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Behind the bars; Stress gets a lock on jailers, too.

Byline: Lee Hammel

WEST BOYLSTON - Who is really serving the sentences in America's jails and prisons?

No one - including the 455,000 corrections officers in the U.S. - would want to change places with prisoners. But the staff are pretty much locked in with them during their shifts, enduring unpleasant working conditions that seriously affect their physical and mental health.

They are assaulted regularly - spit is one of the more pleasant bodily fluids they are doused with - and stress induces post traumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of suicide. And their spouses wonder who they have become.

Stress on corrections officers stems from concern about serious assault - which happens, on average, twice in a 20-year-career.

Stress from short-staffing, conflict with inmates and supervisors alike, and other on-the-job stressors lead to an early death, according to Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, which does research on corrections officer issues.

In an interview at the 1,200-inmate Worcester County Jail and House of Correction, Mr. Dawe bemoans the lack of recent research on the topic, but 26 years ago a book published by American Correctional Association asserted that 16 years is sliced from the life expectancy of a corrections officer.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Justice Department published a review of studies indicating that assaults on corrections officers in state and federal prisons increased by almost one-third - to 14,165 - in the five years ended 1995, while the number of corrections officers increased by 14 percent.

Corrections officers are subject to a 39 percent increase of risk of death by suicide, according to a 1997 study published in the Archives of Suicide Research. That is the same percentage of corrections officers who self-reported symptoms of full-fledged post traumatic stress disorder in the previous six months in an online survey published last April by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a nonprofit organization in Florence, Colo.

Another 14 to 20 percent had some symptoms of PTSD, said Caterina Spinaris, founding director of the organization, which advocates for corrections staff and their families.

Because corrections officer stress stems from inmate stress, problems start right at the jail receiving area. Inmate stress is greatest when making the transition from the street to a corrections facility, so prisoner stress is usually higher in a jail than in a state prison, where prisoners have already had time to adjust, Mr. Dawe said.

When an inmate is new, prison staff may not know who his enemies are and inadvertently place him where a fight instantly breaks out, said Stevan G. Benson, a Massachusetts correction officer as well as the county jail's stress officer.

But officer stress does not end at that diciest of times. Officer Benson recalls finding an inmate hanging in a cell and having to cut him down and accompanying him on an ambulance and to the morgue.

"Two weeks he was in my head. I could not get rid of him," he said.

With barred metal doors clanging behind them, trapping them until the door in front of them whirs open with men and women who may belong in psychiatric institutions wailing, and other inmates shouting at them while awaiting an opportunity to stab them, corrections officers get the clamor while other law enforcement professionals receive the glamour.

"I want to go home! I want to go home!" a mentally ill inmate repeated incessantly one day earlier this month behind the solid gray door to his cell in the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction. "You pushed me! You pushed me!" yelled another.

Yet another thrust his arm through an opening in the cell door, showing his newly bandaged 23-stitch gash from a self-inflected wound.

Michael Haley said that soon after he became a captain, he was present at three hangings and a prisoner who sliced himself in the same night.

It's not a job for everyone. Capt. Haley said he has seen at least five new officers hang up their keys and not return for a second day.

"They're the least studied and most invisible branch of law enforcement," said Ms. Spinaris, who has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Calgary. Police departments are more advanced in looking for and addressing stress, while prisons and jails "have some of the worst stressors," she said.

While corrections officers frequently prevent riots and save the lives of people the public may not care much about, they get little public notice until something goes wrong in a jail, Mr. Dawe said. The media credit police and firefighters for their more public deeds. The only movie anyone can name that portrays a corrections officer positively is "The Green Mile," which is "a horror movie by Stephen King," said Mr. Dawe, a former Massachusetts officer at Norfolk state prison.

"When you grew up and you played cowboys and Indians and you played police officer, and you played military, how many of your friends were locking their buddies in the basement, saying `I want to be a correctional officer?'" he asked.

Dr. Donald W. Steele, a Mansfield psychologist for whom correction officers make up a third of his patients, said the effects don't end when the job does. Speaking of corrections officers who have witnessed or been the victim of violence on the job, he said, "I don't have the sense they have a wonderful retirement."

"They're hyper-vigilant," said Mr. Mansfield, who has written a booklet, "Stress Management for the Professional Correction Officer."

"Some of these guys have seen so much, they don't feel comfortable out in the world," he said.

Because their constituents are not interested, politicians almost never campaign on promises to improve prison conditions, said Worcester County Sheriff Guy W. Glodis, who oversees the jail. The problem is illustrated by the sheriff praising William Weld for at least campaigning on the issue when he ran for governor 20 years ago, even though Mr. Glodis acknowledged that the former governor never actually followed through on the promise.

An officer's job is care, custody and control, Mr. Dawe said. Officers are at increased danger if another officer wants to be a bully or "change the world," forgetting they are outnumbered 52-to-1 on a tier.

"We go home if the inmates let us," said Capt. Haley.

"We will always win the war," Mr. Dawe said, "but they can win any battle they want. We are totally out-numbered."


CUTLINE: (1) Mass. correction officer Sgt. Steven Nixon speaks with an inmate with bandages on his arm in the high-security tier at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston. (2) Mass. correction officer Capt Michael Haley conducts a tour of the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction. (CHART) Corrections officer facts

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Nov 18, 2010
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