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Research Summaries

Fear of infectious diseases: Opinions of correctional officer recruits

Keywords: Anxiety, Fear, Health

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Why was the study done?

Prisons are poorly ventilated, confined spaces with limited options for physical distancing, making the spread of illness very easy. For instance, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infectious rates among federal prisoners in Canada have been seven to 32 times higher than in the general population. The COVID-19 pandemic also hit prisons especially hard; the risk of COVID-19 infection among prisoners in federal prisons was three times higher than in the general population between February and December 2020. Although the high rates of infectious disease spread in prisons impact the occupational health and safety of prison workers negatively, most people tend to view contagion risks as a mere workplace challenge. This study advances the idea that the risk of infectious disease spread in prisons is more than a challenge; this risk also represents an operational stress injury due to the prolonged stress and vulnerability it causes in prison workers.

The current study documents the views of correctional officer recruits (CORs) about infectious diseases in federal prisons before the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers wanted to understand the sources of COR fear and strategies CORs might adopt to mitigate risks.

What was done in the study?

As part of a more extensive study, interviews were conducted with 71 CORs (38 males, 33 females) from 2018–2020. These semi-structured interviews included questions on many topics, including the Prison Needle Exchange Program (PNEP). While answering questions about this program, most participants voluntarily commented on infectious diseases and contagion risk being an occupational concern.

What did we find out?

  • All CORs reported they fear infectious diseases, with 25% saying that contagion is their “biggest” fear.
  • Fear of exposure to incurable or hard-to-cure infections was the most emphasized theme.
  • Most grounded their fear in concern for their families, especially partners and children.
  • The two most feared sources of contamination were needles and bodily fluids.
  • Needles were feared because of ease of concealment and the possibility of correctional officers (COs) being accidentally or intentionally stabbed.
  • 40% of CORs were concerned that, even with the PNEP program, the sharing of needles would still occur.
  • There was also a concern that needles would be used as weapons.
  • The CORs felt that the free access to needles prioritized the prisoners’ safety over the COs’.
  • Concern about bodily fluids was also common and was grounded in the idea that they could be used from a distance.
  • CORs reported they would feel safer if management informed them about prisoner medical conditions, which is against privacy laws.
  • Several participants reported feeling safer with PPE.
  • Participants viewed developing rapport with prisoners as an effective strategy for limiting their risk.

Where do we go from here?

The data collected in this study was unexpected. More directed research will be needed to determine if the results are consistent. However, these interviews show that fear of infectious disease is real among CORs in the federal correctional system. Though the risk of exposure to infectious disease may be low, the fear experienced can have a professional and personal impact on CORs and COs since prolonged fear states can lead to mental health injuries. In the interviews, it was also clear that not all CORs had a good grasp of the methods of disease transmission. The researchers recommend overhauling the training module covering blood-borne illness so that CORs fully understand their risk level. Rapport was a strategy commonly cited as possible protection to infectious disease exposure. However, this strategy relies on a CO’s own personal ability to build rapport with prisoners and doesn’t offer protection for all COs. Prison infectious disease should be managed as an OH & S issue to protect every CO.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.


Original Study

Cassiano, M.S., Ozturk, F., & Ricciardelli. R.(2021). Fear of infectious diseases and perceived contagion risk count as occupational health and safety hazard: Accounts from correctional officer recruits in Canada. Journal of Criminology.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited & reviewed by Barootes, B., Cassiano, M.S. & Ricciardelli, R.

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