The Impact of Correctional Officer Perceptions of Inmates on Job Stress

Marcos Misis, Bitna Kim, Kelly Cheeseman, Nancy L. Hogan, Eric G. Lambert


Research suggests that job-related stress affects correctional officers’ attitudes toward their work environment, coworkers, and supervisors, as well as their physical and mental health; however, very few studies have examined the relationship between stress and attitudes toward inmates. This study examined the relationship between correctional officers’ levels of stress and their perceptions of inmates by surveying a sample of 501 correctional officers employed by a Southern prison system. Hierarchical multiple regression analysis was used to test the principal hypothesis of this study—that more negative perceptions of inmates would result in higher levels of stress for correctional officers. Independent variables were grouped into four groups (demographic variables, supervisory support, job characteristics, and attitudes toward inmates) and were entered into the model in blocks. Lower supervisory support and perceptions of the job being dangerous were associated with higher levels of job stress. More importantly, correctional officers who saw inmates as intimidated (not arrogant) and nonmanipulative reported lower levels of job stress, while officers who perceived inmates as being unfriendly, antisocial, and cold reported higher levels of stress.

  • correctional officers
  • job stress
  • perceptions of inmates
  • corrections
  • prisons

In the past three decades, American prisons have experienced an unprecedented increase in population. From 1980 to 1996, state and federal incarceration rates grew by more than 200%. In 1997, the imprisonment rate in the United States was 445 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents (Blumstein & Beck, 1999). By 2008, there were 2,310,984 inmates in federal and state custody, which translates to an imprisonment rate of approximately 509 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents (West & Sabol, 2009). During the inmate population increase, correctional officers have played an important role in creating and maintaining a safe and secure, humane prison environment, as well as playing a significant role in the lives of many inmates (Farkas, 1999; Griffin, 2001; Hepburn & Knepper, 1993; Lambert et al., 2009). Due to correctional officers’ pivotal roles in the lives of inmates, much research has been conducted to determine how correctional officers perceive inmates based on the officers’ individual and institutional characteristics. Individual characteristics studied by researchers generally consisted of age, gender, race, and education level. In addition, institutional variables assessed by scholars have included shift, seniority, role conflict, job stress, perceptions of danger, and supervisory support (Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Griffin, 2006; Lambert, Hogan, & Barton, 2002; Whitehead & Lindquist, 1989).

As the job demands for correctional officers have increased with the overall growth of U.S. prison populations, research studies have focused on how correctional officers have responded to changes in their job duties and expectations. In particular, they have concentrated on the relationship between stress and correctional work (Lambert & Paoline, 2005). Researchers have extensively studied the physiological and psychological effects of stress on correctional officers (Adwell & Miller, 1985; Brough & Williams, 2007; Carlson, Anson, & Thomas, 2003; Cheek, 1984; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000), while other studies have related officers’ individual characteristics and stress levels (Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Triplett, Mullings, & Scarborough, 1996, 1999; Wright & Saylor, 1992; Zupan, 1986), and still others have linked organizational variables with correctional officers’ stress (Black, 2001; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Finn, 1998; Hogan, Lambert, Jenkins, & Hall, 2009; Kauffman, 1988; Lambert, 2003; Lambert, et al., 2002; Lambert et al., 2009; Triplett et al., 1999).

One area that researchers have not explored is how correctional officers’ perceptions of inmates affect their stress levels. Thus, the purpose of this study was to address this deficiency. The authors hypothesized that officers’ perceptions of inmates would cause an increase in correctional officer job stress.

Literature Review

Definition of Stress

There is not a clear consensus among researchers and scholars on the definition of stress (Triplett et al., 1996). The literature on job-related stress has used different definitions tailored to their specific research focus. Generally speaking, stress can be described as an individual experience dictated by the way certain stressors are individually perceived (Handy, 1988). In a more specific fashion, Blix, Cruise, Mitchell, and Blix (1994) defined occupational stress as the incapacity of a worker to handle different work demands successfully. This study used Cullen, Link, Wolfe, and Frank’s (1985) definition of stress as “the psychological discomfort or tension which results from exposure to stressors” (p. 507). As indicated in the literature, stressors in correctional settings come from different sources, such as direct contact with inmates, organizational variables, or individual characteristics of officers (Cullen et al., 1985; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Lambert et al., 2009; Lambert & Paoline, 2005).

Individual Characteristics’ Relationship With Job Stress

There are mixed findings in the literature on the relationship between gender and job-related stress (Morgan, Van Haveren, & Pearson, 2002). Cullen et al. (1985) and Zupan (1986) found that female officers showed higher levels of stress compared to their male counterparts, while Britton (1997) and Triplett et al. (1996) did not find any difference in the level of stress between male and female officers. In another study, Carlson et al. (2003) found that female correctional officers did not seem to be significantly affected by job-related stress or burnout. Oppositely, Brough and Williams (2007) reported that, among a sample of 132 Australian correctional officers, men appeared to have higher levels of psychological fitness than their female counterparts.

