Prison Workers’ PTSD Rivals That of War Vets, Study Says

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Prison employees experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a rate that is similar to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and higher than police officers, according to a study by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham that was recently published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

The researchers sent surveys to each of the approximately 2,000 members of the union representing WA state prison workers. A total of 355 Washington State Department of Corrections staff, including guards, counselors, medical practitioners, and other staff, responded and participated in the study.

A total of 19 percent of the survey respondents met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis—a rate that is six times higher than that of the general public, according to the report.

In comparison, approximately 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have experienced PTSD, according to the report.

“The violent and chaotic nature of prison work has been show to negatively impact prison employee physical health, mental health, sleep, personal life, and general wellness,” the researchers stated in their report. “[Prison employees] consistently face inconsistent and long work hours, challenging and confrontational workplace interactions, uncertain job responsibilities, violence, trauma, and threats to their personal safety. Yet despite these well-established problems, the prevalence, causes, and insulators of PTSD among prison employees have not been well studied.”

Although research on PTSD among correctional officers is still relatively rare, this study isn’t the first to look at the issue. A 2013 report from Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that 31 percent of guards in correctional facilities suffer from PTSD. (The Desert Waters report looked specifically at guards, rather than all prison staff.)

The recent Washington State/University of Alabama report found that factors like exposure to critical incidents corresponded with higher PTSD diagnosis checklist scores. Events like “being seriously injured,” and “encountering an inmate recently sexually assaulted” strongly correlated with higher PTSD scores. Other PTSD-connected incidents included “receiving serious threats to self or loved ones,” and “encountering an inmate attempting suicide.”

Workers who reported being “often placed in unnecessary danger,” and being “often unclear about what is expected” of them in the course of their jobs, also had higher PTSD scores.

The findings line up with a a 2016 study, which revealed that police officers’ exposure to critical incidents was “statistically significantly correlated” with drinking and PTSD. Those officers that had experienced a higher number of critical incidents were more likely to report having symptoms of PTSD and consuming alcohol.

As with war vets, shame and stigma often deter corrections officers and other law enforcement officers from seeking treatment for PTSD and other mental health needs.

For former Oregon Department of Corrections Sergeant Michael Van Patten, long-untreated PTSD—brought on by the trauma of witnessing and experiencing job-related violence—in combination and a macho correctional officer culture, led to a suicide attempt.

Van Patten and his son, who thwarted his father’s suicide attempt, have since recorded a video telling Michael’s story, and discussing the detrimental impacts of Michael’s internalized PTSD on his family. The Oregon DOC uses the video to educate staff about the importance of prioritizing their mental health care.

According to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the suicide rate for its members was 19.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.

In response to an alarming spate of suicides in their ranks, CCPOA together with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a study to assess the mental health needs of the state’s correctional officers. The study, which is still in progress, includes a survey completed by 8,600 corrections and parole officers statewide. Once their analysis is complete, CCPOA and Berkeley researchers plan to explore various pilot programs and mental health interventions.


  • I wonder if they separated out the responses from prison guards who ARE war vets because there are quite a few. That said, our prison culture in the US needs to change do that both staff and inmates are not traumatized and leave in more need of therapy.

  • If society could address the problem of people committing crimes we wouldn’t need a criminal justice system that has to rely on law enforcement and utilize jails/prisons. An ideal..not a reality though.

    Prison workers, suffering from PTSD. Hmm…this was the reason why in the past, individuals who worked in the field had better pay and retirement benefits to make up for the physical risks. This was also an effort to attract people to the career and make up for the stress they incurred.

    When the economy took a downturn, folks started getting laid off and having a hard time finding job, folks became critical of the “fat pensions” (as CF likes to say) and it started to become en vogue to blame all the ills of society on the the enforcement arm of the criminal justice system. A paradigm shift began.

    Now no one wants these jobs, can’t pass the back ground exam and those already in it, are oftentimes being overworked due to staff shortages.

    • You don’t know what you are talking about. If you spent one hour as a correction officer, teacher, social worker or mental health facilitator, you would see what a difficult and stressful job it is and how you worry about if you will make it home to your family. Police and firefighters go through the same stress. You sound like some overeducated know it all that couldn’t take what these people endure. I was one of them for eight years. I have never recovered from what I experienced.

      • I agree to en extent. Research and data translates into numbers and the justification (data) that is needed to implement change in an archaic system. Data is also used to manipulate information so it is important to look at how the data was derived.

        It is a shame how society is using the wages of hard working people as a way to correct fiscal mismanagement within a government system.

        Resources are needed to increase access and decrease stigma of mental health services to those who need it.

    • Agreed. On top of this, Gavin Newsom deciding we don’t sacrifice enough so we need a 10 percent pay cut this year… meanwhile he continues to spout off about how much he supports healthcare workers, and with the hand behind his back he gives them a 10 percent pay cut (relevant because that means prison healthcare workers get salaries cut at the same time they pay higher and higher health insurance). Is that a sign of valuing them? Maybe he feels people will hear him on the news saying he supports healthcare workers, and the pay cut will be quietly brushed under the political table.

  • The risks and dangers associated with LE and Corrections is definitely there. Having worked both higher and lower level joints I can tell you the drama doesn’t end just changes. Higher level joints you’re always operating in the orange and red with inmate awareness, increasing internal stressors and higher levels of addiction and divorces for sure. The lower levels might operate more in the yellow zone but still “turned on”, but the stressors come more from Administration and being in the “fish bowl” due to a lack of other inmate issues going on, so Admin nit picks the crap out of the CO’s for petty shit that would never be an issue at the higher level joints.

    • I agree wholeheartedly on what you said. Having worked ASU for a decade and on the yards it doesn’t really matter where you’re at in the institution inmate b/s is inmate b/s. Inmate violence on each other, staff assaults, OIA investigations because of b/s inmate complaints and management’s constant nit-picking all add up to the “stressers”. This doesn’t even account for the “home” life and dealing with friends and family who don’t really understand or a society who does nothing but constantly put the inmate on a pedestal and have a false narrative that all C/O’s and staff are corrupt overpaid cry babies.

  • Just to think I was diagnosed with complex PTSD , basically PTSD on top of PTSD. First from the Military and then from a massive staff assault over at PBSP back in 2017! Double whammy!! No wonder Im lil messed up

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