Alberta correctional officer suicides: Families search for answers after 3 deaths

The family of a Red Deer Remand Centre guard who took his own life says he is the third corrections officer to commit suicide in Alberta in just over a year.

Red Deer Remand Centre officer Jeff Duncan remembered at memorial this week after taking his own life

Michelle Duncan greets friends and family members at her husband's memorial in Red Deer. Jeff Duncan, who was diagnosed with PTSD, took his life after surviving an attack at the Red Deer Remand Centre in 2013. (CBC)

Guarding Alberta's convicts can be a tough, thankless job. The work can leave lasting physical and mental scars for the corrections officers who do it, and it's leading some guards to take their own lives.

Colleagues and family members say three correctional officers have committed suicide in just over a year. The latest — Red Deer Remand Centre officer Jeff Duncan — took his own life on Mother's Day.

His friends and family gathered at the Red Deer Legion this week to say goodbye. Bagpipes played as a slow procession made its way through the room packed with stocky men who came to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. 

But they have also come looking for answers, a fact made plain by the minister presiding over the ceremony.

"It is not my role here today to explain why Jeff ended his own life — I am sure everyone is searching for that answer."

For Duncan's widow that search began on the night of Sept. 28, 2013, when her husband was attacked at work.

"He had gone in to [a cell] save an inmate who was hanging and the inmate wound up attacking him and tried to kill him."

Overcrowding, lack of training among problems

Duncan survived that attack but didn't escape unscathed. First the former lieutenant in the infantry went on stress leave. A short time later he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A victim of a dangerous workplace, according to his wife.

"These are the murderers, the pedophiles — anyone who is bad in society is going there — and they are going straight off the street so they are still being affected from all of the drugs and alcohol they are on. They have nothing to lose," said Michelle Duncan.

Her husband had been working as a guard for more than four years and was considered a veteran at the facility. But it was a facility that had its problems.

Michelle Duncan says complaints of overcrowding and a lack of training are common among the guards that work there — problems that she believes contributed to her husband's attack.

"The night that Jeff had his incident he was the only member of the response team left in the building, and he was not even aware of that, so he would have been responding to his own incident."

Similar concerns over workplace safety led to a wildcat strike by corrections officers just over two years ago. But Dennis Malayko with the union representing guards in Alberta says problems with safety and stress persist.

Correctional officers not alone

"The flood gates are opening on PTSD, not only amongst correctional peace officers but also a lot of Alberta Health Services and children's services folk," said Malayko.

Michelle Davio, a spokesperson for the department of justice, said in a written statement the province takes the safety of its guards "very seriously." 

She admits overcrowding does happen but says it is rare and that it is quickly resolved when it occurs.

"When situations arise where centre's go 'over capacity' it is usually for short periods of time as arrangements are made very quickly to transfer inmates to other centre's around the province," said Davio, who also points out that the department has an extensive employee and family assistance program in place.

But she adds that working as a corrections officer involves a certain amount of risk.

"In the course of daily operations in correctional facilities, situations arise where COs are required to engage and respond to inmate behavior in ways that can result in some level of stress to officers," she wrote.

PTSD numbers not tracked in Alberta

However, Davio admits that justice does not keep track of the number of its correctional offers who are on stress leave or diagnosed with PTSD. She adds that individual institutions do not collect and compare the number of altercations between inmates and guards year over year.

Not tracking the numbers is a problem, according to Jason Godin with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Godin says getting accurate information on violent incidents in prisons across Canada is difficult, but he says it is clear that PTSD and suicide are both serious problems for corrections officers across the country.

He says the violent nature of their workplace means that around one in five guards suffers from PTSD.

"I know one particular case where a corrections officer witnessed 14 murders inside of a federal institution in a 12-month period," said Godlin. "You know the guy did a 27-year career and there is an example of being faced with some pretty traumatic incidents."

Despite those conditions, corrections officers in Alberta are not considered first responders and do not fall under new legislation that presumes a diagnosis of PTSD is job related — something Godin and his counterparts at the provincial union want changed.

Struggle continues

Back at Jeff Duncan's memorial talk centres on the half dozen or so guards from the Red Deer Remand Centre who still struggle with PTSD.

Ian Stadl is one of them. The former guard — who has since quit — was working the night Jeff Duncan was attacked.

Crystal Stadl says her husband was never the same after that night — a change that affected their entire family.

"Their families deal with this daily, their children deal with this daily," she said. "These people come home different. They are not the people we married. They are changed and now we get to deal with the change."

The province says it has recently been commended by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) for improvements made to working conditions at the province's prisons.

Still Crystal Stadl believes more needs to be done.

"They need to do something so that no one else dies — no one else feels the need to take their life for a job."