Studies that have explored the relationship between age and job-related stress have not yielded any irrefutable conclusions. Some studies found that older correctional officers suffered a higher amount of stress (Lindquist & Whitehead, 1986), while others found that officer age was not linked to job-related stress (Triplett et al., 1996). Whitehead and Lindquist’s (1986) study of correctional officers in the Alabama correctional system found that younger officers experienced more job-related stress than older correctional officers. In a recent meta-analysis of past literature on predictors of correctional officer stress, Dowden and Tellier (2004) asserted that the relationship between age and job stress was mixed.

Tenure (i.e., length of employment) as a correctional officer has, at times, also been associated with job stress. Cullen et al. (1985) and Lasky, Gordon, and Srebalus (1986) found that correctional officers with higher tenure showed higher levels of job-related stress. Conversely, other studies have not found any link between tenure and job stress (Dignam, Barrera, & West, 1986; Lindquist & Whitehead, 1986).

Like the other individual characteristics of gender, age, and tenure, the relationship between race and job stress among correctional officers is unclear. In a meta-analysis, Dowden and Tellier (2004) reported that non-White officers reported lower stress from work than White officers. In other studies, a nonsignificant relationship was reported between race and job stress (Lambert et al., 2009; Lambert, Hogan, & Allen, 2006).

Generally, most past correctional officer job stress studies have included the individual characteristics of gender, age, tenure, and race. The findings, however, suggest that individual characteristics are not powerful predictors of job stress, particularly when institutional variables are included. Institutional variables in general tend to be stronger predictors of correctional officer job stress (Dowden & Tellier, 2004). Nevertheless, gender, age, tenure, and race were included in the current study, more as control than explanatory variables.

Institutional Variables’ Relationship With Job Stress

It has been postulated that correctional orientation may be linked with job stress of correctional officers. According to the literature, there are two types of officers with divergent correctional orientations. First, there are custody-oriented officers who openly advocate for punishment strategies to deal with inmates and who do not support rehabilitation as a correctional philosophy. Conversely, human service-oriented officers believe in rehabilitation as the primary correctional goal and support a more counseling-oriented role for the correctional officer (Cullen et al., 1985; Lindquist & Whitehead, 1986). The two forms of correctional orientation can lead to role conflict for officers. Some researchers have suggested that when stress increases, correctional officers tend to embrace a custodial orientation to reduce stress (Poole & Regoli, 1980); however, Robinson, Porporino, and Simourd (1997) indicated that the more custody-oriented a correctional officer is, the more stress he or she suffers. In addition, abundant research has found that role stress has a positive relationship with job stress (Cullen et al., 1985; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Griffin, 2006; Grossi & Berg, 1991; Hepburn & Knepper, 1993; Lambert & Paoline, 2005; Lasky et al., 1986; Tewksbury & Higgins, 2006; Whitehead & Lindquist, 1986). Role conflict is a salient predictor of job stress for correctional officers (Dowden & Tellier, 2004). As such, role conflict was included in the current study.

Supervisors are critical for correctional officers to be successful at their jobs (Lambert, Jiang, & Hogan, 2008). Supervisory consideration has been reported to be negatively associated with correctional officer job stress (Lambert et al., 2009). Furthermore, supervisory support leads to lower job stress among correctional staff (Lambert & Hogan, 2009). In addition, peer support is important in helping reduce job stress among correctional officers (Lambert, Altheimer, & Hogan, 2010). The literature supports the contention that social support, such as peer and supervisory support, is important in dealing with potential work stressors (i.e., factors that lead to job stress) and dealing with job stress when it arises (Lambert et al., 2010; Lindquist & Whitehead, 1986). In light of the fact that they are salient predictors of job stress for correctional officers, peer support and supervisory support were included in the current study.

Consequences of Correctional Officer Stress

At the individual level, stress can have serious consequences for correctional officers, their families, and friends. Researchers have reported that correctional officers commonly suffer from stress-related illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, depression, and anxiety (Adwell & Miller, 1985; Cheek & Miller, 1983; Finn, 1998). Other studies have established that correctional officers show a great deal of anger toward their family and friends, aggression, high rates of divorce, posttraumatic stress disorder, and drug abuse, at least a portion of which can be attributed to job stress (Cheek, 1984; Cornelius, 1994, 2001; Finn, 1998; Janik, 1995).

At the organizational level, Tewksbury and Higgins (2006) noted that stress has very detrimental consequences in criminal justice organizations. In fact, correctional officers with high levels of stress are more likely to be less effective and less satisfied with their jobs (Tewksbury & Higgins, 2006). Other detrimental consequences of job-related stress for correctional officers are withdrawal symptoms, increased absenteeism, and tardiness (Lambert et al., 2006). Perhaps the most important organizational consequence of occupational stress among correctional officer is turnover. The annual rate of correctional officer turnover has been estimated to be between 12% and 25% (Lambert, 2001; Lommel, 2004). Hill (2004) estimated that nearly 25% of first year correctional officers quit their jobs. Similarly, Tewksbury and Higgins (2006) suggested that more than 50% of correctional officers quit their jobs within 13 months of hire, which could be related to job stress. As stress from work has negative outcomes that can be detrimental to officers and the correctional institution, it is critical to explore and identify the predictors of job stress.

