Mass. sheriffs respond to corrections officer suicides
Agencies across the state are developing a suicide-prevention policy after at least 16 COs died by suicide in the past decade
By Marie Szaniszlo
BOSTON — Sheriffs departments across Massachusetts are working to develop a suicide-prevention policy after a state commission found that at least 16 corrections officers had taken their own lives in the past decade.
The special commission created by the state Legislature to study the prevention of suicide among 3,800 Bay State correction officers found that life expectancy for prison guards nationwide has hit an alarming low.
“There is an epidemic here in Massachusetts,” said former Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union.
“Our officers are 24/7 on the front lines of Massachusetts’ most dangerous criminals, and unfortunately, a lot of our members take that stress home with them. They don’t just leave that anguish behind them when they punch out,” the former state senator, who once worked as a jail guard, added.
The report cites a 2017 study by the University of California at Berkeley that found that correction officers are exposed to violence at rates comparable to military veterans. The American Jail Association, which has studied the physical toll on correction officers, found their life expectancy is as low as 59 years old.
As a result of the report, sheriffs across the state are expected to work together to develop a sample policy that would make peer support teams, employee assistance programs and critical incident teams available to correction officers, said Essex County Sheriff Kevin F. Coppinger, a commission member.
“For years, talking about your emotions was considered a sign of weakness,” Coppinger said. “But things are getting better because the occupation and society are more willing to recognize the problem. We want to find these issues early. The message we like to stress is you’re not alone.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction’s Employee Assistance Service Unit offers a two-day workshop that teaches officers to recognize when someone is at risk of suicide and works with that person to create a safety plan.
The unit also has a Question, Persuade, Refer program to teach DOC employees to recognize officers who may be in distress. The program presents scenarios to correction officers that they may encounter and tells them how to best navigate those situations. It also encourages counseling and therapy, physical health, medication compliance, friends and a sponsor as parts of a “wall of resistance” to suicide.
Boosting correction officer ranks has the effect of reducing the stresses that can accompany overtime, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said in a statement. So the Department of Correction has hired more than 400 new officers in the past year.
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