Alarmed by a spate of suicides in their ranks, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), together with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a study to assess the mental health needs of the state’s correctional officers.
(According to the union’s own data, in 2013, the suicide rate for its members was 19.4 deaths per 100,000, compared with 12.6 deaths in the general U.S. population.)
In June of this year, the Berkeley researchers and the CCPOA completed the first stage of their Correctional Officer Health and Wellness Project in which they received and then analyzed the results of a 61-question survey completed by 8,600 corrections and parole officers statewide.
Once all the project’s results are in, the union and the researchers plan to explore various pilot programs and interventions in the hope of finding replaceable ways to address the problems that the survey is bringing to light.
The issue is not, of course, confined to California, as illustrated by the story below by Ashleigh Fryer about Oregon Department of Corrections sergeant Michael Van Patten.
The Danger of Work-Related Trauma for Corrections Officers
by Ashleigh Fryer
Trevor Van Patten often thinks about how one small hitch in his daily routine could have changed the rest of his life.
I remember seeing the look in his eyes … he was ready to take his life
If he had caught just one more red light on his way home that summer evening in 2003, or if he fumbled to get his key in the front door, his father would’ve had time to pull the trigger and end his own life.
But instead of walking into his house to find his father dead, Trevor found him sitting on the kitchen floor in tears, holding his 9 mm handgun, with an empty bottle of gin beside him.
“I remember seeing the look in his eyes … he was ready to take his life,” Trevor said. “Five seconds, 20 seconds, a minute later … and I wouldn’t have been there to save him.”
In 2003, Trevor’s father, Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) Sergeant Michael Van Patten, had been working in corrections for almost two decades, during which time he’d conditioned himself to “leave it at the gate”—separate his work life from his home life and spare his family the often traumatic details of his job.
you just feel it sitting there on your chest and there’s no release
Michael didn’t know it at the time, but he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from years of exposure to violent episodes in the facilities where he worked. In one such episode, he was unable to walk for four months after an altercation with a person restricted to solitary confinement separated his skull from his spine. He’d also witnessed more fights and stabbings than he could count, and watched a man under his supervision die of cancer in front of his eyes.
“You don’t talk about it at home, and you certainly don’t talk about it at work—you can’t let anybody see that chink in your armor,” Michael said. “So you just feel it sitting there on your chest and there’s no release … The only way I felt like I could get it all to stop was to stop it all.”
Son Follows Father
For the more than 430,000 corrections officers working inside prison and jails in the U.S., the risk of suicide is 39 percent higher than it is for people in other professions.
Twenty percent of respondents in a 2016 survey of staff in the Oregon DOC, where Michael has spent his entire career, said they had experienced mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress.
Michael, who eventually sought and received counseling and who now works at Oregon’s South Fork Forest Camp correctional facility, suspects that the prevalence of PTSD among his colleagues might be even higher than that. Just as many corrections officers do not share their mental health challenges with family members and coworkers, Michael said they also do not report them to doctors or therapists.
The hardest thing to break is this macho mentality
“The hardest thing to break is this macho mentality,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to believe PTSD exists, or recognize that it’s happening to them. But it’s very real.”
On top of the mental stress of the job, corrections officers often face physical health problems. A recent study of officers at a correctional facility in Connecticut found that, of corrections officers who worked in a prison environment for 15 years or more, 50 percent were affected by obesity and 39 percent suffered from high blood pressure.
Many DOCs across the country are recognizing the prevalence of these health problems among their staff. To begin addressing the issue in Connecticut, in 2011 the state’s DOC created the Employee Wellness Committee, which works to combat substance use, domestic violence incidents, depression, and obesity. Among other measures, the committee has created physical fitness challenges, hosted wellness fairs, and implemented a guide for conducting wellness checks on staff members who miss their shifts.
Breaking the Spell
Four years after he found his father with a gun in their kitchen, Trevor asked Michael for his help filling out an application for a job at the Oregon DOC.
Initially, Michael was hesitant. He thought about the work-related trauma that made him unable to communicate with his wife, which eventually led to their divorce. He feared that the job would have a similar impact on his son’s marriage and other relationships.
It takes a while to change a culture, but you have to start somewhere…
Now, 10 years into Trevor’s career as a corrections officer, he and Michael are using their story to inspire change within the Oregon DOC. The father and son recorded a video of themselves talking about the day Michael came close to suicide, the impact of Michael’s PTSD on their family, and the repercussions of internalizing work-related trauma. The video is now used for training and educational purposes across the Oregon DOC as part of a concerted effort to prioritize the health and wellness of DOC staff.
“It takes a while to change a culture, but you have to start somewhere in order to get to the top of the hill,” Michael said. “We’re human. Recognizing that fact is one step toward the top.”
Although violence persists in the facilities where Trevor and Michael work, and Trevor has already experienced many of the traumatizing events that Michael experienced in his own career, Michael said there is one stark difference between the two of them.
“[My son] isn’t afraid to speak up about it,” Michael said. “He learned from what I went through. He knows if you don’t take care of your mind as well as you do your body, you can end up where I ended up.”
This story is part of a series developed through the Face to Face Initiative, a project from the National Reentry Resource Center and The Council of State Governments Justice Center. To learn more about Face to Face, visit https://csgjusticecenter.org/nrrc/facetoface/
Ashleigh Fryer is the Publications Editor for the CSG Justice Center
Hallelujah!! Finally an article that talks about the affects taken on those who deal with the violent, dysfunctional members of our society on a daily basis. Yeah they took the job and were fully aware of the risks, but they are still human beings that bleed, cry, are members of society and have responsibilities.
Retired in 91 from CDC on a Industrial Disability Retirement. Use to say i was waiting on my Parole Papers.. I know realise I’m doing LIFE.. Recently I had a shake up in my medications when my doctor passed away and a new Dr. Decided I was being over medicated and she could no longer give me the medication i had been on 15 years. I knew I had problems but I was expecting the fact these things were NEVER going a I was coping. This newer younger Dr. Has taken me back 15 years and in many ways Im much worse. I am severe PTSD and ADD as well as OCD. My hyper alertness is full blown now its worse then when i was working inside. I don’t sleep, extreme nightmares. I would not say I’m suicidal right now But often wonder how close am I walking that line. Just what would push me over that line. Another divorce? Loss of another child? Life wasn’t perfect when i was on the medication the Older Dr. Had me on but i was managing now every day is a struggle and every night is another nightmare. Right now i have to be seen weekly medications are being adjusted or changed ” will lets try taking more of this and well see how this week goes” Well god damn it i the sorry SOB that has to do the week.. They go home to a home and family i go to another sleepless night and nightmare and have to drag my wife down with me. They claim my medicine score is to high.. There’s risk of me not waking up. My thoughts are so what if I pass in my sleep so be it. This life is not doing anyone any good. In fact its reckless do to my hyper alertness I worry I might hurt someone just because they were walking up behind me to fast I’m always in self defense mode. For years I was able to put my gun across the room in my dresser. NOT anymore its under my pillow… All because some Dr. Thinks I’m taking to much medication I was taking what was working now they pulled the rug out from under me
I hear ya. I was in uniform for 18 yrs in SoCal. I saw all the same, gory shit. Here was my way out; I promoted to Counselor. No more shift work. No more dipshit, habitually late to work partners. No more stinky/loud dorms. No more never ending counts. No more uniforms. No more cell/locker searches, and so on. I had my own office, my own choice of hours, my own street clothes, AND I saw inmates at MY convenience, not theirs. Plus, a heavy pay increase, and weekends, and holidays off. It was God sent! I spent the last 7 yrs of my career virtually stress free. You CAN do this!