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Interpersonal Interaction Between Prisoners and Officers in Prisons: A Qualitative Meta-Synthesis Exploring Prison Officer Wellbeing

Published onFeb 01, 2021
Interpersonal Interaction Between Prisoners and Officers in Prisons: A Qualitative Meta-Synthesis Exploring Prison Officer Wellbeing
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Abstract

The wellbeing of prison officers has primarily been understood as a function of contextual variables such as their workplace and the nature of their role. Yet the research suggests the officers’ gender and tenure are the only statistically significant predictors of wellbeing for this population (Butler, Tasca, Zhang, & Carpenter, 2019). These findings suggest that variables at the person level may be more important than contextual variables. As such, we conducted a qualitative, meta-synthesis to explore how interpersonal interactions between prisoners and prison officers may affect the health and wellbeing of prison officers. Following a systematic review of the literature, eight separate studies in which prison officers were interviewed regarding their interactions with prisoners, were included in the meta-synthesis. Thematic analysis resulted in the development of six categories: trust and respect, maintaining and managing boundaries, communication, appraisal of the self, role and prisoner. From this we developed one statement of finding which emphasised a) the importance of trust and respect between prison officers and prisoner, b) the use of discretion and informal favours by prison officers as tools which needed to be applied consistently and c) that communication skills are key. We discuss the practical and theoretical implications of this statement.

Introduction

Prison officers, the individuals tasked with the day-to-day management of prison units, are integral to the operation of any corrections system (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Butler et al., 2019; Finney et al., 2013). They are responsible for the safety and security of the prison facility (Bezerra et al., 2016), for supporting offender rehabilitation efforts and for managing organisational demands (Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000). Despite their importance to the running of the prison system, the health and wellbeing of prison officers remains poor. 

Given the high rate of adverse incidents experienced by prison officers, it is not surprising that workplace stress is relatively common (Butler et al., 2019; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Finney et al., 2013). It is estimated that between 30 to 50 percent of prison officers report moderate to high levels of workplace stress (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Butler et al., 2019; Kinman et al., 2016; Lambert & Hogan, 2018; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). Rates of burnout (Boudoukha et al., 2013; Gould et al., 2013; Lambert et al., 2012; Lambert et al., 2015), post-traumatic stress disorder (Boudoukha et al., 2013; Jaegers et al., 2019; Regehr et al., 2019), suicide (Milner et al., 2017; Stack & Tsoudis, 1997), and alcohol use (Bierie, 2012; Shepherd et al., 2019) are more common in prison officers than the general population. Furthermore, prison officers report poor physical health (Harvey, 2014; Jaskowiak & Fontana, 2015), as well as decreased life and work satisfaction (Finney et al., 2013; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000). The poor health of prison officers is associated with high rates of absenteeism and turnover (Byrd et al., 2000; Matz et al., 2014).

Over two decades of research has resulted in an extensive list of variables noted to impact upon the prison officers’ subjective experience of health, wellbeing and stress (Butler et al., 2019; Finney et al., 2013; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000). These include, but are not limited to, high workloads, conflict with supervisors and colleagues, rotating shifts and rosters, and violent behaviour from prisoners (Armstrong & Griffin, 2004; Castle & Martin, 2006; Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Lambert & Hogan, 2018; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). However, the evidence in support of these factors has been inconsistent, as discussed below. 

Summary of previous findings

Reviewing the literature pertaining to prison officers, Butler and colleagues’ (2019) recent meta-analysis identified 82 different outcome measures across 172 studies which sampled prison officers. The most frequently reported outcomes included workplace stress (37 studies) and workplace satisfaction (34 studies), suggesting the health and wellbeing of this population is of importance to researchers. However, the results of the meta-analysis suggest a limited understanding of the factors affecting these outcomes. Butler et al., found the only consistent predictors of workplace stress were gender and tenure; that is being female, and being in the role for a longer period, are both related to greater stress, though only a weak relationship is observed for either variable. Regarding workplace satisfaction, the age of the officer and the support received from colleagues and supervisors were the only consistent predictors. Whilst the latter relationship was moderate to strong in effect size, the former was weak. Despite the large number of studies available for review, Butler et al.’s (2019) meta-analysis identified only four significant predictors of workplace stress and satisfaction for prison officers, and all but one is statistically weak.

Parallel to the above, considerable research has been conducted which explores the social culture of the prison. This scholarship emphasises the domesticity of the prison environment and the importance of relationships within it (Bennett et al., 2013; Crewe & Liebling, 2015; Liebling & Kant, 2018; Liebling et al., 2010). Prison officers and prisoners spend weeks, months, even years in cohabitation. Relationships develop from ongoing interpersonal interactions based on the shared goal of maintaining the good order of the prison (Crewe et al., 2011, 2015; Hulley et al., 2012). From this it can be concluded that the social milieu of the prison juxtaposes the mundane of domesticity with the volatility of involuntary confinement (Tracy & Scott, 2007; Tracy, 2016). The prison officer can be responsible for the daily running of the prison unit—for example: food handling and preparation, cleaning, and assisting prisoners with administrative tasks, such as managing legal matters or preparing for release. Throughout such tasks, the environment may be consistently at melting point, threatening to boil over into hostility and violence. In this context, interpersonal interactions may be unstable, leading to heightened arousal and sometimes hostility (Bottoms, 1999; Crawley, 2004).

