News articles that address chronic sleep deprivation and excessive mandatory overtime for correctional employees are now common:

  • “I would start my shift on Sunday night,” . . . “I would be too tired to commute home, so I would sleep in the jail in a former jail cell, in an inmate bunk. I would get up, eat out of a vending machine, do my next 16-hour shift and then I wouldn’t go home until Friday morning.” (Washington, 2021).
  • When [she] could not face another 16-hour workday at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, she started paying a coworker $20 per shift to take her mandatory overtime assignments. (Pennsylvania, 2021).
  • A typical work week sees officers working 84 hours over seven days; mandatory overtime can see staff working an additional 36 hours a week. “That’s at a minimum,” officers [are] going home exhausted saying, “We can’t risk our lives anymore.” (Alaska, 2020).
  • “Six 12-hour shifts with a day off equals 72 hours or more being worked in a 144-hour period. That is still extremely unsafe for these officers.” (Oklahoma, 2019).
  • Corrections officer in rear-end crash that killed Cumberland girl told police he fell asleep. . . . In the four weekly pay periods [prior to the accident], the lowest number of hours [he] worked was 94; the highest was 110. (Maine, 2019).

Is it too simplistic to say that everything about excessive mandatory overtime is miserable, complicated, and difficult? Is it too obvious to say that chronic sleep deprivation damages careers, families, physical and mental health, and even agency missions?

And is it too melodramatic to agree with the Philadelphia city official who recently stated, “There’s a real humanitarian disaster going on”?

In 2016, lawyer and public health professional Clark J. Lee of the University of Maryland addressed the humanitarian question directly in an article entitled, “Sleep: A human rights issue.” That article preceded the current mandatory overtime crisis in America’s prisons and jails but it laid out an argument that is relevant to us all. In doing so he quoted documents from the United Nations and the World Health Organization: The “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [oneself]” (U. N., Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, 1948), and “[t]he enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being” (Constitution of the World Health Organization, 1946).

He also used a civil rights case in the western United States that addressed homelessness in which the federal government argued that “because sleeping is a ‘universal and unavoidable consequence of being human’, it is ‘necessary for human survival.’

We would take that argument further by saying that the same applies to the public servants who work in America’s prisons and jails. But we would also acknowledge that asserting chronic sleep deprivation due to excessive mandatory overtime to be a human rights violation might seem to be an overstatement. So we ask, what do you call a persistent, chronic violation of a human biological necessity? If not bad enough now, how bad do things have to get before it does become a human rights violation? And when does the gradually boiling water have to get so hot that the frog should have jumped out long ago?

The physical consequences of lack of sleep are increasingly well known. It affects our central nervous system, impacting how our bodies send, handle, and remember information, and reducing our reactions times to those equivalent to driving while intoxicated. It affects our immune system, the mechanism that fights off bacteria and viruses. It affects our respiratory and digestive systems. It lowers our bodies tolerance for glucose, which if overlapped with poor eating and/or drinking habits, can contribute to diabetes. It affects our cardiovascular system, both to our blood pressure and our ability to repair damage to blood vessels. The repair of other cells and tissues are impacted as well, largely due to the depletion of growth hormones. Alzheimer’s risk increases through plaque accumulation.

The emotional consequences are apparent in our everyday lives. This includes moodiness, shortness of temper, reduced problem-solving ability, increased anxiety and depression, and increased suicidal thinking. These impact our off duty lives as well as our teamwork while on duty. In the latter case, unprofessional decision making can follow, thereby creating a safety liability for both offenders and staff.

Further, asking a corrections professional to engage in Motivational Interviewing or implement his or her Role Model, Reinforce, and Redirect offender interactions skills in a challenging one-on-one situation when all we really want to do is put our head down and sleep, is death by a thousand cuts to the agency’s public mission each and every shift. The extent that that outcome results in moral injury to an employee’s sense of professionalism will vary. And whether any of these concerns rise to the level of a staff, inmate, or even public safety rights violation is something to be decided by a court of law sometime in the future. But any of us can write those rights violation scripts with ease. All it takes is the playing out of the physical and emotional consequences listed above to their tragic endings.

Even more likely perhaps is a rights violation based on the employer abridging labor laws regarding cumulative working hours, as indicated in the stories at the top of the page. We all know that mandatory doubles are commonplace these days.

One of the occurrences that has raised this topic to a higher degree of urgency has been being informed of a large facility where mandatory triples were happening; and a unionized facility at that. It made us wonder how hot the boiling water of chronic sleep deprivation is in smaller to moderate sized jurisdictions without union representation.

We realize how risky it is to even mention this topic. Correctional facilities can’t close and send students home for virtual services like schools can. Correctional facilities can’t triage offenders like some medical facilities may be required to do. Facilities must stay open, must feed, clothe, and shelter offenders. Facilities must provide medical and mental health care. Facilities must keep safe those confined during the period of their sentences. These services are not optional. Not offering them creates problems for which solutions are mandatory.

Solutions need those responsible to take action. If action is insufficient, blaming frequently follows. It is not our intention to blame anyone for the current state of affairs. The problem is too multi-dimensional for blaming to be a useful strategy. In fact, if anything our intention would be to charge all parties involved to focus on their individual duties, look around, and make sure you are rowing the boat in the same direction as your partners.

If you are a line employee, don’t call in, thereby making a colleague work a mandatory, unless you truly can’t work.

If you are a formal or informal leader at the work site, contribute to a culture that reduces emotional or physical fatigue so as to increase retention.

If you are a newer employee, one hired to help us fight through the thicket of difficulties we currently face, work to achieve meaning, not just money.

If you are responsible for recruitment in any form, work as if people’s lives depended on it.

In all cases, remind each other that the duties you perform are important, profound, and socially consequential. It is not a little thing what we do and therefore, requires us to be at our best to succeed. Rested, refreshed, and restored.

But while we are doing that, we need to recognize the biggest picture of all – as members of a governmental structure we operate under the color of law. Laws are developed to clarify the rights of the populace.

When our actions impinge on the human rights of others, whether offenders for safety or treatment, employees for safety and scheduling, or the public for safety and agency accountability, we need to take a deep breath and call a boiling pot of water exactly what it is. Especially if we are sitting in it.

Gregory Morton started his career at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) as an academic counselor in the mid-1970s, and then served as OSP’s Staff Training Coordinator for eleven years. He was the department’s Staff Training/Professional Development Administrator, and Labor Relations Administrator until retirement in 2009. He has been a Master Instructor in Desert Waters courses since 2013. He holds a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, concentrating on the consequences of work-related trauma and chronic stress, and the rapidly expanding field of human neuroscience. Concern for the health and skills of the corrections workforce has been his motivation throughout.