Correctional Officer Perceptions of Inmates

What remains unexplored is whether perceptions of inmates are related to job stress for correctional officers. Correctional officers work directly with inmates, and their perceptions of inmates may either enhance or reduce the possibility of stress from the job. If officers view inmates negatively, then they may become frustrated and tense when having to deal with them, and this in turn could lead to higher levels of stress from work. Conversely, if an officer has positive perceptions of inmates, then they may have more pleasant and less confrontational interactions with inmates, and this in the end can result in more positive feelings and less strain from work, ultimately leading to lower job stress.

Previous researchers have examined individual and demographic characteristics as a source of correctional officers’ perceptions of inmates. Gender, age, tenure, and race have been linked positively or negatively to correctional officers’ attitudes toward inmates. Generally speaking, the literature has shown a relationship between gender and officer attitudes toward inmates, with mixed results on whether men generally hold more punitive attitudes (Jurik, 1985; Whitehead, Lindquist, & Klofas, 1987; Zupan, 1986). Lambert, Paoline, Hogan, and Baker (2007) and Crouch and Alpert (1982) observed that female officers were less punitive. Farkas (1999) found that female staff showed a punitive approach in their attitudes; however, they expressed great preference for counseling roles and greater concern for corruption of authority. Zimmer (1986) noted that women’s belief in their abilities to carry out their work influenced their attitudes toward inmates.

The literature reflects an association between age and positive relationships with inmates (Farkas, 1999; Jurik, 1985; Klofas, 1986; Klofas & Toch, 1982). Younger officers tended to show a more custody-oriented approach, while older officers showed a stronger support for rehabilitation (Jurik, 1985) and seemed to have a more positive approach to inmates (Klofas & Toch, 1982). Farkas (1999) conducted a study to determine the orientation of correctional officers toward inmates in a Midwestern state. She found that older officers expressed a very strong support for rehabilitative efforts and concluded that older officers either believed in what they were doing or had bonded with the organization or the goals of the organization.

The research to date on the relationship between tenure and perceptions of inmates is mixed. Sometimes tenure is inversely associated with support for rehabilitation and positively associated with support for punishment (Shamir & Drory, 1982; Van Voorhis, Cullen, Link, & Wolfe, 1991). In other studies, the opposite is reported (Cullen, Latessa, Burton, & Lombardo, 1993; Toch & Grant, 1982; Toch & Klofas, 1982), or no relationship is reported (Arthur, 1994; Gordon, 2006; Robinson, Porporino, & Simourd, 1993).

Research on the relationship between officers’ tenure and attitudes toward inmates has not yielded conclusive findings. Some studies did not find any relationship between officers’ tenure and attitudes toward inmates (Cullen, Lutze, Link, & Wolfe, 1989; Jacobs & Kraft, 1978), while others found that officers with more tenure tend to hold more rehabilitative values (Toch & Grant, 1982; Toch & Klofas, 1982). Conversely, Jurik (1985) and Poole and Regoli (1980) found that officers with higher tenure were higher in custodial orientation and also expressed more disbelief in the rehabilitative approach.

When race is used as an independent variable, some studies could not relate race and punitive attitudes toward inmates (Crouch & Alpert, 1982; Jacobs & Kraft, 1978; Klofas, 1986). Conversely, other studies have shown that minority officers (especially African American officers) showed a higher preference for rehabilitation and a more positive attitude toward inmates (Jurik, 1985; Toch & Klofas, 1982). In their study of correctional officers in the Alabama Department of Corrections, Whitehead and Lindquist (1989) indicated that White officers do not hold more negative perceptions toward inmates compared with African American officers. Although the findings are somewhat mixed, overall, there is little empirical support for the contention that increasing the presence of African American officers in correctional facilities would increase the number of officers who hold more positive attitudes about their interactions with inmates.

As individual characteristics may be linked to job stress and perceptions of inmates, it is important to include them in an analysis to determine the relationship between perceptions of inmates and job stress among correctional officers; therefore, as previously indicated, gender, age, tenure, and race were included in this study as possible predictors of correctional officer work stress.

Some research has analyzed how role conflict affects correctional officers’ attitudes toward inmates. Whitehead and Lindquist (1989) concluded that there is no connection between role conflict and attitudes toward inmates, while Cullen et al. (1989) and Poole and Regoli (1980) found a direct relationship between role conflict and officers’ punitive attitudes toward inmates. Regarding role stress (comprising role conflict and role ambiguity), some studies have found role stress was related with higher levels of punitiveness among correctional officers (Poole & Regoli, 1980; Shamir & Drory, 1982).