We argue that the nature of interpersonal interactions between prison officers and prisoners is an important, yet understudied, point of consideration in the discussion of prison officer wellbeing. Viotti (2016) interviewed 28 prison officers about work-related factors that negatively impact their psychological health. She concluded that managing relationships with prisoners was the most stressful part of a prison officer’s job. In particular, prison officers report that their stress levels increase when they feel overwhelmed by prisoner requests, had to manage the emotional reactions and aggressive behaviour of the prisoners, come into contact with the prisoners’ own emotional suffering, and when managing relationships with prisoners of other cultures. It seems likely that the smooth functioning of the prison, and the wellbeing of staff and prisoners alike, is influenced by multiple inter and intrapersonal factors, yet few have sought to directly explore these interpersonal interactions and the health of prison officers. 

Throughout this manuscript, we adhere to a dynamic equilibrium perspective of wellbeing, in which wellbeing is achieved when “individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge” (Dodge et al., 2012). Prison officers’ wellbeing, therefore, can be understood as a dynamic balance between an individual’s available resources and the challenges they face (Dodge et al., 2012; Trounson & Pfeifer, 2016). By exploring the subjective experiences of prison officers when interacting with prisoners, and considering how interactions are negotiated, we aim to better understand how these interactions may interact with the health and wellbeing of prison officers. As such the current study will examine interactions between prison officers and prisoners as reported in the existing literature.

Method

Study design

Exploring the views and perceptions of prison officers and prisoners is notoriously difficult (Crighton, 2006; Liebling, 2001; Patenaude, 2004). As well as practical issues such as gaining entry to the prison, prison officers are reported to be highly suspicious of outsiders. Gaining trust and building rapport takes considerable ethnographic work. Additionally, as researchers we are faced with the issue of generalisability; in-depth interviews compromise on breadth. To manage these limitations this study will utilise a relatively new method, the qualitative meta-synthesis (Hannes & Lockwood, 2011; Lockwood et al., 2015; Thomas & Harden, 2008). The first objective of this method is to draw together the findings of qualitative studies. This method will provide access to the views and perceptions of the hard-to-reach prison officers in respect to interpersonal interactions with prisoners. The meta-synthesis will provide breadth, drawing together the views and opinions of multiple prison officers across several studies. 

The second aim of the meta-synthesis is to develop a statement of synthesis which can be used to inform practice and policy. By drawing together literature from several disciplines we aim to assist those tasked with supporting the health of prison officers to better understand processes which may impact upon the health of those who work in the carceral environment.

The current review was conducted in accordance with the Joanna Briggs Institute Systematic Review (Aromataris & Munn, 2020) and PRISMA guidelines (Moher et al., 2009). As an exploration of existing literature, this project was not subject to HREC review.

Search strategy and inclusion criteria

The search strategy was developed using the PICO mnemonic as adjusted for qualitative projects—Population, the phenomenon of Interest, and the Context in which this occurs (Butler et al., 2016; Lockwood et al., 2015). Electronic searches were performed on the following databases: PSYCHinfo, SCOPUS, Published International Literature on Traumatic Stress (PILOTS) and Proquest Dissertation and Thesis. These databases were chosen to facilitate an exhaustive search strategy, breadth via the PSYCHinfo and SCOPUS databases, depth via PILOTS, and the potential for grey literature via the Proquest database. All terms (Table 1) were searched independently as keywords (title and abstract) and combined using Boolean truncations. Included articles were also subject to reference and citation searches. 


Table 1. Search terms

PICO component

Associated key words

Population—Prison Officers

PRISON OFFICER, PRISON GUARD, CORRECTION OFFICER

Phenomenon of Interest—The subjective experiences of prison officers during their interpersonal interactions with prisoners

EMOTION, AFFECT, FEELING, DISSONANCE, CONFLICT, AGITATION, DISCONTENT, EXHAUSTION, DISCOMFORT, INMATES RELATION, INTERACTION, INTERPERSONAL, COMMUNICATION, and COOPERATION

Context—Prison

PRISON, JAIL/GAOL, CORRECTION CENTRE


 Studies were considered for inclusion if:

  • Qualitative methodology was employed; including, but not limited to, designs of phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, action research, and feminist theory. Due to the nature of data extraction, commentary and opinion pieces were excluded.

  • The research was conducted after 1980, corresponding with the publication of seminal documents regarding prison officer health and interactions with prisoners (Cheek & Miller, 1983; Whitehead & Lindquist, 1986).

  • Participants were prison officers who worked in adult prisons and had regular contact with prisoners as part of their duties.

Studies were excluded if:

  • Interviews were undertaken with treatment and/or administrative staff.

  • Findings or conclusions were based on interviews with both prison officers and prisoners.

  • Research was undertaken in specialised units or prisons, for example therapeutic units or death row.

