Correctional Officers in Canada

Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Correctional Officers in
Canada: Interpreting
Workplace Violence
Rose Ricciardelli
, Nicole Power
, and Daniella Simas Medeiros
The potential for violence in prison shapes how correctional officers (COs) carry out their work.
Yet, how provincial COs experience violence remains understudied. Using theoretical insights from
the literature on workplace violence in caring and service occupations, we analyze observational
data and interviews conducted with COs in eastern Canada. We show that COs carry out their
everyday work under increasingly strained conditions (e.g., understaffing) and manage prisoners’
(sometimes violent) responses to deteriorating prison conditions (e.g., overcrowding) by engaging in
emotional labor. The COs understand workplace violence as an inevitable “part of the job,” which
serves to normalize the experience of workplace violence and deflect attention away from the
prison conditions which exacerbate and even produce violence.
correctional officers, prisons, workplace violence, occupational health and safety
The duties of prison officers, referred to as correctional officers (COs) in Canada, include a wide
variety of job tasks that are essential to the functioning of prison facilities, including maintaining
the safety of prisoners, coworkers, and themselves. They are the primary point of contact with
prisoners, providing them goods and services or, at times, serving as their advocates (Armstrong &
Griffin, 2004; Correctional Service Canada [CSC], 2014) However, the profession is unique in
that COs’ primary job responsibilities involve dealing with a population held against its will, and,
although prisoners are generally compliant, they may also engage in resistance and disruptive
behaviors (see Armstrong & Griffin, 2004). As such, the CO work environment is shaped by an
underlying and omnipresent potential for conflict and even violence (see Ricciardelli, 2014;
Ricciardelli & Sit, 2016).
Researchers have found that violence is common in prison and that COs and prisoners alike can
be victims of physical assaults and verbal threats that result in bodily injury and psychological
Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Rose Ricciardelli, Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 232 Prince Phillips Drive, St. John’s,
Newfoundland, Canada.
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(4) 458-476
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817752433
distress (Ricciardelli, 2016; Ricciardelli & Gazso, 2013). A study conducted by CSC (2014) doc-
uments the high rates of violence that COs experience. Of the 122 COs who participated in the study,
15%reported being physically assaulted more than three times, 17%being exposed to suicide
attempts more than 3 times, 17%witnessing murder more than 3 times, 20%responding to a riot
more than 3 times, and 50%witnessing a physical assault more than 3 times (CSC, 2014). Research-
ers elsewhere similarly document high levels of violence that both prisoners and COs are exposed to
in prison (see Boudoukha, Altintas, Rusinek, Fautini-Hauwel, & Hautekeete, 2013; Martin, Lich-
tenstein, Jenkot, & Forde, 2012; Wolff et al., 2007). Moreover, studies using quantitative approaches
have documented that officers are exposed to much violence, shaped by factors such as management
practices, prison order, overcrowding, gender, staffing, and colleagues as well as the relationship
between these factors at work (Gaes & McGuire, 1985; Lahm, 2009; Martin et al., 2012; McCorkle,
Miethe, & Drass, 1995). For example, a study conducted in England and Wales revealed that in
comparison to other occupational groups (e.g., teaching and transport), the group that includes both
COs and police officers—protective service workers—has the highest risk of being assaulted and
threatened at 12.6%, which is more than 14 times the average risk of violence (Upson, 2004).
While researchers have quantitatively documented that prisons are violent places, few researchers
have qualitatively investigated how COs understand and deal with occupational violence and how
workplace violence is mediated by the penal organization itself. To respond to lacunae in knowledge
and scholarship, we draw on data collecte d from interviews with provincial COs to reveal the
relationship between COs’ experience s of workplace violence and the conditions of the pri son
environment. In this article, we limit our discussion to workplace violence involving prisoners,
although we are in no way making the claim that COs do not experience violence from coworkers
or from management or supervisors.
Nor should our focus on prisoner-perpetrated violence be read
as an assessment of the psychology of prisoners (see Schenk & Fremouw, 2012 for an approach that
focuses on typologies of prisoners). Instead, we frame our analysis of workplace violence, and COs’
responses to it, as shaped and even produced by the prison organizational structure, conditions of CO
work, and their labor process. In the Canadian context, the implementation of the Safe Streets and
Communities Act, formerly known as Bill-C10 or the omnibus crime bill, has intensified the working
conditions of COs (see Comack, Fabre, & Burgher, 2015). Specifically, diverse legislations, such as
mandatory minimum sentences and longer sentences for select convictions, have resulted in
increased rates of incarceration and correspondingly overcrowding and a decline in the quality of
prisoners’ living conditions. As frontline staff, COs must manage prisoners’ responses to these
conditions, which are at times violent by engaging in complex emotional labor to maintain peace.
While COs can and do exercise control over prisoners, they do so as employees and are expected to
conform to standard workplace operating procedures. Further, with austerity frameworks driving
many provincial budgets, prisons tend to be shaped by strained resources, understaffing, and few
available programs for prisoners (see Boyd, 2011; Mackrael, 2013). We argue that a common
strategy COs use to cope with such working conditions and prisoners’ responses to the impact of
cost-cutting measures is to reduce workplace violence to an inevitable “part of the job,” which serves
to normalize the experience of workplace violence and deflect attention away from the very con-
ditions that give rise to such violence.
Understanding and Theorizing Workplace Violence
There is very little scholarly research on the occupational health and safety, and in particular the
experience of workplace violence, among COs. The existing research tends to take a quantitative
approach, aiming to document, for example, the prevalence of various types of occupational injury
(e.g., see Konda, Reichard, & Tiesman, 2012 for an analysis of U.S. census data) or examining the
impact of certain kinds of occupational stress on the organization. For example, in their U.S. survey
Ricciardelli et al. 459

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