By Katharine Webster
Asst. Prof. of Nursing Mazen El Ghaziri
and a colleague have been selected by the National Institute of Corrections to create a workplace training program aimed at improving job health and safety for the nation’s 500,000 correctional officers and staff, who are at high risk of injury, stress, obesity and premature death.
Under the $160,830 award, El Ghaziri and Lisa Jaegers, an associate professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at Saint Louis University, will work with an advisory group of correctional officers and health and safety experts to develop a holistic, research-informed training aimed at reducing staff trauma and organizational stress among corrections workers.
The National Institute of Corrections will then offer the training to correctional facilities around the country.
Working in a correctional facility requires hypervigilance and carries a high risk of violence and exposure to disease – which is even greater during the COVID-19 pandemic, El Ghaziri says. That chronic stress often leads to poor eating and exercise habits, sleep disruption and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says.
“They start their jobs healthy and fit, and within three years, because of the psychological and physical toll, they tend to put on weight, experience hypertension and develop depression and PTSD,” he says.
At the same time, most correctional officers have little control over their schedules, due to staffing shortages, and they often work in a top-down culture that discourages displays of “weakness” or discussion of mental health concerns, he says. They carry their stress home with them, which harms their relationships and families, too, El Ghaziri says.
The job also carries a high level of social stigma, since the public rarely hears about positive initiatives inside jails and prisons, El Ghaziri says.
“A lot of corrections officers really want to make a change and an improvement, and the stigma is an added burden,” he says.
All of those stresses add up to high job turnover and deteriorating health, he says: Correctional officers live 10 years less, on average, than other American workers, in part because of high rates of depression and suicide.
“If you talk to them, they will tell you that they’re sick and tired of going to each other’s funerals because of suicide,” El Ghaziri says.
For the training, El Ghaziri and Jaegers will draw on previous research as well as the experiences of corrections agencies, including the City of St. Louis Division of Corrections and the Connecticut Department of Correction, considered a model for a healthy workplace culture. They will look at workplace conditions in large and small prisons and jails, in both urban and rural areas.
After creating the training over the next year, El Ghaziri and Jaegers will follow up with more research to determine how well different facilities are able to adopt and integrate the training and specific interventions.
One intervention that has demonstrated success in previous research, conducted through CPH-NEW
, is the use of peer mentoring: pairing a more experienced correctional officer with a new recruit from the academy to talk about the job and related stress. El Ghaziri says that approach helps break down the taboo around discussing mental health concerns.
Both researchers have also had success training a group of correctional staff in a facility to evaluate their workplace, identify the most serious concerns and possible solutions, and then work with other corrections officers, staff and administrators to make changes.
“Unless we have the voice of the corrections officers being part of this process and unless we’re integrating the components that are really important to them, it won’t be effective,” El Ghaziri says.
Both researchers say that, when doing participatory research, they often find that correctional officers and administrators have challenges achieving their mission: protecting the safety of people who are incarcerated and protecting the community, in large part through rehabilitation. A safer workplace means correctional officers and staff can better accomplish that mission, Jaegers says.
“If it’s not a healthy workplace, how can they possibly ready people for re-entry into the community?” she says.
El Ghaziri and Jaegers have collaborated frequently since they met at a Total Worker Health conference in 2014. Both are trained in research using the Total Worker Health model, which looks at mental and physical health as well as workplace practices and policies, and involves participation by people in the job.
El Ghaziri has done previous research on violence and other job hazards among corrections officers and staff, including correctional nurses, under Martin Cherniack, M.D., a professor of medicine at UConn Health who is co-director of CPH-NEW. With Cherniack’s support, El Ghaziri also led the formation of the National Correction Collaborative, a network of researchers that now holds bi-annual conferences.
Cherniack will advise El Ghaziri and Jaegers as they develop the training, and the pair will draw on the National Correction Collaborative’s research, expertise and contacts with correctional facilities in different regions.
Jaegers, associate director of the Saint Louis University Health Criminology Research Consortium, brings experience in research on offender reentry and transformative justice, which uses a public health approach to improve the criminal justice system at multiple levels.