The pressures of prison life on prisoner’s mental health has been a subject of psychological and academic research, but the cumulative impact of prison environment on corrections officers has rarely been studied.
According to the data supplied by the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA), the suicide rate for its members in 2013 was 19.4 deaths per 100,00 as compared to the 12.6 deaths for the general U.S. population, according to The Marshall Project.
“We do a decent job of saying that ‘the system messes with the incarcerated; this system impacts their lives,’ but what we don’t do, said, reported the article.
Stephen B. Walker, director of governmental affairs for the CCPOA said there is general agreement that the system impacts the lives of the incarcerated but it’s time to ask what impact the job is having on the correctional officers.
Mental health problems that afflict others in the criminal justice system such as suicides and post traumatic stress disorder are underreported among corrections officers and police officers. Line of duty deaths among law enforcement officers are tracked by the federal government but not suicides.
The CCPOA completed the first major step of a partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, by analyzing a survey of more than 8,600 corrections and parole officers. The responses will serve as a basis for a plan to develop, test and implement a range of mental health services for officers across the state prison system.
Associate Professor of Public policy and Political Science Amy E. Lerman designed the survey that asked about correctional officers’ experiences with violence, suicidal thoughts and how prisons can improve. The survey was shared with The Marshal Project.
According to Lerman, the findings include: three of four corrections officers said they had seen someone killed or seriously injured at work; 65 percent said they experienced at least one symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and about 1-in-9 correction officers reported having thought about, or attempted suicide.
The Department of Corrections has acknowledged that there are no substantive psychological resources for their staff and is cooperating in the Berkeley partnership. The partnership’s next steps include in-prison focus groups with corrections officers, field experiments that will try out yet-to-be selected mental health services.
The federal government is also taking up the cause. In May, the Senate unanimously passed the Law Enforcement Mental health and Wellness Act. The act calls on the U.S. military and Department of Veterans Affairs to share recommended mental health practices and services that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies.