The suicide rate among correctional officers is about six times the average for residents of the state, according to the Special Commission on Suicide Prevention Among Correctional Officers.
Always on guard, working with a population who would rather be anywhere else, correctional officers in the state’s prisons and county jails have a tough job.
Too often, it can be a killer.
The suicide rate among correctional officers is about six times the average for residents of Massachusetts, according to Gov. Charlie Baker’s Special Commission on Suicide Prevention Among Correctional Officers.
Citing figures from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the commission said between 2010 and 2016, 14 DOC employees died by suicide.
“It’s a very stressful job,” State Rep. William L. Crocker Jr., R-Barnstable, said.
Crocker and Stephanie Kelly, executive director for the Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands, have been appointed to the 13-member special commission that will review existing suicide prevention programs and recommend ways to make mental health services more accessible to corrections officers in need of counseling.
Created as part of the 2018 criminal justice form law, the commission is expected to report its findings to the state Legislature by Dec. 31.
The commission also is charged with coming up with recommendations for better identifying correctional officers at risk of suicide and designing intervention strategies.
It’s important to find ways to help correctional officers relieve the stress of their jobs, since the traumatic incidents of the day tend not to be subjects discussed around the family dinner table, Kelly said.
Like police and firefighters, correctional officers often see their role as to be stoic and strong, even when workplace stress is gnawing at their ability to function, Kelly said.
The question is “how can we support an individual? How can we make them feel comfortable with connecting and reaching out?” Kelly said.
“There’s a reason this is happening. The reason is people not reaching out,” Kelly said.
There have been no suicides by Barnstable County correctional officers in recent history.
“It’s an issue that’s been on our radar for several years,” Barnstable County Special Sheriff Jeffrey Perry said. “We are aware of the statistics and trends across the country. It’s a very difficult job when you think about it.”
Unlike police, who are out in the community with all kinds of people, correctional officers spend eight hours a day in a jail or prison with hardened criminals as well as people who ended up incarcerated due to mental health or substance abuse issues, Perry said.
The Barnstable County Correctional Facility employs 190 correctional officers at the jail, which holds people awaiting trial, including those charged with murder, and at the house of correction, where people sentenced to 2½ years or less serve their terms, Perry said.
“By their nature they are very unpredictable,” Perry said of the jail and house of correction populations.
“There are cameras around them all the time” for protection and surveillance purposes, Crocker said. But it means the correctional officers as well as the prisoners are constantly being watched, he said.
Crocker, who visited with staff and mental health employees at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility after being appointed to the governor’s commission, said he has special insight into the lives of correctional officers.
Crocker said he worked for three years as a teacher at the Bristol County House of Correction, helping inmates get their high school diplomas.
For the most part those individuals were highly motivated and wanted to better their lives when they got out of the House of Correction, Crocker said.
But many correctional officers deal daily with inmates who try to thwart them. “It’s a very tough job,” Crocker said.
The Barnstable County Correctional Facility already has an employee assistance program in place and has two lieutenants participating in a peer-to-peer mental health program being developed for police officers on the Cape and Islands, Perry said.
“Peer support is not limited to critical incidents, but to help identify an employee who may be in crisis for one or more of many reasons,” Sandwich Police Dept. Lt. Joshua H. Bound said in an email.
“We are hoping to roll out the policy and present it to the Cape chiefs in the next couple of months,” Bound said.
Originally, the legislation that created the Governor’s Special Commission on Suicide Prevention Among Correctional Officers also intended to address suicide by people in jails and prisons.
“Our goal was both,” said Peter Missouri, spokesman for State Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton.
But somewhere in the process the prisoner component was omitted in the final language, Missouri said.
Many correctional officers come from a background in the military.
“We don’t do a really good job of prediction” on who will attempt suicide, Rosenbaum said at a talk in Boston earlier this month.
By addressing issues such as hospital and emergency room discharge planning and firearms safety, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hopes to lower suicide deaths by 20 percent by 2025, Rosenbaum said.
The first meeting of the Governor’s special commission is scheduled for Friday, Crocker and Kelly said.