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Prisons Don’t Damage Only Prisoners; Guards at Risk of PTSD and Suicide, Too

by Christopher Zoukis

In Prison Legal News, much of our reporting addresses the abuses that the U.S. carceral system inflicts on prisoners. But prisoners (and their families) aren’t the only ones whose lives are impacted by mass incarceration. New research is exposing the harm that our nation’s prisons do to guards and other employees.

Fleet Maull, Ph.D., an author and corrections consultant, has noted that “[t]he rate of PTSD and suicide among correctional officers [COs] is often compared to that of combat military veterans.”

A 2011 survey conducted by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach – which seeks to provide “resources for improving the health and functioning of corrections staff” – confirmed the high rate of PTSD among prison guards. The study revealed that 14 percent of military veterans reported symptoms of PTSD, while 34 percent of guards who responded to the survey said they experienced PTSD symptoms.

“COs often compare starting their shift to entering a combat zone; making it quite common for them to shift into hyper-vigilance,” said Maull. “With this state of hyper-arousal, the body is flooded with adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – a primary cause of chronic stress related to health risks.”

A study conducted by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), one of the largest prison guard unions in the country, found its members had a suicide rate of 19.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. That number was more than 50 percent higher than the 12.6 suicide deaths per 100,000 in the general U.S. population.

The CCPOA counted 96 members who committed suicide between 1999 and 2015, with an annual rate that exceeded that of the state’s general population in 13 of those 17 years. The union has asked Governor Jerry Brown to add a social worker to counsel guards at each of the state’s 35 prisons.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Scott Kernan promised to call in experts to see how the state can improve assistance programs to COs, which he said are currently underutilized. The CCPOA has also asked for better confidentiality protections for staff members who seek help – since guards say a perception that asking for help is a sign of weakness is one of the primary barriers to doing so.

A study completed by 8,300 of California’s 30,000 prison guards and parole officers indicated that about 10 percent of those who responded have considered or attempted suicide – a rate nearly three times that of the general U.S. population.

Stephen B. Walker, director of government affairs for CCPOA, said that such data calls for close examination by mental health experts.

“We do a decent job with saying that ‘this system messes with the incarcerated, this system impacts their lives,’ but what we don’t do, what we don’t say is, ‘what’s the impact that this job is having on the correctional officers?’” said Walker.

Amy E. Lerman, an associate professor of public policy and political science at the University of California Berkeley, is leading efforts to understand the problem and find solutions. Lerman, who is the lead researcher of the Correctional Officer Health and Wellness Project (COHWP), said 65 percent of prison guards have experienced symptoms of PTSD, while about one in nine have thought about, or attempted, suicide. She said COHWP is designing programs that will ameliorate the damage that prisons do to guards.

“We need more research,” Lerman stated. “We need to know what works, and what type of investments make a difference.”

According to Daniel Beaman, vice chair of the CCPOA Benefit Trust Fund, guards benefit most from peer support when they are trained to offer it in time for struggling staff members to receive mental health care. Badge of Life, a similar effort for police officers, had been credited for a 14 percent drop in police suicide rates between 2014 and 2016.

Despite salaries that can exceed $100,000 and high-quality benefits, California prison guards still face high levels of violence, such as a fight involving 300 prisoners at the Kern Valley State Prison that Beaman experienced in 2010 – an incident he compared to battles he fought while serving in the Marines.

“The smell, the sounds were way too familiar,” he said. “Bam – I went from one war right to another one.”

Recent suicides among prison guards nationwide include:

• Andre Arline, 40, a guard employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, shot himself while on duty at the Ferguson Unit in Midway on July 16, 2017;

• Corey Beaudet, 41, an 18-year veteran with the Vermont Department of Corrections and one of its community corrections officers, shot himself on October 18, 2017, just two years after he was named the state’s Corrections Officer of the Year;

• In February 2018, former New Jersey prison guard Gregory Martin shot his wife and then killed himself;

• New York state prison guard Keisha Brown, 47, fired shots at her former boyfriend, Rasheem Lord, also a guard, before fatally shooting herself in the chest on May 2, 2017. The incident occurred while Brown was in uniform.

Maull advocates for a pair of his training programs – “Mindfulness-Based Wellness & Resiliency” (MBWR) and “Trauma Informed Care” (TIC). MBWR focuses on teaching guards “self-regulation techniques” and other mind-body skills. TIC teaches guards to understand, recognize and respond to trauma, understanding that it can and should be recognized and addressed in a positive manner, even in the prison setting.

“Realizing that correctional facilities are often caught in a vicious cycle of trauma exposure and re-traumatization impacting prisoners and correctional workers alike, corrections administrators are beginning to explore what it would take to establish trauma-informed care environments in their facilities,” said Maull. “This would include training treatment staff and COs in trauma-informed practices for managing and supporting the rehabilitation of inmate populations, and providing trauma-informed care for officers who find themselves struggling.”

Of course, given that guards and other prison staff are only at work during their shift and then return home, it would seem that prisoners, who remain at correctional facilities 24/7, are at even greater risk of PTSD and self-harm, and thus in greater need of interventions such as “trauma-informed care” and counseling.

Unfortunately, such programs, as well as adequate mental health care for prisoners, are often lacking in our nation’s prisons and jails. 


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