“Anything Can Happen at Any Time”: Perceived Causes of Correctional Officer Injuries

Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
“Anything Can Happen at
Any Time”: Perceived Causes
of Correctional
Officer Injuries
Natalie Goulette
, Andrew S. Denney
, Matthew S. Crow
, and
Frank V. Ferdik
Prior research finds that correctional officers (COs) often report high levels of stress, poor mental
and physical health and are at an increased risk of suffering work-related injuries. However, little is
known about the causes of such injuries. In an attempt to fill this large gap in the literature, the
current study used qualitative data to explore the perceived causes of work-related injuries
according to COs and their executive staff. Officers identified the reasons for injuries as either
within their control or outside of their control. Injuries resulting from factors within CO’s control
were perceived to be related to complacency and corruption. Injuries stemming from circumstances
outside of CO’s control were perceived to be related to the nature of the job, the mental health of
inmates, minor events escalating, and what are known as inmate “check-ins.” In consideration of
these findings, policy implications and directions for future research are also reviewed.
institutional corrections, correctional officer injuries, pains of imprisonment, qualitative methods
The most recent estimates suggest that there are approximately 500,000 correctional officers (COs)
throughout the United States (Konda et al., 2013). Correctional scholars recognize that these indi-
viduals may “represent the single most important resource available to any correctional agency”
(Archambeault & Archambeault, 1982, p. 72). COs supervise nearly 2 million inmates (Konda et al.,
2013) and have many diverse responsibilities within institutions (Bazemore & Dicker, 1994; Craw-
ley, 2004; Kauffmann, 1989; Moon & Maxwell, 2004). They perform these duties in dynamic, often
unpredictable environments that involve potentially violent individuals such as gang members
University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL, USA
Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, LA, USA
Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Natalie Goulette, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of West Florida, 11000 University Parkway,
Bldg. 85, Rm. 153, Pensacola, FL 32514, USA.
Email: ngoulette@uwf.edu
Criminal Justice Review
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820952521
2022, Vol. 47(1) 17–33
(Lombardo, 1989), those with mental illness (Kupers, 1999; Turner, 1975), or even terrorists
(Crawley, 2004). This interaction with inmates, combined with working long hours, can predispose
COs to an increased risk of work-related injuries (Brower, 2013; Stack & Tsoudis, 1997) similar to
that of police officers or security guards (Harrell, 2011).
Work-related injuries can have a profound impact on COs and their families, coworkers, and their
facilities. Injuries can impede officers’ regulation of inmate conduct, contribute to officer turnover
and absenteeism, produce higher inmate-to-officer ratios, create budgetary problems for adminis-
trative officials, and reduce security levels across entire institutions (Brower, 2013; Dowden &
Tellier, 2004; Lambert et al., 2005). COs even face the risk of suffering work-related fatalities,
with 113 COs losing their lives while on the job between 1999 and 2008 (Konda et al., 2013).
Given the potential impact of injuries to COs and the limited research in this area, the current
study sought to develop a rich, detailed account of the causes of CO work-related injuries by directly
examining the perspectives of COs and executive staff. Current COs and their supervisors are in a
position to provide important insight into the factors that lead to injuries on the job. Their perspec-
tives can help inform future policy and practice in an effort to reduce injuries and limit additional
negative consequences associated with CO injury. The current study utilized in-depth interviews
with COs and their supervisors in an effort to address the following research question: What do COs
and their supervisors perceive as the causes of work-related injuries to COs? Policy implications and
future directions for research are also discussed.
Literature Review
Scholars have long had an interest in examining COs’ well-being (Brower, 2013; Cullen et al., 1985;
Ferdik et al., 2013; Finn, 1998, 2000; Halbesleben, 2006; Lambert et al., 2005; McCraty et al., 2003;
Whitehead & Lindquist, 1989). Much of this research has focused on the mental toll correctional
work can have on officers. In particular, a sizable body of prior research focused on CO stress has
concluded that officers report high levels of stress as a result of working in a dangerous environment
(Finney et al., 2013; Fitzgerald, 2010; Garcia, 2008; Hessl, 2001; Leip & Stinchcomb, 2013; Paoline
et al., 2006; Patterson, 1992). In addition, COs often struggle with role conflict (Lambert et al.,
2005), demanding work obligations (Brower, 2013), poor leadership, and a lack of resources nec-
essary to complete their job responsibilities (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Botha & Pienaar, 2006;
Dowden & Tellier, 2004; T. Morse et al., 2011). Furthermore, COs have reported elevated levels of
anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can impact officers’ physical
health and job performance (Spinaris et al., 2012). Spinaris et al. (2012) found that 27%of their
national sample of 3,599 COs reported symptoms of PTSD, which surpassed the overall rate
reported by combat veterans (14%). Denhof and Spinaris (2016) found similarly elevated levels
of PTSD and depression among COs in Michigan. The high prevalence of PTSD, stress, depression,
and anxiety highlights one aspect of the risk associated with the occupation, but other risks may also
pose threats to CO safety and well-being.
Mental health issues experienced by COs have been linked to impaired memory, heart disease, obesity,
sleeping troubles, and digestive problems (Spinaris et al., 2012). COs who reported physical and mental
health symptoms missed significantly more workdays and reported using both alcohol and tobacco more
frequently as coping mechanisms (Spinaris et al., 2012). Poor physical and mental health for COs have
been tied to officer burnout, turnover (Ferdik & Smith, 2017; Lambert et al., 2005; Patenaude, 2001), and
decreased job performance (Paoline et al., 2006). These issues can lead to higher inmate-to-officer ratios,
which can pose a greater risk to COs, staff, and inmates (Steward & Brown, 2001).
COs are at an increased risk of injuryon the job similar to that experienced by other serviceworkers
including law enforcement officers, firefighters, and military personnel. In 2014, COs experienced
substantiallyhigher rates of injurieson the job (53.5 per 10,000full-time equivalents [FTEs])compared
18 Criminal Justice Review 47(1)

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