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Correctional Officers Face Mental Health Challenges

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Correctional officers work in state prisons under intense stress and trauma, and they don't often want to admit the toll it takes. As Jimmy Jenkins reports from member station KJZZ in Phoenix, fear of looking weak prevents many officers from dealing with serious mental health issues.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: A common theme emerges as Dr. Shannon Hendrickson flips through a box of plaques and commendations awarded to her husband, Jonathan.

SHANNON HENDRICKSON: Rookie of the month, supervisor of the month, correctional officer of the year, which he was particularly proud of.

JENKINS: The couple met while working in an Indiana prison before moving to Arizona several years ago. Shannon is a psychologist who now serves as the clinical director at the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. She says Jonathan was often asked to deal with dangerous situations on the job because he was good under pressure.

HENDRICKSON: He had a way with inmates. He was very good at de-escalating some pretty violent or potentially violent situations.

JENKINS: But frequent exposure to the daily trauma of prison life took a toll.

HENDRICKSON: I knew it was bad. I knew he had a lot to work through. I knew there were a lot of things he didn't tell me.

JENKINS: She said he started seeing a therapist. But after eight months, Jonathan canceled his appointments. And then a month later, he died by suicide. Suicide is common among correctional officers. A 2018 study by UC Berkeley revealed many correctional officers don't get help. More than 7 in 10 respondents said they hadn't told anyone about their suicidal thoughts. Clinton Roberts thinks that's partly because other people simply can't relate to what correctional officers go through.

CLINTON ROBERTS: You will see things most normal people will never see in their life.

JENKINS: In his 15 years as a correctional officer, Roberts says he's witnessed countless acts of brutality - stabbings, assaults and his own close call several years ago.

ROBERTS: I turned around, and there was six inmates that got behind me that I didn't see get behind me. And I could feel my heart drop into my stomach.

JENKINS: Another officer had his back, but it still haunts him.

ROBERTS: I already know I have PTSD because I continuously was having dreams I was getting stabbed.

JENKINS: Roberts has refused counselling from CIRT - or the Critical Incident Response Team - a group of ADC employees specially trained in helping staff through traumatic events. It's common for correctional officers to downplay traumas they experience on the job because they want to keep the respect of their colleagues. Joe Clure is the executive director of the Arizona Police Association.

JOE CLURE: People don't get help because there's certain fears that, am I going to be viewed as weak? Am I going to be viewed as unable to perform my job?

JENKINS: He says the nature of the job requires an assertive, domineering personality.

CLURE: Corrections officers are expected to be in control and in charge and resolve problems. We're not expected to have problems.

KELLY RATHS: That was a significant piece for us in saying, hey, this happens. This happens to our most respected of peers, and we're going to talk about it.

JENKINS: Kelly Raths is an administrator with the Oregon Department of Corrections, which has been studying correctional officer mental health since 2012. She says they encourage the department's leadership to speak out about their own mental health challenges. They also offer a 10-week program that teaches ways to cope.

RATHS: There's a lot of effort going on to change culture so that there - it's normative to seek help.

JENKINS: Shannon Hendrickson is devoted to changing things in Arizona. She says that starts by acknowledging the problem.

HENDRICKSON: That there's a problem in the industry, that there is a problem with the culture.

JENKINS: And she says the solution is promoting an environment where officers like Jonathan will feel safe asking for help. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAPELIER FOU'S "TEMPS UTILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.