Thesis: Stress in Corrections

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Criminal Justice

Corrections Officers and Police: Stress in the Prison System

The modern prison system is the result of some two hundred years of development. Seeking to eliminate cruel punishments, and to develop a human and scientific approach to the problems of crime and antisocial behavior, reformers created a complex system of institutional incarceration. Wrongdoers would be confined apart from society; their actions carefully controlled. They would either be punished or reformed, in either case incarceration serving as a form of behavior modification. In the case of punishment, prisoners would refrain from the future commission of crimes because of their dread of being excluded from the general society. In the case of reform, prisoners would be subjected to a variety of psychological techniques that would, hopefully, show them the error of their ways, and result in their being turned into upstanding and productive citizens. The new approach to crime and criminal behavior entailed the employment of a veritable army of corrections personnel. These individuals would be more than just guards but, as their name implied, persons charged with "correcting" antisocial behavior. The pressures on these individuals would often be enormous. Dealing with some of the most violent and disturbed members of society on a daily basis, they faced conditions that could cause psychological injury - often severe - to both themselves and their families. They would walk a thin line between the perceived needs of society-at-large and their own personal needs and desires. The modern prison began with the idea of reform; it continues to wrestle with the definition of that concept.


The institutional nature of the modern prison system owes much to the ideas of the pioneering criminologist, Beccaria, who placed a strong emphasis on what might be termed "act-egalitarianism," or the consideration of the criminality of acts, rather than of persons, a principle that led to the development of a system of incarceration, and either punishment or reform, that would apply equally to all persons who had committed the same offense, or kind of offense. (Whitman, 2003, p. 51) it was, in other words, criminal behavior, that should be the object of the budding prison system. Following earlier models of jurisprudence, early prisons were often notorious for the cruel treatment of their inmates. Little regard was given to the idea that prisoners might have rights, or even basic needs as human beings. Elizabeth Fry, another early reformer, visited prisons and noted, not only the harsh treatment of those incarcerated, but also the detrimental effects of this treatment on any possibly rehabilitation. In particular, Fry focused on creating prison conditions that were suited to the needs of inmates, or classes of inmates, as in her drive to improve the new women's prisons and provide care that was supposedly suited to the feminine character. (Cochrane, Melville & Marsh, 2004, p. 86) the separate and silent systems were two approaches to the care and "re-training" of prisoners in the Nineteenth Century. In the first, prisoners were kept isolated in individual cells where they were set to tasks that were intended to reform them body and mind. The system was unpopular because of its great expense - an enormous number of prison cells were required. Under the silent system, prisoners could be kept together, but under a rule of strict silence. Communication between prisoners was thought to breed crime and increase criminal tendencies.

Increasingly, the devastating effects of the separate system were realized, and it was largely abandoned during the Twentieth Century. In addition to its harmful psychological effects on individual prisoners, it was shown that the,

Weakened social bonds can alter the view that prisoners have of themselves. Feelings of separateness and anonymity can produce a de-individuated state whereby prisoners become dulled to the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, weakened social bonds can affect the perception prisoners and guards have of others. The prison environment can facilitate neutralisations or cognitive disengagements that allow others to be divested of their human qualities. (Wortley, 2002, p. 38)

With the growth of interest in psychology, during the Twentieth Century, new approaches were tried in prison arrangement and management that sought to address the needs of both prisoners and those who watched over them. Parole and probation programs were urged as necessary ways of rewarding prisoners for good behavior. (Keve, 1995, p. 65) Indeed, probation was the strongest expression of the new notion that rehabilitation, and not simple punishment or coercion, was the real goal of incarceration. America's prisons were re-structured to provide for the reform prisoners and the removal of their criminal tendencies. Using various forms of psychological training and analysis, together with education and job training, prisoners were to be transformed into productive and law-abiding citizens. The new prison system would, "effect changes in the characters, attitudes, and behavior of convicted offenders, so as to strengthen the social defense against unwanted behavior, but also to contribute to the welfare... Of offenders." (Bunzel, 1995) it would be a win-win situation, with prisoners getting their lives back and society-at-large being protected from their dangerous actions. The brutal regimes of the past were to disappear, and prisoners were to be treated as individual men and women in need of help. Their life histories were to be examined, and their antisocial tendencies diagnosed and treated.


Of course, the new regime placed considerable pressure on corrections officers and police. As those charged with maintaining order in the nation's prisons, they were forced to confront head on the problems created by the new, apparently more liberal rules. Discipline problems could no longer be handled with outright force except in extreme cases. Prisoners now agitated for their rights through organizations like the ACLU. More and more, prisons were seen as hotbeds of scandal, dark corners of American life that were poor reflections of the American Dream, contributors to, rather than solutions to the problems of growing crime and social dysfunction. The ACLU's National Prison Project has been credited with getting courts to appoint special monitors and masters for the nation's prisons. Overcrowding has, in many cases, been alleviated, and numerous programs have been put in place that serve as alternatives to incarceration. (Diiulio, 1991, p. 154) Again, these approaches reflect the belief that what is best for the prisoner is also best for society. Every American benefits by seeing that the constitutional rights of all are upheld. A respect for the rule of law as it applies even to those deemed to have broken it, encourages others to obey those same laws. Treating prisoners as human beings helps them to reintegrate into society, while the issues of social dysfunction and disconnection that may lie at the root of these individuals' criminal behavior are addressed and ameliorated. Society, too, saves on the unnecessary expense of too many prisons and prison personnel.

Yet, for many years, the United States saw a vast increase in the crime rate. Violent crimes, especially, grew dramatically in number at the very same time many of these reforms were being carried through, politicians in one way or nothing winning points with public by proving themselves "tough on crime." (Blumstein, 2004, p. 62) in keeping with the various reforms, prisoners are typically housed in cells fitted with the minimal requirements of comfort and hygiene. During the early period after admission, they are frequently for past drug use, violent tendencies, and other personality characteristics. Though attempts are made to match inmates, they are generally assigned to cells - two or three to a cell - based on little more than body size and type of offense. The cells are powder kegs for those prisoners who develop resentments against each other, or who harbor grievances against the system. (Stanko, Gillespie & Crews, 2004, p. 142) at one and the same time prisoners are subjected to stressful conditions and extended a helping hand. The conditions place additional pressure on corrections staff and police. These conditions are further exacerbated by cost-cutting measure such as the privatization of prisons. Private prisons are run at a profit, and as such, are supposedly better and more economically managed. Numerous instances; however, of gross abuse have been reported in private jails. These are frequently blamed on both a lack of proper training of corrections personnel, and on lack of funds for sufficient numbers of corrections officers in these private institutions. Such outbursts of violence can also be seen as the reaction of under-supported, and ill-trained, corrections personnel reacting to adverse conditions within the prisons themselves. Motivated not by "malice or sadism" but by their own "ignorance and fear" corrections personnel succumb to the enormous pressures of the prison environment and do perhaps irreparable harm to themselves and those in their care. (Dolovich, 2005)

Thus, the tug-of-war between the competing demands of the politicians' (and the public's) cry for a war on crime, and the needs of prisoners who either must be rehabilitated or punished creates an enormous pressure on those who must police and supervise America's prisons. Corrections officers must deal… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Stress in Corrections.  (2009, March 13).  Retrieved September 15, 2019, from

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"Stress in Corrections."  March 13, 2009.  Accessed September 15, 2019.