Search Google Appliance


News

The Oregonian: Oregon's corrections officers: study finds they're stalked by fear, stress and exhaustion
Author: Bryan Denson, The Oregonian
Posted: June 23, 2014

Read the original story here in The Oregonian. 

Oregon prison officials confronted bleak statistics two years ago after three corrections officers killed themselves and a survey of employees found that three in 10 acknowledged symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the health and well-being of Oregon's 2,500 corrections officers was worse than they realized.

Two university studies, one still in the works, show that front-line staffers laboring inside the razor wire of Oregon's 14 prisons – from the cellblocks to chow halls to visiting rooms – live in a world of staggering mental and physical tumult.

Half of them show signs of depression, 8 percent seriously so. As a group, they are obese, overworked, sleep-deprived, emotionally exhausted, fearful on the job and speak ill of their work once they get outside the walls.

A whopping 23 percent showed a high likelihood that they suffered PTSD – about three times the rate of the general U.S. population.

The statistics alarmed Colette Peters, the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. In a statement to The Oregonian, she said her staffers play such a key role in the public safety system that she hopes to foster a culture of wellness.

"Because of what we learned through these studies, we have made staff wellness our top agency initiative," she said.

The bulk of the bad-news statistics come from an exhaustive Portland State University study, published last November with the help of 1,331 corrections officers. The employees, representing more than half of the Oregon Department of Corrections' uniformed staff, filled out a confidential 220-question survey.

Researchers studied their perceived dangers at work, incivility with co-workers, lack of resources to succeed, and other indicators of personal and job satisfaction.

Officers scored strongly in the affirmative to such questions as, "In the past month, in my job, I stood a good chance of getting hurt" and, "In the past month, I always kept an eye out for potential danger."

They responded less affirmatively to questions such as, "When I am under stress, I use alcohol or drugs to help me get through it" and, "Outside of work, in the past month, I thought about the positive aspects of my job."

In a separate study, Oregon Health & Science University and the Department of Corrections examined the health of 85 corrections officers. They measured body mass index, waist size, cholesterol levels and other indicators of fitness.

After their screenings, researchers broke the officers into a control group that behaved as they had before and a test group that met for 12 half-hour wellness sessions over six months. They learned about nutrition, sleep, stress, exercise, work-family conflict, resilience, and other ways to stay mentally and physically fit.

Both groups began with body-mass indexes of between 31.45 and 32.72 – well into the obese category. (A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The control group's body-mass index, total cholesterol and waist-to-hip ratio did not change significantly during the six months. The test group improved in all three categories, although its BMI remained in the obese category.

Researchers concluded that the Department of Corrections would do well to continue the training.

The OHSU research team is still collecting and analyzing data, and intends to publish the results to apply for additional funding, said Elizabeth Craig, a corrections spokeswoman.

Researchers at OHSU say the program they hope to fund would serve as the nation's "first occupational intervention" to improve the mental and physical health of prison workers.

Sgt. Michael Van Patten, a veteran supervisor at Oregon State Penitentiary and president of the Association of Oregon Corrections Employees, stands behind efforts to improve the health of prison workers.

"For us, it's a top priority," he said, and he hopes lawmakers agree. "These staff members do a job to protect the safety and welfare of the citizens of Oregon by keeping these individuals in these facilities safe so we can send them out as better citizens when they're done.

"But too many times, they forget about the staff members who have to work in this environment."

 -- Bryan Denson