In July 2011, a 36-year-old correctional officer, Scott Jones, said goodbye to his wife and left for his job at a maximum-security prison in northeastern California. The next day, his body was found along with a suicide note. In it, Jones wrote: “The job made me do it.”
This heartbreaking explanation suggests a man suffering intense feelings of fear and isolation at work. But he was by no means alone.
In 2012, California correctional officers committed suicide at a rate four times higher than the state’s general population. Nationwide, the suicide rate among correctional officers is roughly 39 percent higher than for the general working-age population.
Correctional officers face daunting workplace stress, including exposure to extremely high rates of violence. In a recent study conducted by my research team at UC Berkeley, 80 percent of California’s correctional officers reported having responded to at least one violent incident in the last six months and 73 percent had seen a person seriously hurt or killed while on the job. We find that violence and other work-related stresses are associated with a range of mental and physical health issues, including substance abuse, sleep disorder, anxiety and depression.
Despite this, the effects of prison work on correctional officers have gotten limited attention. Correctional officers display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at an intensity similar to combat veterans, disaster survivors and prisoners of war. But we still know little about how workplace trauma affects correctional officer health, or what types of programs and supports could reduce the harms of correctional work.
Even when resources are available, it can be hard for officers to use them. Long shifts and overtime leave little opportunity for officers to engage in stress-reducing activities, like getting exercise, being with family or going to behavioral therapy. Additionally, many correctional officers worry about confidentiality, and these concerns can be a significant barrier to accessing care.
Developing cost-effective supports for correctional officers that can reduce stigma and encourage the use of confidential resources is imperative. A bill currently pending in the California Legislature would take a small but significant step towards this goal. Assembly Bill 803 would establish a committee to design, improve and evaluate peer-support programs for the state’s correctional officers. Importantly, the committee would include both supervisors and officers. This will ensure that peer-support programs and policies reflect the unique experiences and needs of law enforcement.
Peer support programs like those addressed in AB 803 are a promising intervention. A review of existing studies examined the success of peer support programs versus traditional psychological therapy for treatment of depression. It showed similar reductions in depression symptoms from both types of treatment.
It’s time for California to take meaningful steps towards supporting the health of its criminal justice personnel. Correctional officers are central to the daily operations of state prisons. Ensuring their well-being is crucial for them, for their families and for their effectiveness on the job. It also has implications for the health and safety of those who are incarcerated, the success of correctional reforms and for the correctional system as a whole.
Peer support programs like those in AB 803 are not only likely to improve criminal justice in California. They could also save lives.