  • Research was not published in English.

The literature search was undertaken in January of 2018. Execution of the search strategy resulted in identification of 4378 potential articles for inclusion. Following removal of duplicates, 3948 articles were subject to title and abstract screening by DR. As per the above inclusion criteria, 3907 articles were excluded. Forty-one articles were subject to full-text screening, of which eight articles based on eight original research projects (Table 2) were identified for inclusion (Figure 1).


Table 2. Summary of articles included in review

Author(s)

 

Location

Methodology

Method

Prison context

Participants

Phenomenon of interest

Cianchi (2009)

Australia

Appreciative Enquiry

Semi-structured interview

1 Prison

Male only

4 Prison Officers

Relations between prison officers and prisoners

Halsey, & Deegan (2017)

 

Australia

Grounded theory

Semi-structured interviews

5 Prisons

Male only

40 Prison Officers

(Male=30)

Acts of generativity by prison officers

Ibsen (2013)

Norway

Ethnography

Field work*

1 Prison

1 Remand Centre

Male only

Guard/Researcher

Informal favours as social control by prison officers

Lemmergaard, & Muhr (2012)

 

Denmark

Grounded theory

Semi-structured interviews

1 Prison

Male only

4 Prison Officers

(Male=2)

Emotional labour and professional identity

Liebling, Price, & Elliott (1999)

England

Appreciative Enquiry

Semi-structured interviews

5 Prisons

Male only

17 Prison Officers

(Male=unknown)

Relations between prison officers and prisoners

Owen (1983)

United States

Grounded theory

Observation and Semi-structured interviews

1 Prison

Male only

35 Prison Officers

(Male=22)

Prison culture and relationships

Ricciardelli, & Perry (2016)

Canada

Grounded theory

Semi-structured interviews

1 Prison

1 Remand Centre

Male only

42 Prison Officers

(Male=21)

Communication as a tool of responsivity

Worley (2016)

United States

Auto-ethnography

Field work*

2 Prisons

Male Only

Guard/Researcher

Boundary crossing in prisons

* This included but was not limited to any combination of participant-observation, observation, semi-structured interviews, visual recording/mapping etc.


Figure 1. PRISMA flow chart


Appraisal

Prior to the extraction of data, each included article was subject to appraisal. Using the JBI Checklist for Qualitative Research (CQR) (Lockwood et al., 2015) this process was completed by DR and MI. Where differences in appraisal were noted, discussion between authors was sufficient to resolve conflict. Appraisal results are reported in Table 3.

Primary areas of consideration during the appraisal process included: congruence between the aim of the research, methodology, data interpretation, and discussion. These issues are represented in questions 2, 5, and 10 of the CQR. All articles were deemed to have met these criteria and as such no articles were excluded based on appraisal. Several articles were assessed as not meeting criteria pertaining to questions 9. In this instance reviewers were explicitly seeking commentary regarding Human Research Ethics Committee approval. Failure to meet this criteria suggests a failure to report on process rather than unethical research practice; as such no articles were excluded on this criteria.


Table 3. Outcome of quality appraisal

Appraisal criteria/author

Cianchi (2009)

Halsey, & Deegan (2017)

Ibsen (2013)

Lemmergaard, & Muhr (2012)

Liebling, Price, & Elliott (1999)

Owen (1983)

Ricciardelli, & Perry (2016)

Worley (2016)

1. Is there congruity between the stated philosophical perspective and the methodology?

Unclear

Unclear

Unclear

Unclear

Yes

Yes

Unclear

Yes

2. Is there congruity between the methodology and the research question or objectives?

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

3. Is there congruity between the methodology and the methods used to collect data?

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

4. Is there congruity between the methodology and the representation and analysis of data?

Unclear

Yes

Unclear

Yes

Unclear

Yes

Yes

Unclear

5. Is there congruity between the methodology and the interpretation of results?

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

6. Is there a statement locating the researcher culturally or theoretically?

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

7. Is the influence of the researcher on the research, and vice-versa, addressed?

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

8. Are participants and their voices adequately represented?

Yes

Yes

Unclear

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Unclear

9. Is the research ethical according to current criteria or, for recent studies, is there evidence of ethical approval by an appropriate body?

No

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

No

10. Do the conclusions drawn flow from the analysis, or the interpretation of the data?

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes


Identification, categorisation and meta-synthesis

The JBI process of meta-synthesis is a three-step process. The first stage requires identification, extraction and rating of data from the included articles. Extraction of data was completed using the JBI Data Extraction Template (Aromataris & Munn, 2020). DR extracted all major themes and conclusions; hereafter referred to as ‘findings’, as per the JBI Reviewer’s Manual (Aromataris & Munn, 2020). Findings were then assigned one of three ratings. Findings were rated as either unequivocal (those accompanied by a direct quote from a participant, or the authors’ direct observation beyond reasonable doubt and so not open to challenge), credible (those accompanied by a quote or observation, however, clear association between the quote or observation and the finding is lacking), or not supported, either directly or indirectly, by the data (Aromataris & Munn, 2020). Findings not supported by the data were excluded from the remainder of the analysis. 

