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The Neutral Zone.

Day after day, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, correctional officers report to work in one of the most dangerous and stressful environments in the world. These professionals work holidays, family birthdays and anniversaries, and are never guaranteed the ability to go home after their shift due to mandatory overtime and institutional emergencies. The work-related stress that correctional professionals experience is cumulative, often resulting in a vast array of personal and professional sacrifice.

In 2008 and 2009, correctional officers missed more days away from work than any other state government employee. (1) The missed days were not due to laziness or an unwillingness to report, but simply because of the natural result of working in an environment few people understand. In a study of occupational injuries among U.S. correctional officers from 1999-2008, it was reported that, "In short, correctional officers have a 39 percent higher suicide rate, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates 10 times higher than the general population, a divorce rate that's 20 percent higher than the national average and heart disease affects us at a rate that is 50 percent higher than any other occupation." (2) Compounding this picture is the fact that life expectancy of a correctional officer has been reported to be only 59 years compared to 75 years for the national average. (3)

While correctional stress and occupational violence takes its toll over the years, what happens at home and in the personal lives of these courageous men and women? Who can they possibly talk to who might understand the complicated life they live? What person, profession or resource is there available to provide any support or help?

Likewise, in this institutionalized setting, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, sometimes for decades, inmates are living under extreme stress. A significant and growing number of inmates have co-occurring mental and substance use disorders (CODs) which presents numerous challenges to correctional staff. Unfortunately, due to staff and program shortages, few inmates with CODs receive appropriate treatment while incarcerated. (4) Adding veterans and other special populations to the mix makes treatment in the correctional-living environment tremendously complex.

While mental health, addiction services and social workers do their best with the inmate population, who is watching out for the correctional officers? A comprehensive review of the literature regarding correctional officer safety and well-being revealed the following three distinct dangers for officers: (5)

1. Work-related

2. Institution-related

3. Psycho-social

Correctional supervisors and administrators are complying with departmental policy and state law, as well as running an efficient and safe facility. So, how many of them have the time, energy or training to notice how stressed their front-line staff really are? If these supervisors and administrators do notice the stress of their front-line staff, how do they deal with their own internal stress, fatigue and mental exhaustion? A large survey of correctional officers was recently conducted by the University of California, Berkeley indicates that 29 percent of the officers reported being seriously injured at work, 85 percent had seen someone else seriously injured or killed in the workplace and 50 percent rarely felt safe at work. (6)


Within the "neutral zone" between staff and inmates, one can see the vital role and work of the correctional chaplain. It is easy to miss this consummate professional because they move from one role to another; from staff counselor to inmate guide; without anyone noticing. How can one person, who is very human, with their own broken places in the heart, and cares so deeply--move so gracefully in this stressful environment?

The correctional chaplain, on average, has a broad educational background with many holding masters and doctoral degrees. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) provides chaplains with the clinical skills to listen empathically to inmates and allow the inmates to know they have been heard and cared about. Also, CPE training allows chaplains to listen just as intently to staff who are suffering from a wide range of stressful circumstances. Chaplains truly live in that neutral zone between inmates and staff, often taken for granted and sometimes misunderstood by both.

Staff sometimes see chaplains as people who "hug a thug," and because they care about inmates and justice issues, they can be misunderstood. Inmates, likewise, see chaplains talking to staff and providing counsel and relief, and sometimes judge the chaplain as untrustworthy or "just staff." Meanwhile, professional correctional chaplains continue to care about and serve both populations with passion and a deep level of care.

Like all people involved in the correctional environment, chaplains also need support. Professional support is offered through the American Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCA), an official affiliate of the American Correctional Association. Membership in the ACCA supports the overall mission of a "ministry of presence" and offers an opportunity for correctional chaplains to host regional and national workshops and conferences. The ACCA subscribes to a strict code of professional ethics and offers three levels of certification. Every correctional administrator in the country should encourage their chaplains to become certified. Certification provides a quality control mechanism and a standard of care for a correctional facility or agency. How do you know your particular chaplain is qualified for the position? How do you know they attended an accredited school? How do you know your chaplains are true professionals who comply with accepted standards of care? Most of the time, you simply do not know because this is such a specialized and professional field of expertise.

If providing staff and inmates with the necessary services to make an inmate population calm and staff a bit safer is important, certification with the ACCA is essential. ACCA certification ensures a chaplain's work will be held to the highest ethical and professional standards. The clinically certified chaplain has proven to have the highest level of professional development, typically consisting of seven or more years of college, four units of CPE, proven competencies in clinical practice and endorsement from the highest caliber national agencies. Accordingly, a chaplain can provide incredible care to correctional staff and inmates and remain healthy and stable in their own life.

Staff health and wellness is becoming a more common theme at national and regional ACA conferences. It is easy, therefore, to think that once we focus on a particular problem and develop some new, helpful programs for correctional staff, the task is accomplished. Yet statistics bear out the harsh reality that correctional staff are living with deep internal struggles and high morbidity and mortality rates that impact their families and communities.

Many reading this article have a chaplain they can talk to. Unfortunately, some do not have a professionally-trained chaplain simply because an agency may not see the need, value or importance of certified chaplains as an essential staff member on their team. Some facilities may instead have a volunteer chaplain, or a paid chaplain with no training for the complex world they live and work in.

The chaplains in the ACCA are available to help build a team of trusted professionals in any facility, state or agency. No chaplain should be hired without tested professional accomplishments and qualifications. In health care, chaplains cannot be hired without professional accomplishments and qualifications, typically including a masters degree and four units of CPE. For some reason, in our highly complex profession, we do not demand the same time-tested qualifications and often do not use chaplains to the best correctional standards and practices that can lead to better staff health and wellness, decreased inmate unrest and more efficiently run facilities.

Chaplains will continue to work in that neutral zone between inmates and staff, ministering to all in need. However, why not use this incredible resource to become an integral part of your leadership team? You will not find a more loyal or committed staff member than your professional correctional chaplain.


(1) Konda, S., Reichard, A.A. & Tiesman, H.M. 2012). Occupational Injuries among U.S. Correctional Officers, 1999-2008. Journal of Safety Research, 43(3), 181-186. Retrieved from

(2) Dawe, B. (2018). PTSD, Depression, Suicide & Divorce are Highest Among Correctional Officers. Spokane, WA: armorupnow. Retrieved from

(3) Cheek, F. & Miller, M.D.S. (1982). Reducing Staff and Inmate Stress. Corrections Today, 44(5): 72-76. Retrieved from

(4) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Screening and Assessment of Co-occurring Disorders in the Justice System. HHS Publication No. (SMA)-15-4930. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from 15-4930.pdf

(5) Ferdik, F.V. & Smith, H.P. (2017). Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness Literature Synthesis. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from

(6) Council of State Governments Justice Center. (2019). Berkeley Study Shines Light on the Pressures of Being a Corrections Officer. New York, NY: Staff. Retrieved from

By Charles Williams

Rev. Dr. Charles F. Williams is the director of Religious Services for the Connecticut Department of Correction. He has 17 years of experience working in the Department of Corrections and 28 years of experience of working as a pastor. Dr. Williams is certified with ACA and the ACCA, has four units of CPE and earned his doctorate developing a program on spirituality and addiction recovery in prison.
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Title Annotation:CORRECTIONAL CHAPLAIN PERSPECTIVES; stressful environment for correctional personnel
Author:Williams, Charles
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2019
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