Beating Burnout for Educators in Prisons

Kellie Nadler | Deputy Director, Renewing Communities

For educators working in our state prisons, the burnout risk is real.

Prisons are traumatic environments, especially for those who are incarcerated. But research shows that working in traumatic environments also impacts practitioners, increasing their risk of burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue.

In California, no statewide resources exist to support the wellbeing of college educators as they navigate increasing course loads in correctional facilities. Faculty and staff are passionate and dedicated, but often underprepared for the impacts of serving students who are dehumanized by our incarceration system.  

Over the past two years, I have received countless calls from college faculty and staff serving incarcerated students, asking for help to combat burnout. These calls are unsurprising given the state’s impressive commitment to serving justice-involved students. Last semester alone, California’s public higher education system offered more than 270 face-to-face courses to more than 4,000 incarcerated students in our state prisons.

The scale of our college in-prison programs is unprecedented. But if we don’t beat the burnout, the future of these programs – and the students they serve – are in jeopardy.

If California wants to continue to be the national leader in using higher education to address mass incarceration, we must provide trauma-informed and resiliency-based support to college faculty and staff working in our prisons.

This support is non-negotiable. We often see trauma-informed professional development as an extra, as though it were an add-on to the more critical needs of our students and educators.

I don’t see it that way.

To me, trauma-informed and resiliency-based professional development is an essential part of a sustainable and healthy education system. This is why we’re launching Sustaining Futures, a trauma-informed and resiliency-based Community of Practice for California colleges working in California state prisons.

With support from NYU’s McSilver Institute, representatives from 17 California colleges are embarking on a year-long journey to better serve their students and better support the college faculty and staff who work with them. Participants will gain foundational knowledge on trauma and resiliency, skills to address trauma and resilience in and out of the classroom, and techniques for responding to the prevalence of trauma in the prison environment.  

This kind of rigorous, qualitative research-based approach to combating burnout for college in-prison practitioners has never been done at the statewide level. It’s an exciting prospect.

As other states look to follow California’s lead, the curriculum and lessons learned from Sustaining Futures will be critically important.