The second stage requires the categorisation of findings. Removed from the context of the original article, analysis was undertaken using an iterative process which focused on identifying underlying components of interactions between prison officers and prisoners. This process included identification of similarities in words and terms used across findings, for example terms synonymous with, or associated to, the primary term ‘emotion’ were grouped together. Categories were developed via thematic analysis where two or more groups were linked by a second order concept pertinent to interpersonal interactions for example, trust or communication.

In the final stage, categories are synthesised to form one aggregate statement of finding. With the focus on exploration, no a priori theory was identified to guide the synthesis of categories. All three stages were completed independently by the first author.

Results

Individual findings (n=84) were extracted from eight research articles. These findings were collapsed into six categories, which subsequently informed one synthesised statement of finding. An overview of this process is presented in Figure 2. 


Figure 2. Process of meta-synthesis


Categories

Trust and respect

Honesty and consistency on behalf of the prison officer facilitates the development of trust and respect between prison officers and prisoners. The concepts of trust and respect were noted to be important to relationships between prison officers and prisoners. As one officer reported “even if [the prisoner] hates the [Corrections Officer], even if they can't stand the person, if they can trust the person, they'll respect them a lot more. They can completely hate a guard, but have respect for them" (Ricciardelli, & Perry, 2016, p. 411). A second officer highlights just how important respect is to these relationships: “once you have it [respect], you will appreciate its worth. Get it and it’s worth a fortune. If you don’t have it you will struggle big time” (Cianchi, 2009, p. 62). 

Building and maintaining trust and respect was a balancing act for prison officers which appeared to be contingent on their being honest and consistent. Prison officers report that prisoners distrust them if they don’t follow through on agreements made with the prisoner, or if they attempt to address the prisoners’ needs but cannot and fail to explain why. One officer highlights the importance of consistent behaviour when interacting with prisoners: “it doesn't matter how hard the rule is, if it's the same every day and they know where they stand, they're happy with that” (Cianchi, 2009, p. 60). A second officer suggests being honest can also lead to an increase in respect between the two parties: “if you can get an inmate something they have a right to, that works really well and makes a big difference to your relationship. But what makes a huge difference to your relationship is if you can’t get that thing and you return to them and explain why. Because then you get respect” (Cianchi, 2009, p. 49). 

It appears the outcome of the interaction is less important than how these interactions occur. Honest and consistent behaviour on behalf of the prison officer during any interaction with the prisoner, builds trust and respect. These in turn facilitate good interpersonal relationships between the two parties.

Marking and managing boundaries

Interpersonal boundaries are fluid and as such they are in a constant state of flux. One strategy employed by prison officers to manage boundaries is the use of informal rules and favours.

The extracted findings suggest interpersonal interactions are underpinned by a system of informal rules and favours from the prison officer to the prisoner. Obviously, the prison manual cannot cover all situations encountered by prison officers, so prison officers need to use their judgement and “improvise” (Ibsen, 2013, p. 355). For example, a prison officer may process a favoured or well-behaved prisoner’s family through the visitor process first to allow them more time with their family member. Such informal rules and regulations help to manage prisoner behaviour. 

Halsey and Deegan (2016) suggest that, in the absence of formal consequences for poor or unwanted behaviour, removal of informal favours is one of the only punishment options available when not utilising disciplinary infractions. Discussing their use of informal rules and favours, prison officers again noted the importance of balance. Rules can be under—enforced with discretion in order to avoid conflict, acts requiring skill, foresight, diplomacy and humour. One officer notes “It’s like a tree isn’t it? If you have a bit of flexibility you will stand up in a strong wind, but if you are rigid you will snap in half” (Halsey & Deegan, 2016, p. 58). 

When discussing interpersonal interactions staff were highly sensitive to what could be considered overt or observable acts of boundary crossing. Unauthorised contact between inmates and correctional officers is considered a serious infraction, even if accidental (Worley, 2016). However, prison officers were less able to identify exactly where more ambiguous boundaries lay. It was understood that “grey areas required limits” (Liebling et al., 1999, p. 87). However as one officer noted, “it's so easy to be over-friendly because you spend a lot of time with them ... I have certain prisoners that I take out [of the prison] and ... talking to them you can develop a rapport with them ... it's just knowing where the line is ... sometimes it [can] be grey” (Halsey & Deegan, 2016, p. 60). The inability to define boundaries was reinforced by the appreciation that everyone had different perspectives. As noted by one prison officer:

I think when officers start providing inappropriate information or being too, what’s the word? … I have seen officers telling inmates about operations that will happen in the future, or officers telling inmates about such and such officer’s new car, or where an officer lives without thinking about it. All that is bad. And then you get the other angle when officers might be giving or taking things, for example, cigarettes. As far as I am concerned that sort of thing is the thin end of the wedge. I wouldn’t even accept a match from an inmate. These are my matches and I cannot give them to an inmate. (Cianchi, 2009, p. 60)

Implementing and managing boundaries is an important component of interpersonal interactions between prisoners and prison officers. One strategy used to do this was via informal rules and favours, which require the prison officer to be flexible in their interactions with prisoners. A second component of this was the nature of communication used by prison officers when interacting with prisoners. 

