BOSTON -- While it found that suicide prevention measures are “above average” in Massachusetts correctional facilities, a special commission tasked with studying the issue urged leaders to implement better mental-health awareness training and decrease the use of forced overtime to help address what is still a significant problem.
Employees in the field are often exposed to violence and other challenging work conditions, members found, yet face significant stigma when talking about trauma or mental health struggles.
Despite “above average” supports at most Massachusetts correctional facilities, 16 active or retired officers died by suicide between 2010 and 2015, according to data from the state Department of Correction.
“We need to make sure we’re giving our correctional officers the best option for treatment,” said Rep. William Crocker, a Barnstable Republican who served on the special commission. “They’re under tremendous stress from the time they walk onto the unit to the time they walk off.”
The commission, formed under last year’s criminal justice reform bill, brought together law enforcement professionals, legislators and academics to examine how correctional facilities and sheriffs’ offices across Massachusetts currently support officers and what more could be done to prevent suicides.
They found evidence that many corrections workers cope with lasting negative effects. In a 2017 study of California correctional officers that the commission cited in its report, about 10 percent of the 8,000-plus surveyed said they had experienced suicidal thoughts, including one in seven retired correctional officers.
Other studies showed higher rates of substance abuse, and in Florida, an analysis found that law enforcement and correctional officers as a category had a lifespan about 12 years shorter than that of a typical resident of that state.
“These are also professions where you’re not supposed to show weakness,” Sen. Michael Moore, another member of the commission, said. “I don’t think up until recently that the public or even people in these professions realized these are going to have effects -- whether you realize it at that time or later in your career, there’s going to be some lasting effects.”
Overall, the commission found, services in place in Massachusetts are “above average.” The Department of Correction said it has a confidential support unit available around the clock for employees and offers annual training on suicide prevention, addiction and mental health.
Several sheriff’s office initiatives were highlighted as positive steps in the report, including programs to identify suicide warning signs in place in the Berkshire County sheriff’s office.
The commission, which submitted its findings to the Legislature this month, targeted training, counseling and a change in overtime practices as key responses for Massachusetts.
Officials should offer greater educational resources, including workshops to reduce stigma and new training for those in correctional officer academies about the mental and emotional toll of the work, the report concluded.
By doing so, members said, correctional officers can be prepared to deal with challenges as they come up and seek help early on.
“They need to know there’s an opportunity out there to receive treatment or education to know there’s treatment,” Crocker said.
Other suggestions included regular confidential surveys to track officer mental health and an update to a provision in last year’s criminal justice law that would expand a peer crisis counselor intervention program implemented for local police to correctional officers as well.
The report flagged forced overtime as a regular occurrence in Massachusetts correctional facilities, one that exacerbates existing challenges.
“Due to operational needs the staff at the Department of Correction is currently experiencing forced overtime on a regular basis,” the report stated. “Overtime can quickly lead to burnout and inability to get time off for special occasions.”
The Department of Correction did not provide specific numbers but acknowledged that mandatory overtime has been common for some time. The department noted, however, that it has put four recruit classes through the academy in the past year and hopes that 400 new officers will help reduce the scale of the problem.
Moore, a Millbury Democrat, warned that overtime remains a key source of concern in both the short and long term.
“One thing we need to look at is establishing a system where every year or every two years, we’re backfilling,” he said. “Right now, we realize we have a shortage of staff and an overtime burnout rate of officers. If we address it now this year or next year, that’s only going to happen again 20 years from now.”
DOC plans to implement a new training program for stress awareness later this year.