Humanizing Corrections: Strategies to prioritize the wellbeing of correctional officers and residents in the corrections environment.

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In the demanding realm of corrections, the welfare of both correctional officers and residents often remains overlooked. However, by humanizing the environment, we not only enrich their lives but also contribute to a safer society. This sentiment is echoed by corrections experts advocating for a change in focus. In this week’s blog, we’ll explore the challenges faced by correctional officers and residents, offering effective strategies drawn from expert insights to enhance their wellbeing and foster a safer environment.

Sheriff John Boyd, a retired Sheriff with over 30 years of experience in Law Enforcement, highlights the importance of prioritizing physical and mental wellness, stating, “Investing in these areas is recognized and valued by all levels of staff.” He highlights how resident populations perceive the professionalism and positivity of staff when their wellbeing is prioritized, resulting in more patient and humane treatment, ultimately fostering positive staff-resident interactions and reducing adversarial relationships. When correctional officers receive support in prioritizing their own wellbeing, they become better equipped to handle the challenges of their roles with resilience and empathy. This, in turn, contributes to a safer environment for both officers and residents, as supported officers are less likely to experience burnout, make errors, or engage in punitive behavior. “A lack of support by officers is the number one source of stress, far greater than any issue of salary or resident type of stressor,” confirms Dr. Hayden Smith, Associate Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.

Supporting the mental and emotional health of correctional officers has historically been neglected. A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded study by researcher Natasha A. Frost and team points out two primary reasons for this oversight: officers’ fears of workplace repercussions and societal stigmatization of mental health issues. Frost elaborates, stating, “Officers fear repercussions at work, for instance in their fitness-for-duty evaluations. They are reluctant to disclose mental health issues and to seek help when they are struggling. This has broader implications for both the workforce and for the incarcerated population.” In response, correctional facilities have implemented a variety of initiatives, including faith-based volunteers, specially trained professionals, and comfort animals in the workplace, as highlighted by Sheriff Boyd. These efforts also encompass peer support programs, trauma-informed training, and confidential counseling services, all proving effective in reducing stress, improving coping skills, and increasing job satisfaction among correctional staff. Sheriff Boyd emphasizes the broader goal of destigmatizing mental health conditions and raising awareness of mental health issues within correctional settings.

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In Frost’s study, correlations were found between compromised mental health among corrections officers and departmental discipline, job satisfaction, and work-family conflict. Correctional facilities must address these mental health needs by providing trauma-informed care training, accessible mental health services, and a stigma-free environment. Sheriff Boyd advocates for this, stating, “Making mental health professionals and peer support groups more available can help.” Director for Victim Services with the South Carolina Department of Corrections, Karin Ho emphasizes tangible support services within correctional agencies, saying, “Leadership should model strategies for trauma processing.” She highlights peer support groups in normalizing support provision, concluding, “A peer team can go light years ahead in your program.” Through collaborative efforts, correctional institutions aim to prioritize mental well-being for all involved stakeholders.

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Dr. Smith highlights a common sentiment among correctional officers, noting, “The most common response to stress is ‘The administration just doesn’t care.’” Prolonged stress often leads to burnout, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of accomplishment. He suggests that agencies consider mindfulness training as a promising solution to combat these stress-related outcomes. Additional proven strategies to address burnout encompass regular wellness checks, promoting work-life balance, and providing opportunities for professional growth. These interventions not only enhance retention rates but also boost overall job satisfaction among correctional staff. Sheriff Boyd further underscores the importance of addressing burnout, emphasizing that measures such as improving work satisfaction, demonstrating organizational commitment, and enhancing safety contribute to improved retention and job satisfaction in correctional facilities. Through such concerted efforts, institutions aim to prioritize the well-being of both officers and residents.

