Ending ‘Death Culture’ for Prison Workers

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Photo by National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund via Flickr

In 2003, Mike Van Patten had come to the end of his road. His marriage of 19
years was over.

He was sitting on the floor in his kitchen, a partly empty bottle of gin by his side, tears
running down his face and a loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol in his hand.

He was ready to end his life as a longtime corrections officer at the Oregon State
Penitentiary in Salem. He believed he could no longer cope with the intense, daily challenges of his job and the failures of his personal life.

Had his 17-year-old son Trevor not walked into the house and found his father about to
shoot himself through head, Van Patten would not be the model corrections officer he is today.

He is a sergeant working at a minimum-security prison who has helped design
programs for his peers that include exercise, openly talking about stressful events and treating inmates with more respect.

“I’ve developed a program for department coordinators to help the staff,” Van Patten
said. “If we can save one person [from suicide], we have done what we could….If we make this stuff stick, they will do all right.”

Ann Jacobs, director of the Prison Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice, emphasized that while suicide is an attention-getting issue for thousands of corrections officers in the United States, managers of corrections institutions must detect many other problems long before suicide becomes an apparent choice.

High Stress Jobs

Mental and physical health problems among corrections officers span the spectrum from mild depression to suicide and high blood pressure to heart attacks because dealing with inmates is intense work that can require exceptional people skills. Moreover, such demands as mandatory overtime cause additional stress on officers and their families.
Yet no one in the field of corrections seems to know the extent of the problems, nor does much rigorous research data exist.

Nine years into his second marriage, Oregon’s Van Patten said he and his wife have learned to talk about issues he brings home. Trevor, his son from his first marriage, has followed his father into corrections.

“He and his wife openly discuss his issues and his work,” said Van Patten, who said he
never talked with his first wife about the stressful events that happened in his days at the

Van Patten told his story to a reporter after a version of it was shown on a video screen to about 50 state corrections officials and officers, federal officials and scholars at the second National Symposium on Correctional Workers Health. The video was one of the more compelling moments of the symposium.

The session was held at the St. Louis University Law School in advance of the annual conference of the American Correctional Association (ACA), which concludes Tuesday in St. Louis.

“The ACA conference is how we spread the word” about the necessity of finding ways to
counter the mental and physical health issues that corrections officers face, said Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections since 2012.

Organizers said the symposium’s intent was to build awareness among corrections
professionals about the mental and physical health issues that confront corrections officers in daily contact with inmates.

In an interview, Peters said her agency has been working for several years to create a different culture among its 4,500 employees, administrative as well as
front-line corrections officers.

Words like “offender,” “inmate” and “prisoner” are not used.

Instead, the man or woman in prison is an “adult in custody.”

“We hire corrections professionals,” she said. “Guards stand in the corner. We want our
corrections offices to follow the three Rs: be a role model, reinforce positive behavior and
redirect negatives.”

A litany of common problems cited by corrections officers was recited by several speakers. They include high blood pressure and hypertension, obesity, depression, inability to communicate with spouses and partners, and inability to communicate with peers, superiors and “adults in custody.”

Caterina Spinaris is a clinical psychologist who founded Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a non-profit corporation that promotes “the occupational, personal and family well-being of the corrections workforce” through “evidence-informed resources, solutions and support.”

In an interview, she termed prison environments throughout the United States a “death
culture” for employees.

“Desensitized to Death”

“They are almost desensitized to death,” Spinaris said. “There is a culture of ‘toughness.’
It’s a culture of false resilience and of avoidance and denial. There is a relative lack of effective coping skills,” meaning corrections officers often are not trained to function in a healthy manner in their jobs.

That problem is compounded, she said, when prisons are located in rural areas where both jobs and professionals who can help corrections officers are scarce.

Many corrections officers have large gun and knife collections in their homes, which makes firearms easy to use if an officer feels he has reached the end of the road and has no way out except to take his own life, Spinaris said, adding that, “Some have guns in every room.”

She developed and expanded her interest and research in the mental and physical
health of corrections officers because they kept coming into her office for counseling.

Asked how long it takes to change the culture of a prison work force, Spinaris referred to
a lack of objective data that was theme throughout the symposium: More hard data, gleaned through research and supported by federal and foundation grants, are needed for the professionals to be able to make long-term, concrete proposals to create positive results for corrections employees.

In a 28-page brochure published in 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center stated: “There is very little research on the prevalence and effectiveness of correctional officer wellness programs. Both the American Correctional Association and the National Institute of Justice have published guidelines for the development of [correctional officer] wellness programs but neither is evidence-based.”

No one ventured a guess as to how long it would take to change the work environments
and cultures of hundreds of prisons and jails in the United States. “I know of a small probation office where it took 10 years,” Spinaris said.

Repps Hudson is a veteran newspaperman and freelance writer in St. Louis who is an adjunct at local universities. He welcomes comments from readers.

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