Because role conflict is linked with perceptions of inmates and job stress, it was included in the current study. How peer support or supervisory support may be associated with perceptions of inmates is unclear; however, both forms of social support have been found to be salient predictors of job stress among correctional staff and, therefore, should be included in analysis of how perceptions of inmates may be associated with correctional officer work stress.

The Relationship Between Officers’ Perceptions of Inmates and Job Stress

Research has indicated that correctional officers are commonly worried about inmate violence, overcrowding, prison gangs, and certain locations in prison (Black, 2001; Cornelius, 1994, 2001; Finn, 1998). As confrontations and inmate violence are relatively common in U.S. prisons (Finn, 1998), correctional officers often work in a very stressful and dangerous environment. The fear of being assaulted or witnessing violent incidents among inmates is a constant source of stress for officers (Black, 2001; Cornelius, 1994). While researchers have looked at inmates’ effect on stress, few studies have examined the effect that correctional officer perceptions of inmates have on their stress levels; therefore, this study adds to what is known about stress by assessing how correctional officers’ perceptions of inmates affect their levels of job stress, while including the variables of gender, age, tenure, race, peer support, supervisory support, and role conflict. By including individual and institutional variables, a clearer picture will be gained whether and how perceptions of inmates are linked with correctional officer job stress.



Due to agency concerns about both the correctional officers’ time away from work responsibilities and causing the least amount of disruption to the prison schedule, this study utilized a purposive sample. A purposive sample is generated based on participant availability and accessibility. For the current study, only officers with 8 months or more of tenure who had direct contact with inmates were asked to participate, as these individuals could be surveyed during their required annual in-service training with the agency. Data were gathered through self-report surveys administered to correctional officers attending annual in-service training. The correctional officers were all from one region out of six regions that comprised a Southern prison system. The selected region contained 13 prisons, which ranged in security level from minimum to high maximum. Specifically, one prison was high maximum security, four were maximum security, five were medium security, and three were minimum security. The number of inmates at each prison ranged from 800 to 2,000. All the selected correctional officers worked as housing unit officers. Each housing unit held between 100 and 250 inmates. All 13 prisons housed male inmates (i.e., no prisons in this region housed female inmates). Finally, the surveyed officers represented all 13 institutions in this region. Unfortunately, no information about the security level of the institution at which the participant worked was collected in the survey. Participants were informed that involvement in the survey was completely voluntary, and informed consent was obtained prior to survey administration. A total of 630 surveys were administered with 501 completed surveys returned, for a response rate of 79%.

Approximately 66% of the participants were men. The agency correctional officer population at the time of the survey was 57% male and 43% female. The age of the participants ranged from 18 to 64 years, with a mean average age of 38.18 years (SD = 12.78). This is similar to the age range of the entire agency correctional officer complement. The average tenure (i.e., years of employment as a correctional officer) for this sample was 7.50 years (SD = 6.41). The length of tenure was similar to the agency population. The majority of the participants were White (68%), followed by African American (20%), Hispanic (6.0%), and Other (5.0%). Seven (1%) employees chose not to provide a response for the race question. The racial breakdown of the surveyed population was White (57%), African American (25%), Hispanic (17%), and Other (1%). For gender, age, and tenure, the participants were similar to the overall population of correctional officers in the state prison system. For race, the participants were slightly higher for Whites and the “Other” racial category and lower for Hispanics for overall correctional officer population.


Dependent Variable

Six items from Cullen et al. (1985) were used to measure job stress among correctional officers: (a) When I am at work I often feel tense or uptight; (b) A lot of times, my job makes me very frustrated or angry; (c) There are several aspects of my job that make me upset about things; (d) I am usually calm or at ease at work (reverse coded); (e) I don’t consider this to be a stressful job (reverse coded); and (f) My job is worse than those of other people I know. The response options for these items was a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly disagree (coded 1) to strongly agree (coded 5). The Cronbach’s alpha reliability for the job stress scale was .74. The responses to the six items were summed together to form an index measuring job stress. Higher scores on this scale denoted higher levels of officer job stress.

Independent Variables

The individual characteristics of gender, age, tenure, and race were included more as control than explanatory variables. Gender was coded as 0 = female and 1 = male. The age of participants in years was coded as a continuous variable. Tenure measured the number of years employed as a correctional officer and was measured as a continuous variable. Race was coded as 0 = non-White and 1 = White.

Five items adapted from Cullen et al. (1985) and Toch and Klofas (1982) were used to measure perceived support from coworkers. These items were (a) My fellow officers compliment someone who has done their job well, (b) My fellow officers blame each other when things go wrong (reverse coded), (c) I am able to talk about work-related problems with my coworkers, (d) I am able to talk about non-work-related problems with my coworkers, and (e) My fellow officers help one another when someone needs to improve their performance. The response options for these items was a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly disagree (coded 1) to strongly agree (coded 5). By adding the responses to these five items together, an index was created to measure support from coworkers, and the reliability of the item was .60, which is on the low end of acceptable. High scores were indicative of high levels of perceived coworker support.

