Nfld. & Labrador

PTSD in corrections: Former HMP officer says employer must do more

Ian Sansford, 26, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a six-year stint as a correctional officer.

Department says mental health training available, more programs to come

Ian Sansford speaks about PTSD in corrections

6 years ago
2:39
A former correctional officer opens up about his post-traumatic stress disorder after working at Her Majesty's Penitentiary 2:39

Ian Sansford can't quite pinpoint one event that caused his post-traumatic stress disorder — but many.

It may have been the bloody fights he witnessed over the course of his six-year stint as a correctional officer, the time he found a man dead in his cell, or when his truck was firebombed outside the walls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

Whatever it was, it left a lasting mark, and led to the end of his short lived career in corrections at the age of 26. 

After seeing a CBC Investigates story that pulled back the curtain on what is happening inside HMP, Sansford reached out to tell his story.

Sansford officially resigned from his post at HMP — Newfoundland and Labrador's largest men's prison — in September, but had been on leave since February 2014.

Ian Sansford officially left his job at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in September 2015, after six years as a correctional officer. (Submitted by Ian Sansford)

"I carried it home with me a lot of the time," Sansford told CBC News from his home in Bridgewater, N.S.

"A lot of people have the idea that you leave your work when you walk out through the gate. I don't think it's possible for everybody — it wasn't possible for me."

Sansford moved to the province at 19, and after several months at the West Coast Correctional Institute in Stephenville, moved to St. John's. 

Firebombing

On day three in his new position, Sansford was face-to-face with an angry inmate, who had him pinned up against a railing.

A nearby correctional officer stopped it from escalating any further just in time, Sansford said.

I felt like the department didn't care that I was off sick dealing with issues that developed because I was working at a prison.- Ian Sansford, former HMP officer

"I'm pretty sure I would have ended up going over the railing and it was probably a 10 or 15 [foot] drop and it would have done some serious damage to me if it wasn't for that officer coming back."

When he expressed his concern over the incident, Sansford said a manager told him maybe corrections wasn't for him.

But he didn't quit. 

Sansford points to another incident when he witnessed a brutal beating between two inmates that he couldn't stop.

Three vehicles, including Ian Sansford's truck, were damaged in the parking lot of Her Majesty's Penitentiary during the winter of 2013. (RNC)

A mug stuffed in a sock was used to viciously beat another inmate, Sansford said, and when that wasn't good enough a broom handle was cracked off and used as a weapon. 

"I didn't panic but I was at the point where I felt I could stop it but we didn't have the numbers to go in on the range," he explained.

"We had to wait for several people to show up and when we were waiting, this inmate was being stabbed in the face by this broom handle repeatedly."

In 2013, Sansford's truck was one of three vehicles firebombed in the parking lot of HMP. While the attack wasn't aimed at him, Sansford said it left him on edge — as if being a correctional officer meant he had a target on his back.

"I just always felt that because I was a correctional officer and that there were inmates who obviously get out of prison, they're on the outside now that they look for the opportunity perhaps to do some harm to a correctional officer."

A study cited on Corrections Canada's website from 1992 indicates that, on average, a correctional officer is exposed to 28 critical incidents during a career. The study interviewed 122 guards. 

Sansford said other than debriefings after serious incidents — like when he found a man his age dead in a cell — there was no help.

"The tipping point for me was finding this inmate dead and having to perform CPR on him ... he was only 24, he was a year older than me at the time," he said.

"That was just something that I wasn't prepared to see when I went in on the range, I was going in to break up a fight and I open up a cell door and I see an inmate dead there and it was just complete shock for me."

A diagnosis of PTSD

Sansford became depressed and constantly hyper-vigilant.

If he went to a restaurant, Sansford would position himself in the best spot to survey the room, with his back against the wall in a corner. 

Almost two years ago, his depression became too much to handle and he took leave. A doctor told him it wasn't just depression he had been battling, but PTSD.

"​I had no idea that I could possibly have PTSD," Sansford said.

"I thought that was for [someone] in the military — overseas and stuff."

A room at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. (CBC)

During the 18 months off work, Sansford said he received just one phone call from his employer (the Department of Justice and Public Safety) asking when or if he'd be returning to work.

"I felt like the department didn't care that I was off sick dealing with issues that developed because I was working at a prison."

Sansford said he doesn't have the answers, but knows there needs to be support for those in his situation.

"I knew signing up as a correctional officer and starting my first day I was going to see some stuff — I could see anything — I could see a dead person in the middle of the night when I look in their cell, I can see two inmates stab each other. But when it's happening right in front of you, it's completely different than how you imagine it."

As for his future, the chapter involving corrections is over, and he has moved back permanently to Nova Scotia.

Sansford's hoping to break into the healthcare sector, but not before letting the public know what prison guards face. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said it hosted lunch and learn sessions this past September with a psychologist who specializes in PTSD.

As well, the department said a wellness strategy is in the works for 2016 to deal with wellbeing, education and co-ordination of wellness resources. It also said there has been training offered in relation to mental health.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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