Communication

The style of communication (or communication strategies) used by prison officers can either facilitate or undermine relations between prison officers and prisoners. Prison officers across studies commented on how they and others communicated with prisoners and the consequences of the communication style used. Ricciardelli and Perry (2016) argue that three broad styles are used by prison officers, and these were indeed identified across the extracted findings. The first style is one that engenders trust and rapport by meeting prison needs and adhering to prison regulations. This style was characterised as being fair, honest, non-judgemental, and consistent, and involved prison officers engaging in active listening. 

In contrast, Ricciardelli and Perry (2016) argued that the other two communication styles were more likely to reduce trust within the prison officer and prisoner relationships, thereby increasing occupational risk. This is because one of these styles is too friendly, where inappropriate relationships are formed between prisoners and prison officers, involving indiscretions in regard to both physical intimacy and information that is disclosed to prisoners. By contrast, the other style is too authoritarian, involving antagonistic and derogatory language, and ready use of physical force. The extracted findings suggest that prison officers are cognisant of the different styles of communication that can influence their interpersonal interactions with prisoners, as well as their outcomes. 

How a prison officer chooses to interact with prisoners, their use or not of informal rules and favours, their definition of boundaries and how they communicate, will be dependent on a number of considerations specific to the individual. These considerations were categorised as pertaining to the self, the role and the prisoner, and are outlined below. 

Appraisal of the role: Care vs control

The approach individual prison officers choose to take as a prison officer depends on their understanding of the role. This understanding will be developed in the context of institutional goals and cultural norms. 

Liebling et al. (1999) note the prison officer is required to strike a balance between civility and humanity versus being firm and in control. The current findings suggest that the prison officer may fall on a continuum of understanding which ranges from those who treat prisoners fairly as human beings (Owen, 1983), to those who treat prisoners as “scumbags” from the lower echelons of society who don’t deserve civil treatment (Halsey & Deegan, 2016). 

It remains unclear if a prison officer consciously attempts to define their role, or if this occurs unconsciously. What is clear is that the antithetical understandings of the role result from a conflict between dual obligations of care versus control. This may be the result of conflict between the operational philosophies of imprisonment, rehabilitation and retribution (Halsey & Deegan, 2016), or it may be a personal and ideological conflict between the officer’s moral and legal obligations. 

Appraisal of the self: Introspection and reflection

The individual will approach their position as a prison officer according to their understanding of the self. This understanding will develop in the context of their own views, values, and previous experiences.

One officer explores how his own history has coloured his role as a prison officer, “Well, I grew up in the streets and this type of individual does not throw me off that much. What throws me off that much is the refinement of this type of person. This is the most confronting thing to me” (Owen, 1983, p. 151). A second officer reflects “If my brother were to come to gaol … I would hate my brother to be treated the way some inmates are treated.” (Chanchi, 2009, p. 50). Both officers identify, and reflect upon, how their own personal views and experiences influence how they understand and interact with prisoners. 

In an extension of the above, the officer must also consider the bi-directional flow of influence from the prison context to their world outside the gates, in order to minimise the impact of the job on their personal life (Lemmergaard & Muhr, 2012). As exemplified by one prison officer: “when I am at work I just switch off and become another person. I follow what you might call 'scripts’, scripts I've learnt from training and culture” (Lemmergaard & Muhr, 2012, p. 191). Accordingly, the prison officer considers how their own views and values influence how they view the role, as well as the impact the role has on them as a person. Thus, the prison officer is continually required to introspect and self-regulate (Halsey & Deegan, 2016). 

Appraisal of the prisoner: Moral stranger or fellow traveller

The prison officer is required to continually appraise the state and nature of the prisoner. Appraisal will be made in the context of institutional goals and cultural norms, as well as the prison officer’s own views, values and previous experiences. 

Halsey and Deegan (2016) note that interpersonal interactions in prison require “appraising [sic] the other” (p. 57). Both Owen (1983) and Halsey and Deegan (2016), suggest there are multiple points of reference the prison officer can use to appraise the prisoner, including personal views, experience and institutional philosophies. There are officers who subscribe to the view that prisoners are “not like us” (Halsey, & Deegan, 2016, p. 60). Alternatively, an officer can appraise the prisoner as more than the sum of their past wrongdoings, capable of undergoing growth and change, as well as being capable of doing “good things” (Halsey & Deegan, 2016, p. 66). 

The appraisal of the prisoner can also be influenced by institutional representations of the prisoner, which tend to emphasise the prisoner as potentially violent and morally lacking (Owen, 1983). In contrast, definitions based on real interactions with prisoners suggest otherwise. As one example highlights, “we actually have an outside work gang ... they [prisoners] really feel they gain out of it ... [and] it's good ... that the public see these guys out there doing it as well … they're not just purely that evil looking guy behind the fence ... they're a face that they can physically [relate to]” (Halsey, & Deegan, 2016, p. 66).

Interpersonal interactions between prison officers and prisoners are complex. They vary greatly and are influenced by contextual and individual factors. The development of good working relationships relies on interpersonal interactions that are respectful and trustworthy. This will depend on the communication style used by the officer, and the flexibility utilised when enforcing rules and managing boundaries. This in turn, is influenced by how the prison officer perceives their role, how they understand the self and, finally, how they perceive the prisoner. 

Taken together, the findings from this meta-synthesis give rise to the following statement of finding: from the perspective of the prison officer, interpersonal interactions with prisoners are complicated and characterised by paradox; trust and respect develop in the context of unequal power roles, and consistency is achieved despite the use of individualised rules and favours (discretion). Communication skills are key to managing these paradoxical circumstances and can either support or undermine the development of positive relationships. Underpinning all interactions are the thoughts, feelings, values and reflections of the individual prison officer pertaining to the self, the role and the prisoner. 

Discussion

Using the method of meta-synthesis, the first aim of this paper was to draw together qualitative research exploring how, from the perspective of the prison officer, interpersonal interactions between themselves and prisoners are negotiated. The second was to develop a statement of finding to inform policy makers in an effort to address the health and wellbeing of prison officers. The statement of finding presented above emphasised the importance of trust and respect developing between the prison officer and prisoner, as well as the use of discretion and individual favours as a tool for discipline which needs to be applied consistently. To achieve these, communication skills are key, and are shaped by appraisals of the self, the role and the prisoner. The following discussion explores how interpersonal interactions underscore the smooth operation of the prison and in turn support the good health and wellbeing of those who work in the carceral environment, both practically and theoretically. 

Practical implications

Debate remains regarding prison officers’ use of informal rules and favours in the management of prisoner behaviour, highlighting the inherent conflict between discretionary actions and the structured manuals and administrative rules of the prison (Liebling, 2000, 2008). Historically, the use of informal rules and favours, or discretion, by prison officers has been viewed negatively. It is either characterised as behaviour in direct conflict to operational manuals and regulations of the prison, or as the beginning of a significant boundary crossing (Worley et al., 2019; Worley & Worley, 2016). Similarly to others’ findings (Hulley et al., 2012; Liebling, 2008; Trammell et al., 2018), our review suggests that, far from being perceived as a problematic concept, the use of discretion is a significant resource for the prison officer. 

The capacity to use their discretion when interacting with prisoners provides the prison officer the opportunity to adjust their engagement to the individual prisoner and the specific situation; discretion provides the prison officer with the capacity to maintain consistency with the prisoner and can facilitate the development of trust and respect between prison officers and prisoners. By using their discretion and implementing informal rules and favours in their daily activities, prison officers are provided the opportunity to actively affect the nature of any interpersonal interaction. In this context, discretion is viewed as a behaviour management tool and should be accessible to prison officers. Whilst discretion can be abused, we argue it is no longer sufficient to understand the prison officers use of discretion as wholly problematic. Future research will need to continue to explore the highly nuanced nature of discretionary decision making by the prison officer. It will be important for any such research to focus on how prison officers make decisions regarding the implementation, or not, of informal rules or favours and how the behaviour of prisoners is influenced by the actions of the prison officers. 

Recent research with both prisoners (van der Kaap-Deeder et al., 2019; Vieraitis et al., 2018) and prison officers (Trounson & Pfeifer, 2017) suggests that the communication style employed by the prison officer will affect interactions. If communication is an important factor in determining the nature of interpersonal interactions between prison officers and prisoners, two points of practicality must be considered. Firstly, the key characteristics under which prison officers are recruited may need to be reconsidered as it cannot be assumed that a prison officer will be proficient in communicating with others. As such, tests of emotional intelligence (for example, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) (Mayer et al., 2003) or the Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (Dulewicz et al., 2003)) may need to be incorporated into the assessments undertaken by applicants during the process of recruitment. This will help to ensure prison officers have sufficient emotional intelligence to make the ongoing complex and nuanced judgements required to be able to manage the prison well within the limitations imposed by the carceral environment.

Second, no matter the level of one’s communication skills coming into the role, prisons have their own social nuances, as noted earlier. Positive communication in this environment is not just a by-product of a shared space, but a process requiring skill and consideration. Hence, prison officers should receive communication skills training. For example, techniques of motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2009) have been shown to reduce conflict with prisoners (McMurran, 2009).

As noted above, gender was one of the two variables found to consistently relate to increased workplace stress across the prison officer population (Butler et al., 2019; Lambert et al., 2017). The current findings may provide some insight into this relationship. In one of the few studies exploring the impact of gender on these interactions, Beijersbergen et al., (2015) found that male prisoners in units with more female officers perceived more fairness, humanity, and more positive relationships with officers. Males and females interact and communicate differently; women tend to be less hierarchical (Merchant, 2012), perhaps suggesting they may be more likely to take a rehabilitative rather than punitive perspective towards prisoners. Ongoing exploration will need to be undertaken to consider the influence of gender on how prison officers communicate and make decisions when interacting with prisoners. Such considerations would need to account for both the gender of the officer and the gender of the prisoner. 

