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 Peace Officer’s Association (CPOA), the suicide rate for its members in 2013 was 19.4 deaths per 100,000 as compared to 12.6 deaths for the general U.S. population, according to The Marshall Project.
“We do a decent job with saying that ‘this system messes with the incarcerated; this system impacts their lives,’ but what we don’t say is, ‘what’s the impact that this job is having on the correctional officers?’ said Stephen B. Walker, director of governmental affairs for CPOA.
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 CPOA 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 Marshall 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 one in nine correctional officers reported having thought about, or attempted suicide.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 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, and 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 with Congress a list of recommended mental health practices and services that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies.