Jan 4, 2022

Pandemic Taking a Toll on Correctional Health Care Staff



NCCHC surveyed Certified Correctional Health Professionals (CCHPs) to get a view of morale in the field as the end of 2021 approached. 150 responding CCHPs identified staffing shortages, burnout, and safety as top issues and overall felt that morale had worsened since 2019. These responses are similar to reports from community health care providers.

As a benchmark, a plurality of participants identified morale today (December 2021) as fair with an even split between good/excellent and not good/awful. However, as the second chart shows, the vast majority identified morale as worse than it was before the pandemic.

Surprisingly, even though 2021 was the second year of the pandemic, respondents did not feel that morale had changed much between 2021 and 2020. Almost one-third of respondents felt that morale was better than it was at the end of 2020.

The survey asked participants if their employers were doing anything to address burnout and compassion fatigue. The vast majority were not, but one-third were trying to address it in some way.

Comments point to significant staff shortages and a lack of appreciation. To support patient care and safety, NCCHC urges leaders to pay attention to how staff is coping. Comments included:

  • We work at critical levels of staffing daily; inadequate and dangerous. People don’t stay and are leaving; whether they are very experienced nurses or new nurses, they leave due to conditions and lack of support. Basic needs of patient care cannot be consistently met.
  • We fought on the front lines and are still fighting to prevent illness and other effects from Covid. We are placing ourselves in danger and seems like it is now expected to be a part of normal, everyday duties. It is NOT normal! A little appreciation monetarily would be amazing. Together we can make a difference behind bars for each patient!!
  • Our state leadership doesn’t care about us working on the inside. We are losing seasoned nurses and other staff very quickly.
  • Before the delta variant emerged, I thought we were going forward. I feel I am back to square one except being vaccinated gives me more protection.
  • Mandated overtime and backlog in hiring makes staffing shortages worse, no appreciation from command at all except for a rare “keep it up, hang in there” email.
  • Admin is not transparent about upcoming changes, so we’re all feeling insecure about our futures.
  • This is a rough time for our profession. This includes custody staff. Both teams are very short staffed, which heightens emotions and decreases morale. In my 13 years of being employed here, this is by far the worse it has ever been.
  • Lack of appreciation- true appreciation and not just doing things like “pizza,” has become even more glaring. Some authentic respect would go a long way.
  • Staff vacancy is extremely high at my institution — leading to increased anxiety, depression, trauma, and burnout. It also means that we are less able to provide the kinds of services to our patients that they deserve — leading to some increases in anxiety, depression, and acting out behaviors.
  • Our management team is full-time on location, which is a tremendous asset all year long regarding identifying and managing internal, external and individual stress situations. Generally, management itself is the main threat of generating stress in employees — something we are aware of and attempt to modulate appropriately.
  • Turnover is so fast we cannot get staff trained before they resign and move on
  • Security is short handed leaving us in dangerous positions. We are having nurses quit because it is getting too dangerous to work here.

With the holidays approaching, NCCHC also asked CCHPs if their facilities had any special programs for the incarcerated. Most said they did not but one-third of respondents said they did. (We did not ask for the type of facility).

One respondent noted that “at Christmas, we allow increases in the commissary order and have gift packages through the commissary that family members can purchase.”

Correctional health care has always been challenging; the pandemic has exacerbated and worsened existing problems. As we enter a new pandemic phase in 2022, we hope leaders will find the compassion, resources, and wisdom needed to support frontline staff and that patient care can be the priority.

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