In sum, far from being problematic, the use of discretion is an important tool for prison officers when working with prisoners. For this reason, communication skills are likely to be an important aspect of being an effective prison officer. Factors that may influence communication skills, such as gender, may provide an important area for future research.

Theoretical implications 

To date two theories have been extensively considered in respect to the health and wellbeing of prison officer populations. Karasek’s (1979) Job Control-Demand (JCD) model of workplace stress, and Maslach and colleague’s concept of burnout (Leiter & Maslach, 1988; Maslach et al., 2001). The statement of finding developed from the current analysis may provide support for a substantial paradigm shift in the theoretical explanation used to understand the health and wellbeing of the prison officer. 

The JCD model argues that stress in the workplace is determined by interactions between the demands placed on the worker and the decisional latitude of the employee. Increased stress is hypothesised to be the result of increased demands and a low level of individual control (Dewe et al., 2012; Karasek, 1979). Notwithstanding its prevalence, the use of the JCD model and its variants (i.e., JCD-Support) to explain increased stress in this population has proved inconclusive (Akbari et al., 2017; Brough et al., 2018; Brough & Williams, 2007; Dollard & Winefield, 1998; Jackson et al., 1993; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015).

One explanation for this has been identified in the wider discussion of the JCD model: that is, the model constructs stress objectively (Häusser et al., 2010; Kain & Jex, 2010) and thus fails to adequately consider subjective experiences of the work environment, and how these relate to stress specifically, and health more generally. By contrast, the current statement of finding suggests the prison officer role can be influenced by highly subjective variables, for example the views and values of the individual or their past experiences. By highlighting organisational factors as underscoring the health and wellbeing of the prison officer, those who employ the JDC model fail to consider the role of the subjective experience in understanding the wellbeing of this population. 

As noted above, the concept of burnout (Maslach et al., 2001; W. Schaufeli et al., 2010) has also been used to explore health and wellbeing in this population. Burnout is described as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors in the workplace (Leiter & Maslach, 1988; W. Schaufeli et al., 2010). It is regarded as both a process and an endpoint (W. B. Schaufeli et al., 2010), characterised by three distinct dimensions—emotional exhaustion versus energy, cynicism versus involvement and inefficacy versus efficacy (Maslach & Leiter, 2008) As an individual faces increased interpersonal stressors they move from energy, involvement, and efficacy to exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. 

As a concept which highlights the role of interpersonal stressors in the workplace, burnout has also been used to understand the health and wellbeing of prison officers (Finney et al., 2013; Isenhardt & Hostettler, 2020; Schaufeli & Peeters, 2000; Whitehead & Lindquist, 1986). This has resulted in a substantial body of work exploring burnout in this population. However, a review of the research to date concludes that burnout in this population has its origins in workplace factors, and not the individual factors suggested by the concept of burnout (Lambert et al., 2015). On the other hand, the literature summarised in the introduction did find support for the notion that gender and tenure (both interpersonal factors), predict workplace stress. In sum, it’s not clear whether interpersonal or workplace factors are more useful when trying to understand workplace stress and burnout. 

We agree that there are significant environmental and organisational stressors that would affect the health and wellbeing of the prison officer. However, we argue interpersonal factors are of equal importance to this equation. The transactional model of stress and coping (Lazarus, 1993) suggests the experience of stress in the workplace is dependent on the interaction between environmental demands, constraints, resources, and the individual’s ability to manage these. In consideration of the statement of finding developed from the current analysis we contend that this model is of particular relevance to the health and wellbeing of the prison officer. Specifically, whilst the prisoner population and the physical prison environment account for the demands, constraints and resources, it is the individual’s ability to manage these that can affect their health and wellbeing. The needs of the prisoners (environmental demands), the rules and regulations of the prison (environmental constraints) and the workforce (environmental resources), can individually or in combination, negatively affect the prison officer. In the instance that they use suitable communication skills, are honest and consistent when dealing with prisoners, and have the capacity to evaluate and reflect (appraise) their environment and behaviour, they will have an increased capacity to manage these demands. It is proposed that the health and wellbeing of the prison officer population will be influenced by the nature of their interpersonal interactions with prisoners.

A component of the model is the subjective, two-stage appraisal process (Lazarus, 1993; 1995). Lazarus suggests primary appraisal involves the individual assessing the immediate situation. The degree of stress perceived in the situation is determined by how relevant and congruent the situation is with personal goals. For example, in the prison context, the prison officer may aim for minimal violence within the unit, so if they perceive the immediate situation as relaxed and quiet (e.g., prisons playing cards) they will be relaxed; however, if they see prisoners displaying aggressive gestures or raising their voices, their level of stress will be elevated. Secondary appraisal involves the individual considering the means available to them to deal with immediate circumstances (Lazarus, 2006). Means are defined as personal (emotion-focused coping skills) and environmental (problem-focused coping skills). At this second level of appraisal, a greater number of available coping skills for managing the situation will reduce perceived stress. 

