Prison reform and staff wellness are inextricably linked

For the past 20-plus years, Desert Waters Correctional Outreach has been dedicated to devising ways to improve the well-being of correctional staff – a desperately needed and noble endeavor.

As a result of this work and the efforts of others, such as One Voice United and Chicago Beyond, we at Desert Waters have concluded that correctional staff wellness is not only crucial in its own right, but it is also a foundational component of a much broader and also desperately needed mission – prison reform.

In this article, I share my thoughts on how prison reform and staff wellness are highly interrelated, and why I am firmly convinced that we cannot have one without the other.

Yet it may not be obvious at first glance that agencies cannot deliver good mental health care to incarcerated persons if the staff they employ – the tools with which the rehabilitative work gets done – are not well themselves.

Yet it may not be obvious at first glance that agencies cannot deliver good mental health care to incarcerated persons if the staff they employ – the tools with which the rehabilitative work gets done – are not well themselves. (Getty Images)

Why there can be no prison reform without staff wellness

Prison reform aims to improve living conditions in prisons, and to provide programming and treatment that increase the probability of successful rehabilitation and reentry of incarcerated persons. For that to be possible, we need a reduction in the destructive US AGAINST THEM mindset of both the incarcerated persons and the staff.

That is, prison reform aims to help incarcerated persons increase their prosocial behaviors, get treatment for various health conditions, and rebuild their lives. Achieving this would help increase the probability that incarcerated persons leave (or live) in better condition than they were when they entered the criminal justice system.

When that happens, we all win – we in the community, and the formerly incarcerated persons and their families, who are now our neighbors.

For that to become a reality, we need optimal conditions in prison environments.

There has been litigation across the country regarding the neglect of mental health needs of incarcerated persons, and advocacy regarding ways to remedy that.

Yet it may not be obvious at first glance that agencies cannot deliver good mental health care to incarcerated persons if the staff they employ – the tools with which the rehabilitative work gets done – are not well themselves.

Using the analogy of tools, it is self-evident that properly maintained tools used as intended are needed in order to manufacture a good product.

If tools are broken, bent, chipped, cracked, not well-oiled, or otherwise defective, a good product is not a likely outcome, no matter how skilled the people are who use these tools, and no matter how good those individuals’ intentions may be.

Correctional staff, especially correctional officers (COs), are the segment of the population that incarcerated persons are most in contact with, other than other incarcerated people. COs are the ones with the greatest influence, and the greatest opportunity to role model prosocial behaviors to incarcerated persons through constructive professional interactions with them.

It is to be expected that COs’ state of mind would have a significant impact on how they interact with incarcerated persons. Their mental, physical and spiritual health (or lack thereof), play a critical role in whether they are willing or able to implement interpersonal skills and other constructive approaches in their interaction with incarcerated persons as well as with other staff.

For example, COs’ state of mind and overall health have much to do (dare I say, sometimes have EVERYTHING to do) with whether they will de-escalate a potential conflict, patiently talking incarcerated persons down, as opposed to being too tired or too agitated – “on a ledge” themselves – to logically process what is happening and respond to it professionally. When the latter is the case, staff may react with indifference, impatience, verbal provocation, aggression, or unwarranted use of force.

In addition to irritability and outbursts of anger, staff who are stressed and struggling with their own health and wellness issues are likely to forget important details, take procedural shortcuts due to being weary, or fall asleep on the job.

Even when staff WANT TO care about incarcerated persons or coworkers, they may not have the energy or presence of mind to do so, thus impacting the whole workforce culture negatively.

They are also likely to go home and try to “self-medicate” their anxiety and other symptoms through the misuse of alcohol and other destructive substances or activities. This of course further affects their wellbeing, their family lives, and their level of functioning when they report back to work.

Staff are human beings too. They are not supermen and superwomen. They have limits, no matter how tough, resilient and well-trained they may be.

That must be pointed out especially when we consider that a large proportion of custody staff are being crushed under the weight of partial chronic sleep deprivation due to working excessive mandatory overtime. Insufficient and poor-quality sleep undermines a non-negotiable biological need – that of having sufficient and good-quality sleep on a regular basis, and there is no way to get around that inherent biological reality.

Consistent statistics across the country and beyond sound the alarm regarding the state of unwellness of correctional staff, COs in particular.

Here are some of these numbers. They are worrisomely high, multiple times higher than those of the general population, and even those of other first responders:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 34%-43% [1-4]
  • Depression (moderate to severe): 24%-48% [1-4]
  • Generalized anxiety disorder: 32%-60% [1,3,4]
  • Alcohol abuse: 26% [3]
  • Higher risk of death by suicide: 39%-41% [5,6]
  • Thought of suicide in the past 12 months (active-duty COs): 11% (1 in 9) [7]

These statistics indicate that alarmingly significant proportions of staff are experiencing symptoms such as those listed below, which are a sampling of symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety.

