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Statesman Journal: Department of Corrections focuses on health of officers
Author: Salem Statesman Journal
Posted: July 31, 2012

Read the original article in the Statesman Journal here.

The Oregon Department of Corrections is placing renewed emphasis on the health of officers who maintain security within the state’s prisons.

Collaborative projects with Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University will assess the effects of on-the-job stress on corrections officers, and take some steps toward a solution that will better protect them, Corrections Director Collette Peters said.

It should come as no surprise that corrections officers suffer a lot of stress during their shifts.

“They are on constant alert,” Peters said. “They are housing the state’s most violent offenders, and while they are not assaulted every day, they come to work on every shift knowing that it’s a possibility.”

The effects of that stress on officers might surprise some.

“The National Institute of Corrections found that because of the stress of the job of corrections officers, the actual life expectancy after 20 years of work was 58, as opposed to the general life expectancy of 75,” Peters said. “A number of studies have documented that corrections officers suffer higher levels of stress than most other occupational groups. I think the latest research has uncovered it’s even higher than our law enforcement partners on the street.”

Emotional stress leads to physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, ulcers, migraines and heart attacks, as well as high rates of divorce, suicide and alcoholism, Peters said.

To help better understand the effects of stress on Oregon corrections officers, PSU researchers are preparing a survey for all security staff at the Department of Corrections, nearly 2,300 people, agency spokeswoman Liz Craig said.

“The survey will include questions about mental health in general, sleep patterns and coping behaviors,” Craig said. DOC has kicked in $20,000 to help pay for the survey.

OHSU researchers are taking it a step further, conducting a pilot project at Santiam Correctional Institution and Columbia River Correctional Institution that will actually help some officers cope with their work stress.

There are 100 officers participating in the study, with about half attending weekly 45-minute sessions on topics such as “healthy eating, exercise, fitness, body weight, stress reduction, fatigue management, musculoskeletal health and injury reduction, and substance abuse reduction,” according to an OHSU web site describing the study.

A smaller group of officers with the highest health risks also will receive one-on-one wellness coaching. OHSU is performing the study with grant funding, so DOC does not have to provide any money.

The goal is to create an intervention that can be used to help not only Oregon corrections officers, but corrections officers across the nation, Peters said.

“It’s something that really pains us, as we’re looking at a group of employees that I think are outstanding,” Peters said. “Obviously they don’t come to us because of the exceptional pay we can afford them. They are really public servants who come to work understanding the safety and security and the accountability of their positions. We need to be able to better help them.”