The evidence for the transactional model to understand the health and wellbeing of this population is limited. We suggest that the current findings and the potential utility of the transactional theory may also provide an explanation as to ongoing evidence linking the concept of role conflict to increased stress in prison officers (Dowden & Tellier, 2004; Lambert et al., 2005; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015). Role conflict occurs when compliance with one set of pressures makes compliance with another set difficult, objectionable or impossible (Lambert et al., 2005). Managing appraisal of the prisoner and the self, within the context of understanding the nature of one’s role, can only increase the appraisal demands of this process and therefore the stress experienced by the prison officer. For example, the officer may subscribe to the view that all prisoners are dangerous, and so hold punitive views, yet work in a prison program where individuals are productive and work together cooperatively. Hence, their views are challenged which they may experience as stress. 

The transactional model also has practical utility. Appraisal suggests a high capacity for self-reflection, and the ability to integrate this self-actualisation into one's capacity to make immediate decisions in any context. The health and wellbeing of the prison officer can be addressed immediately from the perspective of transactional theory, via officer training and professional development. For example, inclusion of training to increase decision making skills in high-risk circumstances may equip officers with the capacity to manage any situation differently and, ultimately, reduce the stress of the circumstances. Such initiatives can be implemented relatively quickly and with limited financial resources.

Strengths and limitations

A strength of the current study is the qualitative synthesis method. At the time of writing, and to the authors’ best knowledge, no meta-synthesis has been undertaken in respect to interpersonal interactions between prison officers and prisoners. As such, the current research provides a new perspective on the discussion of prison officers health and wellbeing. In addition, the method provides access to the thoughts and opinions of multiple officers without having to manage the practical difficulties of interviewing this population. This method thus not only supports the depth of knowledge gained via the qualitative method but allows for an increased level of breadth from which to draw conclusions and develop the statement of finding. 

One limitation pertains to the geographical locations from which research was sourced. Research included in the aggregation is primarily from Western/industrialised countries (Australia and the United Kingdom in particular). This allows for homogeneity in the sample and for undiluted representations of these populations, however, this will limit the applicability of the synthesised findings to other cultures. Future research will need to extend inclusion criteria to include research from non-Western/non-industrialised countries. Prisons can vary widely across countries, so findings may not apply elsewhere. 

The current study explores interpersonal interactions as a static event. By contrast, extracted findings include commentary pertaining to changes in prison officer and prisoner interactions over time. Previous research suggests prison officer tenure may influence the stress experienced (Castle & Martin, 2006; Cheeseman & Downey, 2012; Clemente et al., 2015; Dial et al., 2010; Lambert et al., 2017). Thus, future research will need to explore how interpersonal interactions change over the prison officer’s career. Such research will need to consider not only the experiences of the officer but the nature of the carceral environment (i.e., youth facility, women’s prison, level of security) all of which can potentially influence the experience of the officer and how they interact with the prisoner population. 

Conclusion

Interpersonal interactions between prison officers and prisoners, from the perspective of the prison officers, are an important but overlooked area of consideration in carceral scholarship. We argue that interactions between the prison officer and the prisoner provide a point of intersection from which the health of both populations could be considered. The current research aimed to explore this from the perspective of the prison officer. 

The findings of the qualitative meta-synthesis suggest that interactions between prison officers and prisoners are influenced by several considerations: the communication skills and strategies of the prison officer; an understanding that relationships between these two groups are navigated using consistency, trust and respect; a nuanced capacity to utilise discretion on behalf of the prison officers; and a complex process of appraisal that the prison officer will engage to understand the prisoner, the role and the self. As an explorative exercise the current findings have raised considerably more questions than they have answered. However, they provide an updated roadmap for both prison administration and researchers to understand the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and prison officers. 

Prison administration could make important in-roads towards improving the health and wellbeing of both the prison officers and the prisoners should they consider the particulars of gender, the communication style and skills of the individual officer, and the potential positives of prison officers using their discretion. Researchers will be required to further expand on the nuances of appraisal and decision-making by those in the role of the prison officer and how these can influence their interactions with prisoners. Finally, it will be important for scholars and administration to work together to evaluate any changes made within the prison and their effect on the health and wellbeing of both prisoners and prison officers, and to decrease the 17 years’ average time it takes to translate research findings into practice (Morris et al., 2011).

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Contributors

Davinia Rizzo is currently a research officer at the School of Medicine, Nursing and Health Science at Monash University, working in the field of addiction and recovery. She has completed studies in both Criminology and Psychology and has an extensive work history in the criminal justice environment.

Belinda Davey is primarily a lead learning designer at the University of Melbourne, involved in developing high-quality online graduate and professional continuing education. She also works privately as a statistical and research consultant, and as a research supervisor within the School of Psychology at Monash University. Her previous research roles primarily concern addiction and excessive behaviours.

Melanie Irons is an instructor and honours supervisor at Monash University, Faculty of Psychological Science. In addition to her teaching role, Melanie is a senior consultant at Steople (People Scape), providing evidence based organisational psychological consultancy across Australia and New Zealand. Melanie is also passionate about women’s health and wellbeing and is the owner/operator of a pilates studio in Melbourne, Australia and delivers one - on -one therapy and workshops on the psychological impact and experience relevant to the perinatal period.

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