As you read them, pause to reflect on how each of the symptoms may shape staff’s interactions with incarcerated persons, especially on high-stress days:

  • Restlessness, agitation, feeling keyed up or on edge, irritability, anger outbursts, reckless behavior
  • Hopelessness, helplessness, negative expectations, inappropriately blaming others or self for negative outcomes
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Fatigue or low-energy
  • Excessive worry, difficulty controlling the worry
  • Persistent “down” mood
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Distressing and involuntary trauma recollections (dreams, flashbacks)
  • Hypervigilance, strong startle response
  • Avoidance of trauma reminders

It stands to reason that these symptoms are bound to interfere with staff’s functioning at work, negatively affecting their interactions with incarcerated persons and also with coworkers. (Naturally, they also inevitably affect home life negatively.)

The folk saying which states that we cannot get blood out of a turnip, comes to mind here. This is the equivalent of the ancient Greek proverb that says, “You cannot get from the one who does not have.” Staff cannot engage in what is needed for effective and successful prison reform initiatives if they are running on empty in terms of their own wellbeing, physical and emotional energy, morale, training, and skill sets. They cannot pour out from empty cups.

That is why we cannot have prison reform without staff wellness.

We cannot try to change only one side of the equation – incarcerated persons’ wellness – without also looking at the other side of the equation – staff wellness. Any efforts that involve making changes to only one side of the equation are guaranteed to fail for the reasons presented above. These two populations operate in the same environment.

Why there can be no staff wellness without prison reform

We know that corrections staff operate under work conditions and in environments that research convincingly shows are GUARANTEED to produce poor health and undermine the wellbeing of those who function in them. [8,9]

To name a few, custody staff in particular deal with excessive workloads, time pressure, low social support, low rewards, exposure to traumatic and other high-stress events, and the ever-present, endemic partial chronic sleep deprivation. Physically harsh environments add to the negative conditions.

Staff to incarcerated persons ratios understandably leave employees feeling (and actually being) physically unsafe, with all the implications that has about their experiencing chronic anxiety and the activation of “fight or flight” reactions. Short-staffing also leaves incarcerated persons feeling unsafe, thus contributing to their agitation as well. Not surprisingly, this feeds the destructive US AGAINST THEM mindset of both parties, the very mindset that prison reform aims to reduce or eliminate.

I strongly believe that unless prison reformers intentionally and deliberately pursue the improvement of staff working conditions, the desired outcomes of prison reform will remain elusive and be doomed to fail. 

Promoting staff wellness should no longer be viewed as a discretionary option, an afterthought, or “icing on the cake.”

Staff wellness must be recognized as the fundamental pillar, the “sine qua non” of prison reform – that without which (prison reform) is not (going to happen).

With laser-sharp focus, Desert Waters continues its efforts to develop ways for correctional staff wellness to be made possible and even to flourish, and in so doing promote attainable and sustainable prison reform that will impact generations to come.

Our desire and hope are that many will join us in this endeavor. For more information, contact us at


1. Denhof MD, Spinaris CG. (2013.) Depression, PTSD, and Comorbidity in United States Corrections Professionals: Prevalence and Impact on Health and Functioning.

2. Denhof MD, Spinaris CG. (2016.) Prevalence of Trauma-related Health Conditions in Corrections Officers: A Profile of Michigan Corrections Organization Members

3. Spinaris CG, Brocato N. (2019.) Descriptive study of Michigan Department of Corrections Staff Well-being: Contributing factors, outcomes, and actionable solutions.

4. Spinaris CG, Denhof MD, Kellaway JA. (2012.) Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in United States Corrections Professionals: Prevalence and Impact on Health and Functioning. 

5. Stack SJ, Tsoudis O. (1997.) Suicide risk among corrections officers: A logistical regression analysis. Archives of Suicide Research, 3:183-186.

6. Violanti JM, Robinson CF, Shen R. (2013.) Law Enforcement Suicide: A National Analysis. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 15:289-298.

7. Lerman AE. (2017.) Office health and wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey.

8. Melchior M, Caspi A, Milne BJ, Danese A, Poulton R, Moffitt TE. (2007.) Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men. Psychological Medicine, 37:1119–1129.

9. Duchaine CS, Aubé K, Gilbert-Ouimet M, et al. (2020.) Psychosocial Stressors at Work and the Risk of Sickness Absence Due to a Diagnosed Mental Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 77:842-851.


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