Improving the Mental Health of Correctional Workers: Perspectives From the Field

AuthorMatthew S. Johnston,Laura McKendy,Rosemary Ricciardelli
Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 2022, 951 –970.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Perspectives From the Field
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Researchers illuminate the mental health plight of correctional workers by demonstrating a high prevalence of mental health
disorders among the group. Yet, structural barriers persist in preventing correctional staff from accessing treatment and
support—barriers that may result in more prolonged and pronounced symptoms. We consider correctional staff perspectives
on how mental health policies at the organizational level can foster better well-being outcomes for employees. Data are
drawn from open-ended survey responses from provincial and territorial correctional employees (N = 870) in Canada.
Responses collectively highlight the need for a correctional staff mental health paradigm that reflects the sources of stress
among correctional workers, including access to specialized mental health services that are easily accessible, immediately
available, and comprehensive in nature. Additional aspects of the work environment were identified as venues for important
change, including improvements in work and schedule structures, improved manager–staff relations, and changes to the
physical environment.
Keywords: occupational mental health; correctional worker mental health; mental health solutions; correctional organizations
Mounting research across diverse contexts documents the adverse mental health out-
comes associated with correctional work. Studies focusing on burnout (Kim et al., 2017;
Useche et al., 2019), mental health disorders (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD],
major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder; Denhof & Spinaris, 2016; Carleton
et al., 2018; Regehr et al., 2019), and other factors tied to well-being and life quality (e.g.,
work–life conflict; Higgins et al., 2021) shed light on the toll of correctional work on staff.
Yet, the literature on correctional worker well-being appears to consistently illuminate poor
outcomes, regardless of the operational context.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rosemary Ricciardelli,
Department of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, AA-4066, 230 Elizabeth Avenue, St John’s,
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1C 5S7. e-mail:
1081468CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221081468Criminal Justice and BehaviorJohnston et al. / Improving Mental Health of Correctional Workers
Although growing measures are in place to improve mental health and well-being among
correctional workers, gaps in service and barriers to treatment persist (Brower, 2013; Gurda,
2019). As a result of barriers operating at the individual, social, and organizational levels,
there remains much room for improving the mental health interventions and programs
available to correctional staff. Recognizing that those directly or indirectly experiencing the
mental health impacts associated with correctional work are ideally positioned to identify
how interventions can be improved, the current study draws on the perspectives of provin-
cial and territorial correctional staff in Canada to identify mental health initiatives that
promote staff well-being.
Research on correctional workers has blossomed in recent years, with studies focusing
on different facets of mental health and well-being. One subset of research focuses on rates
of mental health disorders, with findings consistently indicating higher prevalence rates
among correctional workers relative to the general public and other public safety groups
(Jaegers et al., 2019; Lerman et al., 2021; Regehr et al., 2019; Stadnyk, 2003). In the state
of Washington, James and Todak (2018) found correctional workers have a PTSD preva-
lence equal to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and more than police. In the Canadian context,
Carleton, Ricciardelli, et al. (2020) have recently found that well over half of correctional
workers in the Ontario provincial correctional service screened positive for mental health
disorders, most frequently PTSD and major depressive disorder. Researchers also indicate
correctional workers are at a higher risk of death by suicide (Stack & Tsoudis, 1997).
Why, exactly, does correctional work take such a toll on mental health? Operational
stressors in correctional work, for example, factors related to carrying out one’s job (Denhof
et al., 2014), are complex and varied. Over the course of their career, the majority of cor-
rectional workers will encounter potentially psychologically traumatic events, including
violent incidents, death, self-injury, and other situations involving harm (Barry, 2017;
Boudoukha et al., 2011; Viotti, 2016; Walker et al., 2017). Illustratively, James et al. (2017)
found that approximately one quarter of correctional workers regularly experienced serious
threats to themselves or their families, nearly half witnessed their colleagues endure a seri-
ous injury via assault by an incarcerated person, and over half witnessed an incarcerated
person die. Following incidents, correctional workers may be involved with all the admin-
istrative procedures and/or inquiries that ensue, and must often continue to work in the very
atmospheres where they have experienced traumatic incidents (Barry, 2017). If not treated
effectively, to withstand these potentially psychologically traumatic stressors and working
realities, correctional workers may become desensitized or hypervigilant and alert to danger
at all times (Ricciardelli et al., 2018).
The effects of correctional work are not temporally or spatially bound to work environ-
ments. In addition to studies noting the high prevalence of compromised mental health
among correctional workers, a sizable body of research points to how correctional work is

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