Suicides are “distressingly common” among California’s correctional and parole officers, a university study concludes. The rate of correctional or parole officers who have attempted or considered suicide is three times the United States’ general population rate.
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“Historically, it’s been hard to get attention to mental health issues among law enforcement,” said Amy Lerman, an associate professor of public policy and political science at UC Berkeley who helped conduct the study. “There’s been just so little information out there about what people are experiencing and how to successfully intervene.”
Inmate suicides in California’s correctional institutions have been studied, the Berkeley News reported. But correctional officers’ suicides and other serious health and wellness concerns for corrections staff haven’t received the same amount of attention.
According to Don Thompson of the Associated Press (AP), the annual suicide rate for California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) union members was 10.3 per 100,000 people, exceeding the suicide rate in California in 13 of 17 years between 1999 and 2015.
“Suicide is distressingly common among current and former California prison employees,” according to Thompson. In a reported 17-year period, the CCPOA counted “96 confirmed or suspected suicides among current and retired members.”
According to the Berkeley News, among 8,300 survey respondents, 10 percent said they’ve “seriously considered or attempted suicide.”
The study found that suicide “is even higher among retired guards — about 14 percent, similar to the suicide risk among military veterans,” the AP reported.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to as part of the survey has known someone working in corrections who has struggled with mental health issues or threatened suicide,” Lerman said.
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“Like police officers, prison guards go to work each day knowing they could face violence,” the AP reported. “It’s a reality softened by the financial rewards — California guards can earn more than $100,000 with salary and overtime and have top-notch health care and retirement plans.”
According to Thompson, researchers pointed to correctional officers’ repeated “exposure to violence and injury, their perception of constant danger, and their reluctance to share traumatic experiences with family members or counselors.”
The goal of the study was to “assess mental and physical health problems among prison and parole officers, who face intense work-related stresses from a constant threat of physical violence and an often-volatile disciplinary system,” it was reported. “The information from the study will help guide the roll-out and evaluation of new pilot assistance programs across the state.”
In response, the CCPOA is asking Gov. Jerry Brown to hire a social worker to work at each of the state’s 35 prisons in 2019. It also wants to strengthen confidentiality protections for its members who seek help.
The study was done by Lerman with the support of postdoctoral researcher Meredith Sadin, cooperation of the correctional officers union, the CCPOA Benefit Trust, and UC Berkeley graduate students.
“Everyone seems really committed to working on the problem,” said Lerman. She also noted the level of concern regarding this issue has seemingly increased in the past 10 years, “along with the desire to learn more about it,” the News reported.