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Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion

Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion

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By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

During my undergraduate education and on-the-job training as a young corrections officer starting in 1989, I was exposed to a plethora of research that focused on the various causes of and responses to prisoner suicides. Yet throughout my 20-year career in corrections, very little (if any) attention was paid to the issue of correctional officer suicides. Discussion of suicide within the profession was a taboo topic because corrections employees were not supposed to appear emotionally vulnerable or fragile. After all, emotional vulnerability often equates to emotional instability, which is perceived to be a weakness within the profession.

There has been much written concerning suicide among law enforcement officers, but very little about suicide among correctional officers. As a university professor, I teach law enforcement and corrections courses. In my law enforcement courses, we go into great depth about the risks of stress, burnout, depression, and suicide rates among police officers, but in my corrections courses the topic is rarely, if ever, discussed.

Existing Research on Suicide in Corrections

Research studies have found high suicide rates in the corrections field. For example, a 2009 New Jersey State Police Task Force Study (PDF) found that corrections officers have a suicide rate that is twice as high as the rate of police officers and the general population.

A 2013 U.S. Department of Justice’s Programs Diagnostic Center Study (PDF) found corrections officers:

  • Have a much higher rate of suicide than those in other occupations
  • Experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their careers
  • On average, will not live to see their 59th birthday

In one of the few studies specifically addressing correctional officer suicide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries indicated that 38 percent of the intentional fatalities were suicides by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but the actual percentage is largely unknown because the BLS only reports suicides that occur in the workplace. Suicides that occur at home or elsewhere are classified as non-occupational and are not part of the BLS data.

Therefore, more research is needed to develop a better understanding of the prevalence and causes of suicide among corrections officers.

Enhance and Equip EAPs

It is imperative that corrections professionals spearhead a discussion about suicide and ensure there are resources to provide assistance to officers who need it. The good news is that many agencies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). However, EAPs must be tweaked to provide the necessary support to address suicide.

EAPs must be administered by specialized professionals who:

  • Have advanced knowledge of the corrections field
  • Are familiar with the agency and its policies and procedures
  • Understand the current issues that may have an adverse influence on corrections officers and their families

Furthermore, the EAP programs must be easily accessible to corrections officers and equipped to address a wide range of mental health and substance-abuse issues, which are sadly endemic in the profession.

Establish Critical Incident Response Teams

In addition to robust EAPs, agencies must set up a critical incident response team, to include a trauma psychologist, and provide necessary support to officers who have been exposed to traumatic incidents. Members of the critical incident response team should be tasked with evaluating corrections officers following critical events and following up with them in the days, weeks, and months after the incident.

As clinical assessments are necessary for corrections officers and their families in such circumstances, corrections administrators should maintain a referral network of clinical providers who offer confidential critical incident stress management services.

Engage Family Members

Lastly, the organization should also offer in-service and family trainings that address stress and wellness issues. Many family members and loved ones can benefit from counseling after a traumatic event. Families often need assistance and training so they can learn how to best support their affected family members and how to identify symptoms and early warning signs of suicide.

suicideAbout the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert.

Comments

Comment(40)

  1. Hi Mike,

    During my tenure with Miami Dade Corrections & Rehabilitation Department (24 years), we have had several officers commit suicide. Their deaths were very traumatic for our staff as it was not expected. We also had an officer murdered by her husband, who was not employed by our Department, and then committed suicide. When this occurred, I along with another rear lobby officer responded to the scene. All rear lobby staff was devasted as our officer expired at 2323 hours. Our Deputy Director, Marydell Guevara, responded to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center and actually worked as an officer in the rear lobby to assist our officers during this traumatic time. Her efforts were well recognized and respected by the rear lobby staff. I returned to the facility around 0545 hours from the hospital where our officer expired and answered all questions from staff.. Our staff advised me that Ms. Guevara had just left the rear lobby. Deputy Director Guevara took the time to contact me and wanted to make sure I was all right and if I needed a critical incident debriefing, in which I declined. All rear lobby staff received the critical Incident Debriefing. When one of the officers committed suicide by a self inflicted gunshot during working hours, our Department brought in the Critical Debriefing Group from the Miami Dade Police Department and they saw the staff on each shift at the Women’s Annex. Since then, our Department has formed an EAP. I agree that families should also be included or at least offered regardless of the circumstances. We also have POAT, Police Officer Assistance Trust, in which, correctional sworn staff are included. Due to the fast pace of our correctional system, supervisors need to be attentive to the signs you have mentioned. One time while staffing, it was noticed that an officer had used 360 hyours of sick time in a year, reported late every day and exhibited suicidal signs through body language that we are trained in. He was very depressed, taken to EAP who placed him under the care of a psychiatrist and made a full recovery. He is now performing in an exemplary manner and a fine example of a correctional officer. We need more articles and research conducted on this issue. Thanks for the article and interest in corrections as we are the underdog and not well respected nor recognized due to working in a jail..Any assistance and research that can be conducted will be greatly respected by all correctional officers that serve and maintain safety and security for the public on each tour of duty throughout the world as we are the forgotten ones.

  2. As a C.O. in my 29th year of service, I have been trying to bring this same issue to light, as well as the high number of C.O.’S suffering P.T.S.D.
    Good article

    1. Good morning Dexter –

      Thank you for responding and acknowledging that this is a topic that must be addressed. I plan to expand on this issue by addressing stress, burnout, and of course, PTSD in future articles so please keep an eye out for them on this site and Corrections One. Thanks again for your support.

      – Mike

      1. That would be awesome. After 20 years in corrections, I had to leave, because of stress, burnout, depression, and ptsd. This and suicide are huge problems in this profession.

        1. Hey Julie – Thanks! I’ll be presenting at the Southern States Correctional Association Conference in July on this subject. My goal is cover what leads up to the stress, burnout, depression, etc. and the expand into what we need to do address this problem on an individual level, but also an institutional level. The research suggests that most of the stress originates from administrative and organizational issues (i.e – poor leadership, inconsistent leadership, not feeling valued or empowered, and one of my pet peeves – promoting people simply because they’ve been there the longest). Years of service do not equate to being a good leader – a people person – a communicator – team player, etc. Have an Awesome Day!
          Mike

  3. Good morning Sgt. Beyer –

    Thank you for responding to my article! I’m sorry to hear about the experiences that you’ve confronted in your career with fellow officer suicides, especially the most recent one.

    Since my background is in corrections, I can relate to everything you mentioned in your response. I’m elated that my article has been well-received by so many.

    I will continue writing on behalf of corrections officers and would welcome any topic suggestions that you might have.

    I can be reached at crimeNjustice@ptd.net Many thanks!
    -Mike

  4. Great article! Thank you for the link on Correctional Officer life span. (2013 study) We die just as quickly as our Police Department/State Police brothers but reality falls on deaf ears and have to wait until 65 years of age for full retirement benefits in my home state of Washington. It’s too long to work in this profession.

    Seeing alot of folks into thier 20-25 years employed at DOC just totally “hopeless” for lack of a better term. Too young to retire but too old to find suitable alternative employment. It is hard to keep enthusiasm and vigor for that long in any profession with most of us having to serve 30-35 years before hanging up the boots. We don’t live that long post retirement.

    The toll it takes on our physical bodies due to the long hours standing on concrete, negotiating stairs, bending, stooping, and lifting won’t be fixed by a well-ness program. My state just started this well ness program that gives incentives for participation in activities and “rewards” the member who meets the goals with a one time $150.00 incentive towards the insurance deductable. It’s a great “carrot” for getting off our correctional butts. However, I don’t want excercise at the end of the day. I want a massage.

    Please continue to document our plight. Over 80% of us have hypertension, migraines, back pain, heart conditions and ulcers thanks to our “chosen” professions. The longer we keep silent, the less opportunity we have as a profession to improve our standard of living and longevity.

    1. Thank you! And I will definitely continue to write about this subject and many others related to it. Have you read the follow-up article concerning ‘Stress Management Strategies for Correctional Officers?” Check that out when you get an opportunity. Thanks! – Mike

  5. Great article. I studied this as a side project in grad school and would love to be involved in more research. As you read about burnout, two closely related topics are secondary trauma (aka vicarious trauma ) and compassion fatigue.

    1. Awesome Nina! I do not have a clinical background so I’m focusing more on what can be done from an individual and institutional approach in reducing stress, burnout, fatigue, and depression, but more importantly, suicide. We all know the elephant is in the room, but in 2015, we’re still ignoring it.

  6. Most of the stress I’ve experienced in Texas has been from supervisors with no leadership and people management skills. Seems they forget all of their training when promoted to a supervisory position. There is no promotion based upon merit or any other qualifications. Another source of stress are people that are hired as CO’s that have no social skills. They have problems with authority as well as racial issues. I’m retired now, but I miss the work. You have to be the right kind of person to survive as a CO. Not everybody can do it. There is no point in having a new hire probationary period, if you don’t loose the people that can’t cut it. I’d rather work short staffed than have to suffer dead rotten wood.

  7. After 20 yrs as a Corrections officer I took a lateral move to the Office of Mental Health, after going back to school and earning a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work. in reality I left a maximum security Prison and moved to a secure Forensic Psychiatric center. Although Corrections was one of the best jobs I ever had there were some significant personal losses. I was appointed to the position of EAP Coordinator Part-time while still working as an officer and the stress was challenging for me and those officers I was working with to assist. However the experience as an officer gave me a great deal of insight about people and the decisions they make. I appreciate that informal education which has inspired me and the work I continue to do today as a criminal Justice professor.

    1. Agreed Dr. Godfrey! I base most of what I research on my on either my own experiences or something that I feel needs to be addressed. The on-the-job experience is by far the most influential because when you experience something firsthand, you have deeper insight in both the strengths and weaknesses. Thanks! Mike

  8. I Have Been A Correction Officer for the State of Massachusetts since 3-24-91 and The Department Has Always Had An Employee Assistance Unit. During The Course of the Last 10 Years The Department Has Dedicated More Support and Funding For The Unit To Include Support for Veterans Who Have Served In The US Armed Forces and Support For Line Staff. The State of Massachusetts Has Had A Serious Increase In Staff Suicide. There Is Also A Support Group Based Out Of Worcester Called : On Guard. It Is A Support Group For Correction Officers, Family and Friends. It Was Started Because The Founder Lost Her Father To Suicide and It Has Been at Great Success . They Offer Support Groups, Scholarships and awareness To A Cause That Is Near and Dear To Those That Need Help. Corrections Is Often A Part of Public Safety That Is Forgotten About. Behind The Wall, Fence and Towers Are People That Are Fighting Everyday With Convicted Criminals, The Mentally Ill and Sexually Dangerous Offenders. We Deserve Your Respect, We Need Your Support and Understanding

    1. Hey CR, I concur with everything you said. With your permission, I’d like to quote the last two sentences in a future presentation – giving you a shout out, of course. Powerful words – “Corrections Is Often A Part of Public Safety That Is Forgotten About. Behind The Wall, Fence and Towers Are People That Are Fighting Everyday With Convicted Criminals, The Mentally Ill and Sexually Dangerous Offenders. We Deserve Your Respect, We Need Your Support and Understanding” Thanks! Mike

      1. I’ve been online looking for resources and info in an effort to help my son who’s been a CO in the south eastern MA DOC for 14 yrs. We really think he’s suffering from PTSD and severe depression. He feels he has no where to turn and can’t reach out for help for fear of being targeted and losing his job. After reading about negative experiences of other CO’s it is so disheartening to know that reaching out for help really could compound the problem. Any advice or suggestions would be welcome.

        1. Hey Marsha – It’s still not being addressed openly, so I don’t believe there’s an organization that specializes in assisting COs with PTSD. Does the MA DOC have an EAP program or some type of program to help with job-related emotional issues?

          1. Thanks for responding. There is a program but there is no trust. Unfortunately things that are supposed to be kept confidential get around. He has seen that it happens first hand so he won’t go in that direction. I am trying to locate a counselor who is familiar with the CO environment and experience. Southern MA or Southern RI. It is so sad to see that CO’s and family are left on their own. Thanks anyway.

  9. Any COs that are feeling close to ending it, talk to me…I’m always available! I can listen, cry with you, pray with you…you protect us all…the very least I can do is lend an ear and a shoulder! ❤️

  10. I have carefully read and re read your article. I find it to be narrowly focused and somewhat self serving. To focus on correctional sworn staff as the whole and deprive the rest of the correctional staff of consideration is disrespectful to those who also served. A prison is a small city with most every discipline needed to maintain it on staff. To consider only a fraction of a total will not present a true picture of the problem. After twenty years of service I fight every day for one more day.

    1. Hey Taylor – I had to keep the article pretty narrow and focused, but it was not intended to bypass and ignore those who still serve in some type of correctional capacity. I’m glad that you brought this to my attention. I plan to conduct further research and delve much further into this topic from multiple angles. I will definitely include correctional staff in future research. – Mike

  11. I have been part of Ohio’s Critical Incident Stress Management team for approximately 15 years. I have worked as a nurse in a close security facility for over 31 years. The need for peer support is great in the correctional setting. We have a critical incident team as well as trained peer support members in each institution. My heart breaks to see so many hurting coworkers, and hear of the tragedies that result from our stress.Thank you for shedding light on our forgotten heroes who risk so much everyday.

    1. Hey Ruth –

      Ironically, I’ll be presenting on this topic in June for the Ohio Juvenile Detention Association so it’s not just confined to adult corrections but also to juvenile detention officers and staff. – Mike

  12. Please review the research done by the folks at Desert Waters. It is very illuminating. I have long held that most people in the community have no idea what it is to work in a prison. We are an oddity at parties and people tend to ask questions that reveal more about their lack of understanding of jail/prison than anything else. It is as though we work on a different planet and can only describe it to others but they cannot understand the reality because they have never been there. I tell people that I see things I do not want to see, hear things I do not want to hear, and know things that I do not want to know. Such is the nature of secondary trauma. I and my fellow corrections professionals wade into an acid sea of pain and distress on a daily basis. Only a soulless person could remain unaffected and I know none of them in this profession. Mental Health Professionals are not immune. I know because I am a MHP and I suffer the effects of PTSD triggered after the murder of a friend and coworker at the hands of an offender. I continue to work through it day by day.

    1. Hey Greg, Thanks so much for sharing that information with all of us. I agree that mental health professionals are not immune to the same stress as that of the officers. In fact, it’s system wide. So sorry to hear about your friend! – Mike

    2. I am a mental health counselor (Psychology Associate) in a male prison in Washington State. Thank you for this article. I teach a class for staff called “Suicide Prevention”. It is geared towards preventing suicide in the offender population but I always make mention that this information is applicable for staff as well as our family members. I am always looking for information about preventing suicide. My father was a Vietnam Vet who took his life in 1978. Thanks for the good information.

  13. Really? people really listen to this? I have been in Corrections for about 10 years now and I tell all the new recruits it is all about mental not physical. So many Officers say they love their job because they do absolutely nothing! Well that is great! But what about the Officers who really care about their job and are trying to make a difference! Sometimes I feel so burned out but I know the shift is short so I trudge on in to become a body to fill a space! I will continue to teach the newbies to be the best they can be but inside I feel cheated because the public and especially the higher ups…..in Government does not care about what we do and go through each day. Because they really have no idea what we do…. But I tell myself everyday that maybe I can make a difference! I will try everyday to keep my co-workers safe and maybe….just maybe I can turn at least 1 inmate around!

    1. Hey Nancy – Like you, I’ve worked with my fair share of correctional workers (officers and staff) that were simply their to get a paycheck, but I think that mentality is a response to burnout. I’ve written extensively on leadership as well because the stress does come from administrative and organization issues. You sound like a real caring person who is this field to create change and we need more people like you.

      – Mike

  14. Great article. Where may I contact you for more information? We have started a Suicide Prevention committee here at our institution and would like to contact you as a further resource. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  15. Hey Mike
    It’s been a while, I was just wondering are you working on publishing anything in the area of Correction Officer Wellness. I recently completed an article on Co-occurring Disorders and the availibilty and benefit of community resources. I’m wondering how available are these services for correction officers no longer on the job…?

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