The United States remains the worst affected country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, and the virus shows no signs of leaving. Jails and prisons continue to have large clusters of Covid-19, and frontline workers in correctional facilities continue to face many challenges. 

Prison’s across Texas, California, Florida and North Carolina have had the highest number of reported virus cases. There have been 135 deaths across Texan prisons, the highest recorded according to The Marshall Project.

Like prisoners, correctional staff consisting of officers, nurses, wardens and chaplains have also been affected by the virus, which has presented personal and professional challenges. Dealing with the regular stress of work has now been compounded by the demands of the pandemic as understaffing, sick pay, lengthy shifts and a lack of hotel accommodation have become key issues. 

Jails and prisons pose a unique risk for spreading the disease, said William Young, an instructor and employee for the Douglas County Correctional Centre (DCCC).

“When you have that normal grind, plus fight after fight, then you’re running to a seizure or an attempted hanging, you never have a chance to stop and sift through the stuff you’ve dealt with and that burnout catches up with you,” he said. “We’re really good at what we do inside of the facility, we’re very well trained but what they don’t train us for is the unknown.”

Some feel that the risks posed to correctional staff have been overlooked, as other breeding grounds like schools and hospitals have taken centre stage. Like most people, concerns around safety at work have been a priority, but at the same time, some feel they are being left in the dark.

“The stress and anxiety right now comes from the lack of knowledge from admin on who is infected and who isn’t. CO’s are the ones spreading the virus and to different units.”

Said 27-year-old Anny who’s a correctional officer in a New Mexico facility. She’s been doing overtime but has had to call in sick more often when she suspects symptoms of the virus. 

“I’ve been volunteering to work the “quarantine” pods, so exposure is possible. Without really knowing, my mental state gets affected as well, thinking I have contracted the virus.” 

Officers are not immediately told if they’ve been exposed to an infected co-worker but are aware of their absence. This often leads to understaffing issues which requires everybody else to work overtime, as up to 16 officers could be sent home at any one time to be quarantined for ten days.

Michael, 29, an employee of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) has also faced this issue and admits the agency was ill-prepared for this.

“The job has become demanding in every sense as there’s staffing issues which is why I now do two alternating day shifts and two alternating nights shifts.” 

The Marshall Project has reported 77 staff deaths across prison facilities but it remains unclear how many staff are tested or are working in prisons right now. Undoubtedly, issues such as understaffing have resulted in increased exposure, as working 16-hour shifts several times a week is not uncommon. Therefore, some abandon their home and live in their driveway or with friends in fear of spreading the virus to loved ones. 

This has made correctional staff hyper-vigilant over the recent months, more paranoid and vulnerable. They are made to feel like they’re expendable, says Dr Caterina Spinaris, one of few leading professionals in correction-centred clinical research who focuses on correctional outreach. 

Moreover, lack of preparation has exacerbated the pandemic, contributing to the current struggles correctional staff face. During the initial stages, facilities like New York’s Rikers Island and Chicago’s Cook County Jail, couldn’t provide proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing was significantly delayed.  

This has added mental pressure to staff as they worry for their safety and everyone they come in contact with outside of the prisons too.

“Correctional staff mental health is affected when they are being forced to go to work and are not being protected, especially when it first started and we were scrambling,”

said Anthony Gangi, a senior staff member at the Department Of Corrections.

“We know there’s an inherent risk coming into this profession but this is unknown-not being able to determine where the threat is. It makes us antsy.”  

Recent months have affected the mental health of millions of Americans but that is about to get bleaker as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) kicks in. However, those working in the correctional setting could suffer in silence as they are less likely to be open about their state of mind. With the stigma attached to ‘appearing as weak and vulnerable’ in this profession, it is unlikely many will admit how the current situation is affecting their mental health. 

As Dr Spinaris’ previous research has shown, many embrace negative coping mechanisms such as substance abuse to deal with their problems. Exposure to regular violence, injury and death at work, coupled with coronavirus worries could elevate stress-related health conditions.  

These are issues to be addressed by leadership and those in the DOC, says Dr Michael Pittaro from the American Military University. Law enforcement is going through a rough time since the murder of George Floyd, and that has been extended to corrections but “Covid has exacerbated the problem.” Although some support is provided by the DOC to help staff deal with mental health issues, it seems dialogue and trust needs to be built to avoid any backlash.

The pandemic has increased vulnerability for many people but the DOC has some unique challenges ahead as employees learn to cope with the ever-changing demands at work, as well as trying to survive mentally and physically. 

All interviews were sourced and conducted by Amani S. A.

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