Perceived supervisory support was assessed using a five items adapted from Cullen et al. (1985) and Triplett et al. (1996). Five statements asked participants about the perceived level of social support from supervisory staff and were as follows: (a) My supervisors often encourage the people I work with if they are doing well, (b) My supervisors often blame others when things go wrong which are possibly not the fault of those blamed (reverse coded), (c) My supervisors often encourage us to do the job in a way that we would be proud of, (d) Supervisors care more about inmates than they do C.O.’s (reverse coded), and (e) Most supervisors are concerned about correctional officer morale. Participants responded on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from strongly disagree (coded 1) to strongly agree (coded 5). The responses to these items were added to form an index, and the reliability of the supervisory support index was .76. High scores were indicative of higher levels of perceived supervisory support.

Five items from Cullen et al. (1985) were used to measure role conflict: (a) The formal chain of command is not adhered to, (b) I receive conflicting requests at work from two or more people, (c) I work on unnecessary tasks or projects on the job, (d) My job duties and work objectives are unclear to me, and (e) I lack the authority to carry out my job responsibilities. Role conflict was defined as any situation in which a correctional officer had conflicting job demands, such as role ambiguity. Participants responded to these items using a 5-point Likert-type scale of strongly disagree (coded 1) to strongly agree (coded 5). Reliability of the role conflict scale was .63, which is on the low end of acceptability. The responses to the five items were summed together to form an index measuring role conflict. High scores were indicative of higher perceptions of role conflict.

Perceptions of inmates was the primary independent variable of focus in this study. Participants were asked a series of 16 items asking them to rank their perceptions of the typical inmate on a scale of 1 to 7 for series of 16 areas anchored by positive and negative adjectives. These items were adapted from a survey utilized by Gerstein, Topp, and Correll (1987) and can be found in the appendix.

One of the important objectives of the current study was to investigate the relative impacts of attitudes of inmates on job stress among correctional officers. To assist in clarifying the number of underlying dimensions in the survey items, an exploratory principle-component factor analysis was conducted (Kim & Titterington, 2009; Sawyer, Tsao, Hansen, & Flood, 2006). A principal component analysis of the items yielded a 4-factor solution according to the scree plot, an eigenvalue greater than 1.0, and the Kaiser–Maeyer–Olkin Measure of sampling adequacy = .83. This 4-factor model accounted for a substantial 54% of the total variance, and each of the individual factors accounted for 18%, 16%, 10%, and 9% of the variance, respectively, according to the categories listed in Table 1 (Haslam & Levy, 2006; Sawyer et al., 2006). Item loadings for the varimax-rotated factors are also presented in Table 1.

Table 1.

A 4-Factor Solution for the Attitudes of Inmates.

As shown in Table 1, six items loaded strongly onto Factor I. These items related to virtues an inmate may or may not possess (i.e., “Motivated versus Unmotivated,” “Sensitive versus Insensitive,” “Willing versus Resistant,” “Truthful versus Deceiving,” “Flexible versus Rigid,” “Moral versus Immoral”). Results showed that the factor loadings range between .53 and .72, which all exceed the minimum level (.30) for interpretation of structure (Hair, Black, Babin, Anderson, & Tatham, 2006; Kim & Titterington, 2009; Sawyer et al., 2006). This factor was labeled as “Respectable.” Factor II contained five loadings, and this factor was labeled as “Reasonable” based on the items loaded (i.e., “Unintelligent versus Intelligent,” “Afraid versus Confident,” “Hostile versus Agreeable,” “Uncooperative versus Cooperative,” “Irrational versus Rational”). Results indicated that the Factor II loadings ranged from .38 to .77. Two items loaded onto Factor III with the loadings .69 and .73, respectively. This factor was labeled “Manageable” based on the items loaded (i.e., “Arrogant versus Intimidated,” “Manipulative versus Nonmanipulative”). Factor IV contains three loadings, which were named “Amiable” based on the items loaded (i.e., “Unfriendly versus Friendly,” “Social versus Antisocial,” “Cold versus Warm”). Results indicated that the Factor IV loadings ranged between .52 and .68. The four variables representing views of inmates were created using the factor scores.

Table 2 provides the descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) of the variables used in the study.

Table 2.

Means and Standard Deviations for Variables.


Job Stress Predictors

Hierarchical multiple regression procedures were used to examine the predictive strength of selected demographic variables (age, gender, race, and tenure), support (peer support and supervisory support), job characteristic (role conflict), and attitudes toward inmates (respectable, reasonable, manageable, amiable) on job stress among correctional officers (Miller, Mire, & Kim, 2009). In hierarchical multiple regression, the researchers determine the order of entry of the variables. Using F tests, this hierarchical procedure computes the significance of each added variable or set of variables in blocks to the explanation reflected in R 2 for purposes of assessing the importance of the independents (Garson, 2010).

