PTSD taking its toll on Canada's prison guards

Post-traumatic stress disorder is taking its toll among Canada's corrections officers, Nick Purdon reports. That should be no surprise when studies show how many traumatic incidents guards witness over the course of an average career.

One study found corrections officers are exposed to 28 'critical incidents' over a career

Prison Guards and PTSD: High Rates With Little Attention

8 years ago
Duration 10:57
Almost every prison guard experiences a traumatic event during their career, but many never get psychological help.

There is a common saying among Canadian correctional officers that they are in prison right along with the inmates they guard.

In fact, job stress has led to exceedingly high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among Canadian prison guards 

One Canadian study estimated a quarter of all guards suffer from PTSD. As well, eight correctional officers have committed suicide in Canada since April of 2014.

"I've watched a colleague return to work after getting her face and neck slashed by an inmate," says J.P. Phaneuf, who was a guard in federal institutions in Western Canada for six years.

"I've responded to a shit bombing, which is where the inmate comes with the cup of feces and urine and just throws it, and it covers the whole wall and the officers there. And it's dripping out of their mouth.

"And that's normal."

'Exposed' to traumatic events

What may not be normal is that there hasn't been much research done on the effects of these sorts of incidents on correctional officers, largely because their stories are hidden by the walls and bars they work behind everyday.

Often cited is one 1992 study on Corrections Canada's own website in which 122 Canadian guards were interviewed. It found that, on average, a prison officer is exposed to 28 "critical incidents" during a career.

Meanwhile, research done in 2003 in Saskatchewan showed that in one six-month period guards witnessed an average of five traumatic events each.

Critical incidents or traumatic events include things such as suicides, hostage takings, murders or assaults.

Former corrections officer J.P. Phaneuf, right, with former Lt. General Roméo Dallaire at a mental health conference for emergency workers. Phaneuf has been diagnosed with PTSD after a career in the Canadian military, as a paramedic and as a corrections officer in Western Canada. (Canadian Mental Health Association)

Phaneuf witnessed a murder. One night, while he was working at the command post at Kent Institution, a maximum security prison in B.C., the inmates filed past to the gym. Then suddenly they began attacking each other with makeshift knives.

The worst part of the incident, Phaneuf remembers, was being stuck at his post and unable to help.

"When my colleague came out covered in blood, I couldn't help him," he recalls. "People are stabbing and killing each other, and I am stuck in the middle of it and there is nothing I can do to stop it."

After that incident Phaneuf hit rock bottom. He even made a plan to end his life by driving off a cliff near his home in Chilliwack.

Eventually he was diagnosed with PTSD, and he has now been off work for a year and is getting help.

The 1992 study by psychologist Lois Rosine found that 17 per cent of the 122 guards interviewed then met the criteria for PTSD. That was close to the 20 per cent level found in Vietnam veterans who had been wounded in battle.

The 2003 study puts the number at 25 per cent.

One thing is more clear, though, most never get help.

One of the keys to his recovery, says Phaneuf, was to talk about his problems, even though he says his employer warned him not to.

"A manager in my correctional service told me to suck it up and be a man. That I should be able to just shake it off," he says.

"I've had other people that have said to me 'What else did you expect? That's what you signed up for.'

"And it's like I signed up for the job, I didn't sign up for all these horrific things that have happened. I understand that those are a risk, but it doesn't mean we don't just mitigate the risk."


Nick Purdon

Current Affairs Correspondent

Nick Purdon is a Current Affairs Correspondent with CBC News' The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickpurdoncbc