Study examines California prison guards’ high suicide rate

Correctional Officer Scott Jones kissed his wife goodbye on July 8, 2011, and headed off to a maximum-security prison in the remote high desert of northeastern California. He never came home.

Jones’ body was found a day later, along with a note explaining why the 36-year-old took his own life: “The job made me do it.”

Suicide is distressingly common among current and former California prison employees. The guards’ union counts 96 confirmed or suspected suicides among current and retired members between 1999 and 2015.

The annual suicide rate among union members exceeded California’s overall suicide rate of 10.3 per 100,000 people in 13 of those 17 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of union data. The number peaked at 13 in 2012, a rate more than four times that of the state’s general population.

Now, a first-in-the-nation study coordinated among the union, California’s corrections agency and University of California, Berkeley researchers is trying to figure out why and what to do about it.

Inmate suicides have been intensively studied, but until now there has been limited research on how the job affects correctional employees, Berkeley researcher Amy Lerman said — and virtually none on programs that might help officers cope.

“I think it reflects a growing recognition across the country that correctional staff and law enforcement are experiencing these types of issues and it needs to be taken seriously,” Lerman said.

About 10 percent of prison guards say they have considered or attempted suicide, a rate nearly three times that of the general U.S. population, according to data provided to the AP from a survey completed by 8,300 of California’s 30,000 correctional and parole officers.

It’s even higher among retired guards — about 14 percent, similar to the suicide risk among military veterans.

Half of correctional officers expressed at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers cited officers’ frequent exposure to violence and injury, their perception of constant danger, and their reluctance to share traumatic experiences with family members or counselors.

In response, the union is asking Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to hire a social worker for each of the state’s 35 prisons next year and is seeking stronger confidentiality protections for workers who seek help.

California Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan said currently available assistance programs are not used enough. He promised to consult…

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