Four sets of predictor variables were added to the model in blocks, in the following order: demographic variables, supports, job characteristics, and views toward inmates. Because two or more independent variables are combined into each construct prior to running the regression analysis, the independent variables of the same construct were entered to the model together in blocks. High intercorrelation among the independent variables within a block is intentional and desirable, and normally this is not considered “multicollinearity” (Garson, 2010). Of concern within each set of variables were the significant variables in the present step after controlling for the effect of the previous step (Lee, Chronister, & Bishop, 2008; Miller et al., 2009). Tests for significant incremental changes in the R 2 statistic were carried out at every step (Lee et al., 2008). At each step, individual variables within the block were explored and removed if they did not correlate significantly with attitudes toward inmates or improve sensitivity of the model (Nosek, Hughes, Taylor, & Taylor, 2006). By excluding all the irrelevant predictors, a more significant t test for the individual predictor is expected and the issue of the lack of statistical power due to relatively small sample size can be addressed (Hair et al., 2006). Results of the hierarchical multiple regression analysis are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3.

Job Stress Predicted by Demographic, Support, Job Characteristics, and Attitudes of Inmates Variables.

Demographic variables were entered as the first block. Collectively these variables were significant, F(4, 486) = 5.39, p ≤ .001, but explained only 4% of the job stress variance (R 2 = .04, adjusted R 2 =.04). As shown in Table 3, the demographic variables found to be significant were age (b = −.06, β = −.18, p ≤ .001) and gender (b = 1.07, β = .12, p ≤ .05). These two variables were retained in Model 2 (Nosek et al., 2006).

In the second step, the variables of age and gender were entered first to control for the relationship with job stress, and they were followed by the entry of two support variables (peer support and supervisory support) as independent factors. This model (Model 2 in Table 3), as a whole, correlated significantly with job stress, F(4, 489) = 32.46, p ≤ .001. As shown in Table 3, Model 2 was shown to explain more variance in job stress. Approximately 21% of the variance (R 2 = .21, adjusted R 2 = .20) in job stress was accounted by the new model. The significant relationships among individual variables were evaluated, leaving only the supervisory support variable (b = −.41, β = −.38, p ≤ .001) in this model.

In the third step, the variables for supervisory support and role conflict were entered into a regression equation (Model 3 in Table 3). Model 3, as a whole, correlated significantly with job stress, F(3, 494) = 67.64, p ≤ .001, and explained 22% (R 2 = 22, adjusted R 2 =.21) of the variance in job stress. The significant relationships among individual variables were evaluated leaving the variable of supervisory support (b = −.38, β = −.35, p ≤ .001) as well as role conflict (b = .22, β = .18, p ≤.001).

In the fourth step, the variables of supervisory support, role conflict, and the attitudes toward inmates were added to the model (Model 4 in Table 3). Model 4 as a whole explained 23% (R 2 = .23, adjusted R 2 = .22) of the variance in job stress. After the variables of attitudes toward inmates had been entered as predictors, there was an increase in the prediction of job stress, ΔF(4, 490) = 2.83, p = .02. The block of attitudes toward inmates uniquely accounted for 2% of explained variance in job stress and supports the hypothesis that variables of attitudes toward inmates would explain additional variance in job stress beyond that explained by individual and institutional variables. As before, significant contributions of the independent variables were evaluated, and “manageable” and “amiable” in the block of attitudes toward inmates were found to be significant.

The final model consisted of four variables significantly correlating with job stress, F(4, 496) = 36.67, p ≤ .001, and accounted for a total of 23% of the variability (R 2 = .23, adjusted R 2 = .22). The beta (β) values showed that job stress was best predicted by supervisory support, role conflict, “amiable,” and “manageable” in this order (β = −.32, .17, .09, and −.07, respectively). Overall, results demonstrate that the less supervisory support and the more role conflict the officers reported, the higher their level of job stress. In terms of attitudes toward inmates, officers who view the inmates as intimidated and nonmanipulative reported lower levels of job stress, whereas the ones who view their inmates as friendly, social, and warm reported higher levels of job stress.

Discussion and Conclusion

The findings of this study yielded interesting results about the effects of perceptions of inmates on job stress among correctional officers. First, officers who saw inmates as being manageable had lower levels of stress. This could be because officers who see inmates as devious (i.e., not straightforward) are worried about being assaulted, being manipulated by inmates, or see the perceived devious nature of inmates as a job stressor. However, views of inmates as being amiable was positively associated with job stress. Of particular interest is the finding that officers who see inmates as warm, friendly, and social report higher levels of stress. This would coincide with research on role conflict in which officers who see themselves as treatment-oriented have higher levels of stress (Tewksbury & Higgins, 2006). In particular, officers might find that their positive perceptions of inmates are not embraced by their coworkers or supervisors (Dial & Johnson, 2008; Kauffman, 1988). This, in turn, could cause stress and alienation. Officers who are “nice” to offenders are often considered to be too friendly, which could alienate them from coworkers and supervisors. This alienation often solidifies the bond that they have with the offender and further causes tension between themselves and officers (Worley & Cheeseman, 2006). It could also be that officers who have positive perceptions of inmates might find this to be an internal conflict as well as this goes against the traditional “us versus them” mentality in corrections (Cheeseman Dial, Kim, Lambert, & Hogan, 2011). In addition, officers who have positive views of inmates could become closer to inmates, allowing inmates to take advantage of them, also causing stress. Conversely, officers who see inmates as amiable might also find their sociable nature annoying and would prefer that the inmates kept their distance (Cheeseman Dial et al., 2011). Another area to consider that has yet to be addressed in the research literature is whether correctional officer stress causes negative views of inmates or if negative views of inmates cause stress. Correctional agencies may have to reexamine how officers perceive inmates and the impact that this has on their feelings and perceptions about the job. Likewise, it is likely that inmates change how they interact with staff over time, and these interactions probably influence the perceptions of officers. Longitudinal studies are needed to explore how perceptions of inmates and job stress relate to one another.

Officers receive training on many aspects of their jobs. Based on the results of this study, correctional agencies might benefit from more training on offender personality and how inmates are perceived. Traditionally, officers are taught that the offenders are the enemy and that their job is to ensure that offenders remain under control and contained within the correctional facility. This attitude is then reinforced in the correctional officer subculture and continues to be perpetuated at many levels within correctional agencies (Cheeseman Dial et al., 2011). Correctional officers might benefit from a balanced approach to dealing with inmates. This might also help to alleviate correctional officer role conflict. In addition, correctional agencies might actually be able to use this as a tool to find correctional counselors or treatment professionals by finding officers who have positive views of inmates and who see their potential for change. It might help to decrease job stress if correctional agencies could identify officers who are best suited for treatment-oriented positions or place treatment-oriented officers in more treatment-oriented facilities. In most correctional agencies, treatment is not a major function of correctional officers, and employees who embrace a more treatment-oriented ideology might find treatment-oriented work in the prison environment more rewarding as well as less stressful (Toch & Grant, 1982).

One area that should be further explored is how perceptions of inmates relate to correctional orientation among correctional officers. The literature has dichotomized correctional orientation toward inmates into two categories: support for rehabilitation and support for punishment (Robinson et al., 1993). Support for punishment refers to a view that inmates while in prison should be punished for their crimes (Whitehead & Lindquist, 1989). Support for rehabilitation refers to a view that inmates should receive treatment for their criminologic needs (Cullen et al., 1989; Griffin, 2002). Correctional orientation is a salient area to study because correctional officers often have prolonged interactions with the inmates, which can influence either directly or indirectly the behaviors of offenders within prison and once they are released (Farkas, 1999; Gordon, 2006). In addition, past research has observed that support for treatment is positively associated with job involvement (i.e., psychological identification with the job), job satisfaction (i.e., the level of satisfaction with the job), and organizational commitment (i.e., the level of psychological commitment to the organization) among correctional staff, and conversely, support for punishment has a negative association with job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Cullen et al., 1989; Farkas, 1999; Lambert, Hogan, Barton, Jiang, & Baker, 2008; Robinson et al., 1993). Job involvement, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment have salient outcomes for correctional officers and correctional organizations (Cullen et al., 1989; Griffin, 2001; Hogan et al., 2009; Lambert, 2001; Robinson et al., 1993). Simply put, correctional orientation is a salient concept to study among correctional officers.

Support for punishment and treatment were not directly measured in this study. While seems likely that holding positive views of inmates will be linked with support for treatment, and, similarly, holding negative perceptions of inmates will likely be linked with greater levels of support for punishment, no information on either form of correctional orientation was collected in the survey, so these hypotheses remain untested postulations. Future studies should explore how perceptions of inmates relate to correctional orientation. Moreover, correctional officers are likely to hold mixed views on treatment and punishment. In this study, the perceptions of inmates varied among the surveyed officers. Some officers had far more positive views of inmates than did others, who saw inmates in a very negative light or who held a mixture of positive and negative perceptions of inmates. Like perceptions of inmates, the two major dimensions of correctional orientation are not mutually exclusive. Correctional officers can have support for varying degrees of rehabilitation and punishment, as is also found among the general public (Cullen, Pealer, Fisher, Applegate, & Santana, 2002). Research is needed to identify the variables that are important in helping shape the perceptions of inmates and correctional orientation of officers and why they vary as well as overlap with one another.

An additional area of research to be considered is what correctional officers’ views of inmates are when they first start their jobs and what they think of inmates throughout their careers. It might be more stressful for individuals who start out with positive perceptions of inmates to have them evolve into negative views, or the converse might be true. Officers who start off with negative attitudes might experience high levels of stress if they also see life and their work as negative. It might also be interesting to determine whether men and women perceive inmates differently and the impact that this has on their job stress. Farkas (1999) found that female officers had a more punitive approach, while others have found no relationship between gender and punitiveness (Cullen et al., 1989; Leiber, 2000; Leiber & Woodrick, 1997). It could be that if women in this study held punitive views, coupled with negative perceptions of inmates, might cause increased levels of stress. This clearly needs to be explored in future studies.

