemption to Cool Hand Luke, prison guards often have gotten a bad rap as some of the worst bullies featured on television and in the movies.

And that rankles John Bates.

“You never see any correctional officer heroes. All you ever see is the bosses, the Boss Hoggs,” Bates says.

Bates has spent more than a decade working as a correctional officer in one of Kansas’s major prisons; he asked that it not be identified.

On a recent afternoon off, he said he sees corrections as a way to keep the public safe and improve inmates’ lives. But it’s work that comes with nearly constant stress.   

“There’s a great deal of distrust by the inmate population towards staff which sometimes ends up in violence, sometimes ends up with nothing more than obscenities. But it is quite difficult dealing with inmates on a daily basis.” Bates says.

Credit Dave Ranney / KHI News Service
KHI News Service
Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, welcomes a program to address "correctional fatigue" but says much more needs to be done.

Not just a job

Those challenges aren’t unique to Kansas.

“Everyone figures ‘Ah, it’s just a job.’ Well, it isn’t just a job to go to work every day having to wear a raincoat so you don’t get piss and vomit and excrement and semen and mucus thrown at you,” says Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Information Network, which advocates on behalf of some 400,000 publically employed corrections officers in the United States.  

The Kansas Department of Corrections is hoping Dr. Caterina Spinaris can help turn things around for its staff, which includes more than 2,000 correctional officers.

Spinaris is a psychologist based in southern Colorado who coined the term “correctional fatigue” to describe the detrimental psychological effects of their work.

According to her research, 27 percent of corrections officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s comparable to rates seen in combat veterans.

Corrections work can trigger anxiety problems, substance abuse and depression, and the toxic work environment of a prison can foster paranoid thinking patterns.

“To be mistrusting, cynical. To find fault with things. To blame a lot. Seeing people as good or bad. All-or-nothing kind of thinking where people will say anybody who’s not like me is bad,” says Spinaris, describing the patterns of negative thinking that can result from correctional fatigue.

Correctional fatigue can spill over into physical health as well, causing high blood pressure and weight gain.

One study shows correctional officers have an average life span of just 59 years.

Spinaris says correctional fatigue can also influence the treatment of inmates.

“It could end up in people being unprofessional, crossing boundary lines and being too harsh and punitive. And bad things can happen as a result of that as time goes on,” Spinaris says.

Bandage to treat an infection?

About two years ago, the National Institute of Corrections contracted with Spinaris and her company, Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, to work with jails and prison systems around the country. This fall, Spinaris and her team will come to Kansas to work with prison officials and assess how the state system works.

That’s all well and good, says Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. But she says much more needs to be done.

“Having a program to reduce stress without addressing the staffing and equipment programs is like putting a bandage and a topical cream on a sore that’s caused by a body-wide infection,” she says.

Proctor says that budget cuts have left facilities poorly maintained and wages low. The starting wage of $13.61 an hour isn’t enough to attract good workers, and wage freezes in recent years have made it harder to retain the workers they have.

The twin problems of understaffing and overcrowding have forced officers to take on the duties of multiple employees as well as forced overtime.

“If you’re someone who’s working a maximum-security unit, your inmates know how long you’ve been on the job,” Proctor says. “They’re observant. They watch. They see you’re not getting relieved. They see that there’s not the same level of staffing that there needs to be.”

Understaffing and overcrowding

Proctor says the understaffing problem has left officers unprotected and vulnerable.

A rash of attacks against correctional officers over the summer sent shock waves through the system, according to John Bates.

“The officers on the inside, they’re not just concerned. They’re scared today,” he says.

Officials with the Kansas Department of Corrections insist understaffing is not a problem.

“Anytime we have a staffing vacancy, it’s because we’ve had a recent resignation, and just like with any business, it takes time to rehire for that position,” says Jeremy Barclay, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Barclay points to an annual turnover rate of about 16 percent for staff and explains that prisons have a “staffing pattern plan” to make up for those frequent holes. The plan involves overtime, but Barclay says it’s voluntary.

And the violence, he says, is not a matter of understaffing but rather something that all officers inevitably face working with inmates.

“In terms of, do we have the right amount of staff in place? Yes. And do we have the right staff in the right positions? Yes, we do,” Barclay says.

That said, officials with the Kansas Department of Corrections are hopeful the program to treat correctional fatigue will yield positive results.  

Dawe, of the American Correctional Officer Information Network, welcomes the program but says it’s just a start on improving things for a long-misunderstood profession.

“We’ve been around for how long? And this is just happening now?” Dawe exclaims. “How long has it been that the police have been dealing with PTSD and that’s been recognized? Decades, they’ve understood it and they’ve dealt with it. Yet because we’re behind the walls, and people don’t see us, they could care less. Fortunately, someone is doing something.”

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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