Man Reading the Bible to Another Man in Jail. Sourced by Kindel Media from Pexels

In the complex landscape of corrections, maintaining security and order within facilities is paramount, yet it must be harmonized with upholding the wellbeing and dignity of incarcerated individuals. This equilibrium is achievable through a combination of rehabilitative programs, restorative justice practices, and de-escalation techniques that prioritize empathy and respect. Sheriff Boyd underscores the importance of this delicate balance, affirming, “Inmates can be treated with respect and dignity while acknowledging their potential for danger. Inmates who are treated with dignity and respect can be less volatile and less likely to act out toward staff or fellow detainees.” He further emphasizes the significance of simple solutions such as ensuring residents are occupied and well-fed, as he concludes, “The motto: ‘It is better to feed them than fight them’ is so true and can keep administrators out of court, keep employees and residents safer, and improve the overall morale of the facility.”

Sheriff Boyd underscores the significance of ongoing education, emphasizing, “Training in diversity, cultural awareness, de-escalation, conflict resolution, managing stress and anxiety, and promoting resiliency are very important topics for continuing education.” Such training and educational initiatives serve as vital components in nurturing empathy and understanding within correctional settings. Equipped with the acquired knowledge and skills, officers can effectively communicate and de-escalate conflicts, thereby fostering a safer and more supportive environment for the individuals under their care. Continuous learning not only enhances the professional capabilities of correctional staff but also cultivates a culture of respect and empathy that is essential for promoting the wellbeing of both officers and residents alike.

Sheriff Boyd advocates for initiatives to build community and support within correctional facilities, suggesting, “Implementing initiatives such as employee recognition and awards programs, as well as designating employees as ‘ambassadors’ to local service organizations, can promote a sense of community involvement among staff.” Additionally, correctional institutions can encourage open communication, recognize achievements, and facilitate teamwork and collaboration to further enhance the sense of community and support among staff members. Dr. Smith emphasizes the importance of partnerships in promoting officer wellness and resiliency, stating, “Officer wellness and resiliency require partnerships. There’s no single agency or single group that can manage and solve this problem by themselves.” By fostering a positive work environment where the wellbeing of all individuals is valued and prioritized, correctional facilities aim to enhance the overall quality of life for both officers and residents.

Officers together in their Uniform. Sourced by Kindel Media from Pexels

Currently, corrections faces numerous systemic challenges, including overcrowding and inadequate training, leading to adverse outcomes for both officers and residents. Overcrowding not only poses liability risks but also induces stress among staff and residents. While reducing populations is often beyond the purview of correctional administrators, Sheriff Boyd suggests, “establishing rapport with prosecutors, defense counsels, and judges can be beneficial when a need arises to reduce the population.” To mitigate negative interactions, officers require proper training. Sheriff Boyd stresses the importance of training in diversity, cultural awareness, de-escalation, conflict resolution, and stress management, emphasizing that officers must be equipped to address prevalent issues within correctional settings. Frost recommends several changes, including creating mechanisms for officer feedback, addressing their reluctance to seek help, implementing post rotations, providing supervisor training for identifying acute stress, facilitating debriefing following violent incidents, and improving the public image of corrections. She suggests collaboration between the union and department administrators to develop a comprehensive wellness program addressing officers’ stress and needs, with input from various stakeholders.

To effectively tackle systemic issues in corrections, policy changes and institutional reforms are imperative. This may entail investing in alternative sentencing programs, boosting funding for mental health services, and adopting evidence-based practices that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment. Sheriff Boyd underscores the urgency of systemic change, asserting, “Significant steps must be taken by federal and state governments to enhance correctional facilities. Investments and access to additional funding must be made and become more available.” Such measures are vital for promoting the wellbeing of both correctional officers and residents while fostering a safer and more humane corrections environment.

Humanizing corrections is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a commitment to prioritizing the wellbeing and dignity of both correctional officers and residents. By implementing strategies to support mental and emotional health, fostering empathy and understanding, and addressing systemic issues within the corrections system, we can create a safer, more humane environment for all individuals involved.


Frost, N. A., Monteiro, C. E., St. Louis, S., and Luckett, B. (2019). Understanding correctional officer stress: A preliminary report on findings from data collected from the Massachusetts Department of Correction

National Institute of Corrections (NIC) (Washington DC). (2021). Promoting wellness and resiliency in correctional staff [Webinar].

Utility, Inc. (2024). Q&A with Sheriff John Boyd: Navigating Challenges and Prioritizing Wellbeing in Correctional Facilities

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