31 percent of correctional officers have PTSD

A study finds U.S. prisons to be sites of stress-inducing trauma comparable to war zones

Published December 4, 2012 9:37PM (EST)

  (Shutterstock/ albund)
(Shutterstock/ albund)

While post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with soldiers returning from combat, a recent study illustrates that domestic sites of trauma regularly produce PTSD in emergency service first responders and, above all, prison guards. Thirty-one percent of U.S. correctional security officers suffer from PTSD, according to a report from Desert Waters Correctional Outreach -- a nonprofit dedicated to corrections professionals' well-being.

The most recent National Comorbidity Study asserted that the prevalence of PTSD in the general population in 3.5 percent -- nearly 10 times less prevalent than in prison security guards. 14.3 percent of New York firefighters were found to suffer from PTSD -- a prevalence rate nearly half that of correctional officers. A National Institutes of Health study from 2009 put the prevalence rate of PTSD in Iraq war veterans (20 percent) below that of prison security officers.

Participants in the Desert Waters study responded to questions indicating the degree to which they witnessed or experienced incidents of workplace violence, injury and death (VID) and related emotions such as depression and anxiety. Participants also responded to questions about health-related behaviors and conditions, and functioning.

Although the study was undertaken with the health and safety concerns of prison workers as its primary goal, its findings highlight the extent to which prisons in the U.S. function as sites of extreme trauma, producing comparable rates of PTSD as war zones.

"Corrections environments represent uniquely unsafe workplaces due to repeated exposure to trauma, compared to most occupations. While not widely recognized, corrections professionals are exposed to the same types of VID-related events as are emergency responders and war-time military personnel, and they are potentially exposed to even more life-threatening experiences than law enforcement personnel over time," the study noted.

The few studies that have attempted to quantify PTSD levels among prisoners have produced results more disturbing still. One report from the Safer Foundation, for example,  found that up to 68 percent of incarcerated women had current or lifetime PTSD.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

MORE FROM Natasha Lennard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Correctional Officer Mental Health Prison Prison System Ptsd Trauma