The Role of Prison Climate and Work Climate in Understanding Subjective Safety Among Correctional Staff

AuthorHanneke Palmen,Miranda Sentse,Esther F. J. C. Van Ginneken,Anouk Q. Bosma
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 11, November 2022, 1580 –1599.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Leiden University
To perform their work effectively, correctional officers should feel safe. Yet, research explaining officers’ subjective safety is
scarce and overlooked the context in which these feelings arise. This study explores the impact of shared perceptions of prison
climate and work climate. Survey and administrative data of incarcerated individuals and staff from the Dutch Life in
Custody Study were used. Multilevel analyses on 1,427 correctional officers (135 prison units) showed that (a) almost 20%
of the variance in officers’ subjective safety was clustered at the prison unit level; (b) both prison climate (satisfaction with
activities and visits, relations with peers, and meaningful activities) and work climate factors (organizational satisfaction and
workload) contributed to officers’ safety; (c) the relative importance of work climate was high in comparison to prison cli-
mate. These findings indicate that officers’ subjective safety is to a substantial extent a matter of climate rather than an
individual trait.
Keywords: subjective safety; prison; correctional officers; multilevel analysis; work climate; prison climate
Although working in a prison context inevitably comprises certain levels of risk (see
Ferdik & Smith, 2017, for an overview), feeling safe at work is very important for correc-
tional officers. Besides more objective aspects of safety—such as contraband presence,
incident rates, or severity of prison population—correctional officers’ subjective safety,1
that is, the degree to which they feel safe, has been found to affect prison life in multiple
ways. Low levels of subjective safety among correctional officers have been related to men-
tal health problems, such as stress and burn-out (Garcia, 2008; Lambert, Minor, et al., 2018),
lower levels of job satisfaction (Garcia, 2008), higher levels of absenteeism (Lambert et al.,
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors wish to thank the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency (DJI) for their sup-
port with the administration of the survey. The opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this article
are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the DJI. The Life in Custody study was funded
by the DJI and Leiden University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Hanneke
Palmen, Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Leiden University, P.O. Box 9520, Leiden 2300 RA, The
Netherlands; e-mail:
1087180CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221087180Criminal Justice and BehaviorPalmen et al. / SUBJECTIVE SAFETY OF CORRECTIONAL STAFF
2010), and higher turnover rates (Ferdik et al., 2014). Moreover, feeling unsafe might lead
to mismanagement of the prison population, given that fear of victimization has been linked
to a more punitive professional orientation, an increased eagerness to use force (Griffin,
2002; Haynes et al., 2020), more hostile interactions, and less contact between incarcerated
individuals and officers (Gordon et al., 2003, 2013). It, thus, seems of great importance for
incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and management to create a work environment
in which correctional officers feel safe while performing their duties.
To be able to create a safe work environment, it is important to know what factors can
undermine subjective safety of correctional officers. Given the apparent relevance of this
topic for correctional facilities, surprisingly little research has been done in this area. A
recent systematic and meta-analytic review of the literature on correctional officers showed
that previous research has been dominated by studies that focused on job satisfaction, job
stress, and organizational commitment (Butler et al., 2019). This has left other important
issues, including the subjective safety of correctional officers, understudied. Moreover, the
majority of studies that did address the safety of correctional officers focused on the conse-
quences of feeling unsafe; few studies examined what exactly constitutes a safe work envi-
ronment for correctional officers (Butler et al., 2019).
The small body of research that did address the determinants of subjective safety of cor-
rectional officers typically focused on individual characteristics of correctional officers
(e.g., age, education level) and individual perceptions and objective characteristics of the
workplace (e.g., relationship with supervisor, type of shift or security level, respectively).
These studies show that perceptions and characteristics of the workplace seem more rele-
vant than individual characteristics of employees in explaining differences in subjective
safety (e.g., Lai et al., 2012; Lambert, Gordon, et al., 2018). However, due to the great
variety in concepts and measures applied in this body of research, findings have not always
been replicated across studies yet, which calls for a careful interpretation of previous find-
ings. Furthermore, statistical models in these studies generally explain a modest amount of
the variance, indicating that our knowledge of the determinants of subjective safety of cor-
rectional officers is still lacking.
To advance our understanding of the determinants of subjective safety among correc-
tional officers, the current study builds on two recent findings in prison research: (a) the
way correctional officers experience their work environment is interrelated with the way
incarcerated individuals experience their living conditions (Van Ginneken et al., 2020), and
(b) although large individual variations exist in perceptions of prison climate, there is also
a significant portion of perceptual agreement about prison conditions among individuals
who share the same environment (Van Ginneken & Nieuwbeerta, 2020). This means that
individuals in the same unit and the same prison are more similar in terms of their percep-
tions of work conditions and living conditions than individuals in different units and pris-
ons. As a consequence, a focus on shared perceptions of the environment is needed to best
capture the prison climate and work climate. In sum, we aim to explore the relative contri-
bution of prison climate and work climate in the prediction of correctional officers’ feelings
of safety. In the following sections, we will clarify how we conceptualize the proposed
concepts of prison climate and work climate, and by referring to previous research we illus-
trate how a focus on shared perceptions may lead to new insights for understanding the
subjective safety of correctional officers.

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