Justice

A troubled watch

Prison guards confront the demons

D’ARCY JENISH November 11 1996
Justice

A troubled watch

Prison guards confront the demons

D’ARCY JENISH November 11 1996

A troubled watch

Justice

Prison guards confront the demons

D’ARCY JENISH

Jeff Doucette is quiet man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and a stubbly beard. He could pass for a highschool English teacher if it weren’t for the tremors in his hands, and the stories he tells. A 42-year-old Kingston, Ont., resident, married and the father of one, Doucette worked for 15 years as a correctional officer in some of Canada’s worst jails and came out with emotional scars that will likely last for life. He was exposed to beatings, stabbings, murders and riots, and once had to assist a fellow guard whose throat had been slashed by a razorwielding inmate. He witnessed so much violence that he eventually developed a nervous disorder that left his hands permanently trembling, and had to leave his job as a correctional officer in May, 1994, for a less-stressful position in the prison system. “Some things you just never forget,” he says. “After you’ve been through a few good slashings, you can walk down a range and you know somebody’s been slashed, just from from the smell of blood.”

Doucette spent several months off work in mid1994, recovering from the worst effects of what his psychiatrist told him was post-traumatic stress disorder. He was, by his own admission, an emotional wreck—clinically depressed, barely able to sleep, and haunted by nightmares and flashbacks in which he relived violent incidents. “I was non-functional,” he recalls. “I couldn’t go to work. I was having anxiety attacks. I’d be sitting still and my heartbeat would suddenly go to 140 per minute.”

Since then, he has conducted a personal crusade to ensure that other guards do not end up like he did. Doucette has badgered Correctional Services Canada for improved employee assistance programs to deal with job-related stress. And in early 1995, he convinced the organization to set up selfhelp discussion groups on a trial basis in three Kingston area prisons—Millhaven Institution, Collins Bay Penitentiary and Prison For Women. The program, currently nearing completion and being evaluated by Correctional Services officials, involved about a dozen guards from each institution.

Each group held eight three-hour meetings, under the supervision of a psychologist, and individual officers discussed the impact that violence had had on them.

Doucette and many other participants want the program set up permanently but say that Corrections officials are resisting because they fear it could potentially lead to a raft of workers’ compensation or disability insurance claims. “There’s some real discomfort with opening up this giant morass, and uncovering the impact on people’s lives, without having the proper tools to manage it,” says Julia Hobson, principal of CSC’s Regional Correctional Staff College in Kingston, where prison officers receive their training.

Many guards say that their job can involve long stretches of tedious supervision of inmates, interrupted by brief but traumatic incidents, which has been confirmed by one of the few Canadian studies

on correctional officers. Lois Rofine, chief psychologist at a treatment centre for federal and provincial inmates in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., found that a third of 122 correctional officers from six Ontario institutions whom she interviewed in 1992 had been on duty during a hostage-taking incident. Almost half had dealt with inmate murders and more than half with suicides, while close to two-thirds had experienced riots. Rofine also found that 20 of the officers, or 17 per cent, suffered from post-traumatic stress.

A similar study of firefighters—another high-stress occupation—in Toronto between 1990 and 1992 revealed that 16 per cent of the participants were diagnosed with the same disorder. Psychologist Wayne Cornell of the University of Ottawa medical school says that because firefighters are usually the quickest to respond to 911 calls, they are frequently exposed to gruesome or tragic events. Many firefighters reported that the death of a family member was less disturbing than witness-

ing scenes of murder or suicide. Adds Rofine: “We’re much more able to deal with acts of God than violence perpetrated by another human being.”

JUSTICE

Over the past decade, Correctional Services has developed programs to alleviate the impact of violence on employees. After every serious incident, the officers involved are supposed to participate in a debriefing session, supervised by a psychologist, in which they discuss their roles and their emotions. As well, outside counselling is available, through the employee assistance program, for problems such as substance abuse, marital breakdown and stress; however, Ronald Fairley, CSC’s Ontario regional spokesman, said the organization does not disclose how many employees require counselling or require leaves of absence.

But some union officials say that existing programs are heavily used. Alain Rancourt, Saskatchewan regional vice-president with the Union of Solicitor-General Employees, which represents federal correctional officers and other staff, said that almost onequarter of his 450 members use the employee assistance program annually. As well, nearly 10 per cent of the officers at Saskatchewan Penitentiary are currently on longterm leaves—mostly due to stress, he said.

According to Doucette, debriefing sessions are useful for younger guards. In his opinion, they become less effective, and emotional breakdowns begin to occur, after repeated exposure to bloodshed. “Over the years, you tend to numb this stuff out,” he said. ‘You have this little drawer in your mind where you put all these incidents and you get on with your business. What happens is the drawer gets full and won’t stay closed any more.”

In Doucette’s case, previous incidents began spilling out, and playing like a film in his mind, after an extraordinary outburst of violence at Millhaven Institution during the winter of 1993-1994. There were two murders, numerous stabbings and beatings, and six riots. As a member of the prison’s emergency response team, Doucette had to show up at every incident, wearing a bulletproof flak jacket, armed with a shield and baton, and protected by a helmet with a visor.

Putting down a riot was like trying to re-

store order in a war zone. “The first thing the inmates do is wire the doors to their range shut and push washers and dryers in front of them,” he recalls. ‘They trash the lights, so everything is pitch dark, and there’s water running everywhere. The inmates are armed with knives and spears. They’re throwing glass jars at the door or jars full of urine while we’re trying to cut

the wires and get the barricades open. Once you’ve got a little space you put some gas in and take the front ground. As soon as you’ve got room to manoeuvre you put some gas farther down the range and you retake it one foot at a time. It’s creepy when you see inmates moving around in the dark, armed and sometimes wearing balaclavas.”

After dealing with a riot or a murder, Doucette recalls, it was impossible to go home and behave like a normal husband or father. ‘Your wife says ‘Do you want to go to the mall?’ or ‘How was your day?’ and I’d say ‘My day was fine.’ But I’d put my feelings in that little drawer because she wasn’t going to understand how my day was.”

Counselling is available after serious incidents Some officers say that prolonged exposure to extreme violence has seriously damaged their personal lives. Rod Nellis, age 44, a guard at Millhaven for 21 years, participated in one of the peer self-help groups to deal with unresolved emotional turmoil dating back a decade or more. He said that in the mid-1980s his marriage broke up and he received psychiatric counselling for two years because he could no longer cope with the almost daily violence in a unit reserved for Ontario’s most troubled inmates. Nellis said that he frequently found himself standing at his kitchen window, staring at nothing for hours at a time. He couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night, and he had a recurring nightmare. “I’d be at the head of a range that was smoky and hazy and really confusing,” he says. “There were lots of people, and lots of action, then I’d have this arm come up behind me and slit my throat.”

Some officers are unable to shake off the effects of an especially violent incident. John Gabriel, a 45-year-old resident of Springhill, N.S., became a guard in 1972. He was working at New Brunswick’s Dorchester Institution, a maximum security prison, in 1976 when three armed inmates held him and a prisoner hostage for 27 hours, and threatened to cut off their heads and penises. He says he has had nightmares and flashbacks ever since. After transferring to a minimum security institute in Springhill in 1985, he found himself two years later face-to-face with one of his abductors. Gabriel said that he left his job on doctor’s orders in early 1995, due to medical and emotional problems that he says were caused by the trauma of being held hostage.

Many guards concede that Correctional Services has made major strides over the past decade in recognizing and dealing with the fallout from exposure to violence. But some of those who participated in the peer discussion groups say that simply being able to talk about their experiences was very beneficial. “People let emotions out that they had kept bottled up for a long time,” says Nellis. “For me, it reinforced the idea that I wasn’t alone. When you came out, it was like you’d taken a load off your shoulders.” And that, they say, is much better than the alternatives—the nightmares, flashbacks and sleepless nights that often result from working in some of Canada’s most violent prisons. □