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A guard stands watch over the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2016.

For Corrections Officers and Cops, a New Emphasis on Mental Health

An intensive study and new programs to combat stress that often goes overlooked.

This story was published in collaboration with the USA TODAY Network.

The relentless pressures of prison life on inmates’ mental health — gang violence, solitary confinement and arbitrary discipline, among them — have long been subjects for psychological and academic research. But the cumulative impact on corrections officers, including an apparent high rate of suicide, has rarely been studied in depth.

That is about to change. In California, one of the nation’s largest prison systems — housing about 130,000 people on a given day— the union of active and retired corrections officers is participating in an extensive study over the next few years to assess the need for permanent mental health services for the state’s roughly 26,000 officers.

“We do a decent job with saying that ‘this system messes with the incarcerated, this system impacts their lives’, but what we don’t do, what we don’t say is, ‘what’s the impact that this job is having on the correctional officers?’ ” said Stephen B. Walker, the director of governmental affairs for the union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

According to association data, the suicide rate for its members, in 2013, was 19.4 deaths per 100,000, compared with 12.6 deaths in the general U.S. population. “We are finally saying, there is something wrong and we need to fix this,” Walker said.

Suicides, post traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health problems that afflict corrections officers as well as police officers are an underreported sector of the criminal justice system. The federal government doesn’t track suicides by law enforcement officers, although line-of-duty deaths are tallied. But an awakening of sorts — from the halls of Congress to the prisons of California — is under way.

Earlier this month, the California peace officers association completed the first major step of a partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, by analyzing the results of a 61-question survey from more than 8,600 corrections and parole officers statewide. The responses serve as the basis for an ambitious plan to develop, test and implement a range of mental health services for officers across the state’s prison system.

The survey was designed by Amy E. Lerman, an associate professor of public policy and political science at Berkeley, and lead researcher of the Correctional Officer Health and Wellness Project. The survey asked respondents about a range of topics that include their experiences with violence, suicidal thoughts, and how prisons can improve. The union distributed the survey and promised a free barbecue to the correctional facility that produced the highest participation rate.

Lerman shared a sample of the results with The Marshall Project: Three of four corrections officers said they had seen someone killed or seriously injured at work; when asked about PTSD, 65 percent of officers said they had experienced at least one of its symptoms; about one in nine reported having thought about, or attempted, suicide.

“We need more research,” Lerman said. “We need to know what works, and what type of investments makes a difference.”

Lerman and Walker’s teamwork will stretch into 2020. Their next steps include in-prison focus groups with corrections officers, and randomized field experiments that will try out yet-to-be selected mental health services. These could range from increased access to peer support officers to mandatory training on stress management. Corrections officers will then be invited to participate in a follow-up survey to assess their experiences with the sample offerings. Those results will be used to help design permanent mental health programs.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in a series of emailed statements, acknowledged that the agency had no substantive psychological resources for its staff, and is cooperating in the Berkeley partnership. “It is our responsibility as an organization to look closely at what we are doing,” wrote Scott Kernan, secretary of the corrections department.

Capitol Hill is taking up the cause too. In May, the Senate unanimously passed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, which calls on the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to share with Congress a list of recommended “mental health practices and services” that could be adopted by federal and local officers. It also asks that the U.S. Attorney General research the effectiveness of annual mental health checks for cops and access to crisis hotlines.

What the bill doesn’t do, however, is require the tracking of police suicides. James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, says union officials met with the bill’s architect, Sen. Joseph Donnelly (D-Indiana), before the legislation was introduced. “We invariably asked that statistics-gathering be mandatory,” Pasco said.

Donnelly, who introduced the bill with Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), explained that requiring police departments to collect numbers, or even implement specific programs, would have been a “difficult” undertaking. “What we tried to do was to get the doable done right now” he said.A House version of the bill remains in subcommittee.

At the same time, some local law enforcement agencies are being lauded for taking action on their own. Since 2015, police departments across the country have vied for the annual Officer Wellness award given out by The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund — a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks police deaths, but not suicides, and organizes National Police Week.

This year’s winner, the Stockton, Calif., Police Department, was cited for its “wellness network,” which Chief Eric Jones defined as having “three sides: mental, physical and spiritual.”

Cops are given books to read on police psychology, compete in Crossfit competitions, talk about their feelings at roll call, and are encouraged to speak to either peer support officers or outside therapists as needed.

Jones says he had a series of “aha! moments” as officers confided in him about low morale after the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The department, which has more than 400 cops now, lost a quarter of its officers during the fiscal downturn. Shootings and murder rates increased to record highs.

Stockton’s force now has fewer complaints against officers, fewer workers’ compensation claims, shootings and homicides. “I definitely think if our officers, by and large are coming to work mentally and physically ready, and they enjoy their job, they are going to be much better at reducing crime,” Jones said.

In an earlier version of this story, the last name of Amy E. Lerman, lead researcher of the Correctional Officer Health and Wellness Project, was misspelled.