Examining the Role of Physiological and Psychological Responses to Critical Incidents in Prisons in the Development of Mental Health Problems among Correctional Officers

Correctional officers are exposed to work-related critical incidents (e.g., assaults) at a higher rate than individuals in other occupations.  Correctional officers also suffer more negative health and occupational outcomes (e.g., stress, turnover) relative to employees in other occupations, and there is some evidence to suggest they are more likely to exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than the general population.  Yet, few studies have examined whether exposure to critical incidents contributes to negative health and/or occupational outcomes among this population or why these relationships might occur.  It remains unclear, for instance, whether exposure to work-related critical incidents triggers physiological and psychological responses among officers that, in turn, increase their vulnerability to developing mental health problems.  The purpose of this project is to better understand the impact of exposure to on-the-job critical incidents in the development of stress and mental health problems in correctional officers.  This project employs a longitudinal design in which corrections officers employed at three prisons in Minnesota will complete surveys and provide saliva samples at three time periods spaced six months apart.  Detailed information regarding critical incidents will be collected from narratives and coded to reflect officers’ exposure to and involvement in each incident. The proposed study extends existing research through (1) an examination of effects of objective indicators of exposure to work-related critical incidents on physiological markers of stress and psychological stress among corrections officers, (2) an assessment of whether officers’ physiological and psychological stress responses to critical incidents change over time, and (3) an examination of whether exposure to work-related critical incidents directly and indirectly (through physiological markers of stress and psychological stress) affects the development of mental health problems among officers.


Project Principal Investigator: Joseph Schwartz

Project Co-Principal Investigator: Benjamin Steiner

Graduate Student: Christopher Jodis

Funding Agency: National Institute of Justice

Funding Timeline: 1/1/2018-3/31/2023

Total Funded Amount: $787,907

Collaboration with the Salivary Bioscience Laboratory at the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior (CB3) at University of Nebraska Lincoln