The suicide rate among guards in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) keeps increasing, reaching a record high in 2019 for the most suicides in a single year: 14.
Top brass at both state and federal prisons have known for years that the suicide rate of prison guards is much higher than the general public. It even rivals that of Vietnam War veterans. But the challenge has always been what to do about it.
A recent study by University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy gathered data from over 8,000 prison guards and parole officers in California and found that the problem has many facets. However, the big three factors were: dangerously low staffing levels, high levels of violence and threats of violence, and ineffective workplace programs to combat the problem.
The study was a first of its kind in trying to diagnose why guards keep killing themselves.
“Corrections is extremely difficult and emotionally demanding work,” said Amy Lerman, the lead author of the study and professor of public policy and political science at the university. “We are just beginning to understand the huge range of mental and physical health issues that can result from exposure to violence and untreated toxic stress in the workplace.”
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report on November 22, 2019, the same day that the fourteenth suicide set a new BOP record. It found that the BOP will remain understaffed almost 12 percent for at least the next year at all of its 122 prisons.
Current BOP Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November about the problem. She said guards “are tired because they are stretched” thin.
Sawyer said that the explosion in the prison population over the last 30 years combined with retirements exceeding new hires had created a severe staffing shortage. She further cited budget problems, government shutdowns, and the hiring freeze put in place by the Trump Administration as adding to the problem.
The president of the guards’ union, Shane Fausey, noted that lack of staffing is a huge concern. “I’ve never seen our staffing numbers so abysmal in my [30-year] career,” he said. “We’re down about 10,000 positions,” he explained, “and that’s not including the number of new facilities that have come on line.”
Fausey provided an example of 105 officers at one prison who had to work mandatory double shifts for 10 days straight. “All of that extra pressure and stress on a highly stressful profession to begin with,” he said, is “a recipe for a really bad storm.”
The working conditions don’t help. Prisons tend to be stark places cut off from sunlight. And the shift into hyper-vigilance mode when guards come to work floods the body with adrenaline and stress hormones. When they do get time off, guards often rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, like overeating or drug and alcohol abuse.
One 2009 study by the N.J. Police Task Force found that prison guard suicide was twice as high as other law enforcement officers.
Employee assistance programs exist, but are rarely used. The OIG report found that only 18 percent of the guards surveyed ever used an assistance program offered by their employer to deal with the stress. Many said they were worried about privacy and the stigma of being seen as “weak” by their coworkers.
When interviewed by ABC News in October, Fausey said, “We’re on course for an all-time record of suicide of staff.” A month later, he was proved right.
A California prison guards’ union tracked the suicide rate of guards and found that in 2012, the rate was four times higher than the state’s general population.
When California prison guard Scott Jones went to work on July 8, 2011, he never came home. A day later, his body was found with a note: “The job made me do it.” He left behind a wife and son.
Janelle, Scott’s wife, sued the state, claiming that he was harassed to death by his coworkers after he threatened suicide. She received $73,000, well less than the $100,000.00 average salary of a California prison guard
“We are just beginning to understand the huge range of mental and physical health issues that can result from exposure to violence and untreated toxic stress in the workplace,” professor Lerman said. “Agencies around that country are starting to look for ways to better support personnel — for the good of their employees and their families, the incarcerated population, and the system as a whole.”
In a statement, the BOP said that it offers assistance programs to its jailers, but that suicide in the BOP “is not common.”
One very obvious conclusion is that a system that brutalizes and dehumainizes the prisoners in its captivity may do the same to its employees and has a corrosive effect on their humanity and mental health. For decades politicians have built stark, minimalistic prisons designed to physically and psychologically torture the prisoners confined in them 24/7 without noting that it may have a negative effect on the guards employed in them 40 hours or more a week. But the guards are free to seek employment elsewhere and especially with other economic opportunities many decide that working in sweltering prisons with no air conditioning in the summer and little heat in the winter, that are sometimes decrepit and falling apart, understaffed and dangerous, often in remote, rural places far from any entertainment or population centers, may simply not be worth the low pay and risk to their physical safety and mental health. What happens if the government builds a bunch of prisons in remote areas, fills them with prisoners and then can’t staff them?
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login