Manitoba

Inmate killings, rising violence lead to spike in PTSD rate among prison staff: union

Five inmate homicides at Stony Mountain Institution in 16 months, along with an increase in assaults because of changes to segregation is sparking more cases of PTSD among prison staff, says the union representing correctional officers.

About 36% of officers suffer post-traumatic stress disorder: federal report

A photograph of the medium security range at Stony Mountain Institution in Stony Mountain, Man., posted by Correction Service Canada to its Flicker page. The prison houses maximum-, medium- and minimum-security inmates. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flicker)

The union representing correctional officers is raising concerns about the number of staff suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This in light of five inmate homicides at Stony Mountain Institution since January 2018, including two this month. The inmates killed were serving time for convictions including murder, assault and robbery. 

James Bloomfield, president of the Prairies region for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says some of the officers who witnessed the killings have had to take time off for stress leave.

"When you have that happening in front of you — you can imagine something as graphic as that — it's really going to stay with you. When that is part of your work environment and you are already at a heightened level, it really results in a lot of mental health injuries in situations like this," Bloomfield said. 

According to information provided by Bloomfield, the commissioner of corrections testified at a parliamentary committee that an internal Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) report had concluded that correctional officers in male medium-security prisons have a 36 per cent PTSD rate.

PTSD is defined as a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Honestly for me, it's like a punch in the gut."- James Bloomfield on recent homicides at Stony Mountain

"[The PTSD] rate is higher than any other workplace we know of out there right now," Bloomfield said. "It is very high, compared to the private sector." 

Bloomfield says two homicides this month alone at Stony Mountain have officers reeling.

"Honestly for me, it's like a punch in the gut," he said. "All the negative situations that are going to come out of this, both for those who have lost their lives and their families, and officers who have witnessed this." 

Another internal CSC report notes that in fiscal year 2017-2018, the number of assault-on-staff incidents was projected to be 32 per cent higher than the previous fiscal year. That prediction coincides with a projected 15 per cent decrease in using segregated beds during the same time period.

The union says a new government bill that will eliminate segregation leaves officers with a lack of direction on how to separate warring factions within the prison population, contributing to increased violence and stress on the job. 

Lack of mental health resources

The union represents about 2,000 correctional officers across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Bloomfield says while officers have been trained to defuse and take control of violent situations safely, they have few mental health resources to help them deal with the aftermath. Inmates have access to psychologists and psychiatrists, he adds, while officers don't through their current employee assistance program (EAP). 

"When everything is calmed down and everything is closed down and everybody is into the report writing time period and reflecting on what just happened, that's when the mental health injuries start to show and start progressing into a very long difficult road for some people to come back from something like this," Bloomfield said. 

Some officers who have been present when a killing happened are sent home for the rest of the day. However, Bloomfield says, that is clearly not enough. He says the problem arises when officers go home and call EAP for help. Too often, Bloomfield says, the counsellor has neither the experience nor expertise to work with officers suffering shock and trauma. 

"It is inappropriate for us to be sent to an average everyday counsellor," Bloomfield said. "An intervention with a psychologist is needed. We feel services provided by Health Canada are not adequate. We are currently looking for a new service provider."

CSC response to high PTSD rates

A spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada said in an email the agency takes the issue of mental health injuries very seriously. It says employee safety is a fundamental priority, and CSC recognizes the challenges associated with working in a correctional environment and is committed to providing a workplace that is conducive to the mental health and safety of all its employees.

It goes on to acknowledge that officers may develop PTSD after witnessing stressful and traumatic events, including death and violence. Other programs such as critical incident stress management (CISM) and return to work initiatives are in place to support staff.

The spokesperson says CSC employees do have access to psychological services through provincial health care services and Workers' Compensation Boards (WCB). It goes on to say all psychological workplace injury claims submitted to WCBs are reviewed by the WCB on a case-by-case basis. If a psychologist is required, those costs are covered by CSC. 

Wide range of symptoms

Bloomfield says PTSD may manifest through myriad symptoms:

  • A person may suddenly become withdrawn or argumentative.
  • They may be involved in road rage.
  • There may be substance abuse issues or abuse issues involving family members as the person vents aggression.

In extreme cases, Bloomfield says, PTSD can build up to suicide if left untreated.

Whatever the symptoms are, Bloomfield says, PTSD devastates families, who are always the first to see them.  

Bloomfield says there are quite a number of officers currently off on stress leave, but can't offer a specific figure because he only comes into contact with employees who have been off for six months to a year as the return to work representative. Nor does he have access to the number of officers being diagnosed because the institution isn't entitled to that information.

However, he applauds a presumptive clause for post-traumatic stress that came into effect in Manitoba in 2016.

Previously, applicants had to prove they were suffering from stress and unable to do their job. Bloomfield says there is now greater openness to put in these types of claims and a likelihood that they will be accepted. 

The Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba says fewer than 10 PTSD claims for federal corrections officers at Stony Mountain are made in a year, but that number has been increasing over the last five years. A spokesperson said the claims were mainly caused by harassment and exposure to violence.

About the Author

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.