This study was exploratory in nature; therefore, further research on the elements involved in views of inmates would benefit not only correctional agencies but correctional officers as well. It could be argued that one stressor might lead to another, which might lead to burnout and job dissatisfaction. As a result, path modeling might also be a way to unravel how the variables in this study affect job stress among correctional officers.

As with many studies, the current study had limitations. One limitation of this study was that the research was conducted in a single region of a Southern prison system. While the results of this study are important, they may not be generalized to all correctional agencies across the United States. Additional studies are needed at other correctional facilities to determine whether the results can be replicated. A study that incorporates other regions of the United States and compares perceptions of inmates among correctional officers would be an important addition to the literature and may explain why correctional officer stress is experienced differently in particular areas of the United States. In addition, the use of a purposive sample did not include correctional officers with less than 8 months of tenure, as these individuals were not required to attend in-service training. New employees may provide information that could be critical in retaining employees.

Another limitation was that no information was collected about security level. As security level may be associated with level of job stress, future studies should include this measure. This current study was based on a cross-sectional design (i.e., data collected at one time), and as such, causal relationships cannot be empirically demonstrated. All that can be concluded at this time is that perceptions of inmates and job stress are associated with one another. Longitudinal studies are needed to demonstrate the causal relationship between the two variables. Furthermore, the type of facility/security level at which the participants worked was not asked in the survey, and as such, could not be included in the analyses. It is very possible that the relationships of perceptions of inmates and the other variables used in this study with job stress may vary by the type of facility/security level. This is a salient issue that should be addressed in future research in this area. In addition to perceptions of inmates, only three other workplace variables (i.e., peer support, supervisory support, and role conflict) were included in the analyses. Additional workplace variables should be included in the analyses to see if additional variance in job stress can be explained. In the current study, only about 23% of the observed variance in the job stress index was accounted for by the independent variables. This means that approximately 77% of the variance of job stress variable is accounted for by other unknown variables. These variables need to be identified and included in future studies.

Another shortcoming of the current study was that the Cronbach’s alpha for the scales of peer support and role conflict were low, which raises the issue of reliability for these measures. Future research needs to examine whether more reliable measures would result in different findings. Moreover, additional research is needed to test the dimensionality of the perceptions of inmates observed in the current study. It could be that perceptions of inmates may be contextual and situational, and as such, the results may vary between different types of correctional institutions. Future researchers may wish to explore how perceptions of inmates are influenced by the correctional officer culture and socialization at different correctional institutions. Finally, it is unknown how perceptions of inmates would affect other salient outcomes among correctional officers, such as organizational commitment, job involvement, burnout, life satisfaction, absenteeism, and turnover. Future research in these and other areas are needed. Although the study has limitations, the empirical findings have potential implications. It is hoped the current study will spark further research on the area of perceptions of inmates and how it related to job stress and other work outcomes among correctional staff.

Corrections is a business that involves people processing people. It also requires intense and frequent interactions with inmates. The synergistic effects of stressors associated with working in corrections are exhibited in a variety of physical and mental symptoms. Correctional executives and immediate supervisors who ignore these effects will inevitably be faced with lower levels of employee morale and higher levels of employee absenteeism, poor health, and turnover. It should also be noted that stress is a multifaceted and complex problem. This study is not meant to imply that perceptions of inmates are a sole cause of stress; it is just one piece of the puzzle to be considered. Essentially, few studies have looked at how correctional officers actually perceived inmates and how these perceptions influence how officers see their jobs and experience stress. To ignore the interaction of correctional officers and offenders is to ignore an area that can and does have profound effects on correctional officer stress.


The authors thank Janet Lambert for proofreading the paper. In addition, the authors thank the reviewers for their comments and suggestions, which improved the manuscript.


Article Notes

  • Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

  • Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.

Author Biographies

Marcos Misis is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Northern Kentucky University. He earned his Ph.D. in criminal justice from the University of Southern Mississippi. He is currently working in different research projects on the topics of citizens’ perceptions of police, police stress, and psychological aspects of drug addiction.

Bitna Kim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She received her Ph.D. from the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. Her specific areas of interest include cross-cultural study, gender issues in CJ system, and statistics.

Kelly Cheeseman is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Department Chair at Messiah College, in Grantham, Pennsylvania, USA. She received her PhD in Criminal Justice from Sam Houston State University in Texas, USA. Her current research interests include female offenders, prison deviance, correctional officer stress and job satisfaction, institutional corrections, the death penalty, ethics and sexually deviant behavior.

Nancy L. Hogan is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Ferris State University and Graduate Program Coordinator at Ferris State University. She received her Ph.D. in Justice Studies from Arizona State University. Her research interests include job satisfaction and organizational issues of correctional staff, use of force, and cognitive behavioral treatment for inmates.

Eric G. Lambert is a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University. He received his Ph.D. from the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include organizational issues, job and organizational effects on the attitudes, intentions, and behaviors of criminal justice employees, and the international perceptions, attitudes, and views on criminal justice issues.


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