Magazine article Corrections Forum

Serving in Silence

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Serving in Silence

Article excerpt

Some jobs stay in the workplace when the shift is over. Other jobs, such as teaching, get taken home so the teacher can grade and prepare for the next day. Some jobs get taken home when the person worries about things like the economy or if a patient might fail and need help. Correctional officers (COs), though, have a job that should be able to stay in the workplace and doesn't. A shadow follows them home. There is a saying that COs are serving time, too. They just get paid for it. In 2000, the author Ted Conover completed the course at the Albany Training Academy for New York State corrections officers and wrote the book "Newjack" about the year he spent as a CO at Sing-Sing. The term "eight and the gate" is not an apt one for COs. The thought of not bringing the job home is a good one in theory, but as Conover wrote, "I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands."

According to insurance data, veteran correctional officers experience a life expectancy of about 59 years, nearly eighteen fewer than the average population. It is a job filled with stress, burnout, and with less reverence from the population than those in other Uniformed Services. Correctional officers deal with actual violence, the constant threat of violence, manipulation by demanding inmates, overcrowding, competition for better assignments among other COs and are often left with feelings of isolation, burnout, and being misunderstood by friends, family and the general public. There is also the matter, as Conover wrote, of "the most stressful scenario a CO could ever possibly face: being held hostage."

There are more than 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S and about a half million COs, a growing disparity in itself responsible for officer stress. Stress is known to be a catalyst for other health related issues. According to a study conducted by the Archive of Suicide Research, the suicide rate for COs is 39% higher than other occupations. Between 2011 and 2015, 12 COs at the Massachusetts Department of Corrections committed suicide. That figure does not include suicides of recent retirees and those who worked at county jails. Between 2009 and 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which tracks violent deaths, reported 20 suicides in the state whose occupation was listed as "correctional officer."

Correctional facilities have had a strong economic impact in southern Colorado. They have had a tragic personal impact as well. The suicide rate in Fremont County is nearly twice as high as the statewide average.

Dr. Susan Balaban is a psychologist who runs the Uniformed Service Program at the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont, which offers treatment services specifically geared for, among other branches, correctional officers. She points out that COs are a uniformed group who traditionally do not get a lot of attention yet they are a branch of service who often suffers from high substance abuse rates, PTSD, depression, and suicide. Caterina Spinaris, founder of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and an expert on correctional research and who coined the term "correction fatigue," found that more than one third of COs suffers from PTSD. (The rate for military veterans is about 14%.)

Correctional officers work in an environment with an intense, looming threat in which they can only be reactive rather than proactive. The stress levels are high. They start seeing gruesome things and are not accustomed to talking about it with friends and family. Witnessing inmates being attacked, COs being attacked, and suicides has a strong impact on stress levels. One issue that exacerbates the matter is the professional environment-the correctional corporate culture. There is a tremendous focus on efficiency, says Balaban. The romanticism the public often associates with the police and the military does not translate to COs, and some of the camaraderie people attach to the uniformed services is not experienced by COs. …

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