Pennsylvania inmates and correctional officers share a common pain: suicide

Honor Guards line the walkway at SCI Somerset to honor a deceased corrections officer in March 2018. Photo: Pennsylvania DOC Facebook.

A corrections officer at Camp Hill prison in Cumberland County was making an evening security check on June 2 when he found Carlton Madden, a 41-year-old Steelton resident, unconscious in his cell.

Prison medical staff pronounced Madden dead that evening, and the Pennsylvania State Police launched an investigation. His death was ruled a suicide, according to the York Daily Record — the ninth such death among people incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s state-run prisons this year.

Inmates in Pennsylvania’s prisons die by suicide at roughly twice the rate of people in the general population, according to a Capital-Star analysis of state Department of Corrections data. Fifteen inmates died by suicide in 2018, resulting in a per-capita suicide rate of roughly 32 per 100,000 people. 

It’s a staggering statistic — one that’s matched only by the people who work in prisons.

Eight staff members in the Department of Corrections died by suicide last year, according to data provided by Deb Sahd, who coordinates wellness programs for DOC staff. 

In a workforce of 18,000 employees, that’s a rate of 44 suicides per 100,000 people — almost three times Pennsylvania’s per-capita suicide rate of 15 suicides per 100,000 people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Corrections officers, who patrol the inside of prisons, accounted for half of the suicide deaths in 2018, Sahd said.

“Corrections officers are a population that suffers in silence,” Marirosa Lamas, superintendent of SCI-Chester, said at a July 31 mental health committee meeting at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. “Historically we do not have the best coping skills.”

Researchers and prison reformers have long studied how confinement can heighten a person’s risk of suicide. But corrections professionals say that mental health problems in their own industry haven’t attracted the same attention.

“Our staff have a very difficult job,” Sahd said. “It’s not well understood, the level of stress they go through every day.”

Sahd said there’s a lot the industry still doesn’t know about mortality and mental health among its staff, particularly its corrections officers. Pennsylvania doesn’t track the life expectancies or leading causes of death among corrections staff once they retire. They’re only able to flag suicide deaths among current employees because the state Office of Administration, which administers employee benefits, receives their death certificates.

As states like California and Massachusetts grapple with the high suicide rates among their corrections officers, a growing body of research has shed some insight on the challenges they face on and off the clock. Studies suggest that corrections professionals report high rates of chronic pain, which has been linked to increased suicide risk, Sahd said. Other studies found they experience higher rates of divorce, depression and custody troubles than the general population.

“These people have complex lives, and there’s an inability to untangle work from home,” Sahd said.

Corrections professionals say that the psychological and physical toll of patrolling prisons leads to unhealthy stress, which can exacerbate existing health conditions or trauma.

“You’re always in protective mode,” Larry Blackwell, head of the union that represents state corrections officers, said of working as a corrections officer. “You’re on high alert for eight, maybe 16 hours a day. It’s not normal [work.]”

While the Department of Corrections has created peer support groups for prison staff, Blackwell said it’s not always easy for corrections officers to find time to attend. He thinks that could be fixed if DOC changed its staffing procedures so that officers can be relieved to attend support group sessions while they’re on the clock. 

Blackwell also said granting corrections officers more disciplinary powers would give them greater peace of mind on the job. But prison reform advocates say that harsher sanctions for inmates are the last thing Pennsylvania’s prisons need.

Claire Shubik-Richards, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia-based prison reform organization, said the health of prison staff is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of prisoners. 

She described the relationship between the two groups as a “feedback loop” that deteriorates in the face of poor communication or perceived disrespect. 

If Pennsylvania made its prisons better places to live, whether by reducing overcrowding or giving inmates better healthcare, they would also become safer places to work, Shubik-Richards said.

“Correctional officers may say this environment is volatile or dangerous because of the people that we are charged with their care and custody,” Shubik-Richards said. “And people who are incarcerated may say the volatility or dangerousness may be caused by the way that correctional officers are administering the environment.”

Sahd agreed that the mental health of inmates and staff depends on healthy interactions between both groups. That’s why DOC has started training its corrections staff in new communication methods designed to deescalate conflict. 

“Everyone is impacted by the environment, so the interactions between inmates and staff is critical,” Sahd said. “They have to build some ability to communicate and reduce anxiety between each other, and it’s not always easy.”

Ultimately, Shubik-Richards said, any mental distress among prison staff are yet another indictment of a flawed prison system.

“A prison is a community, and [staff health] is absolutely an indicator of prison conditions,” Shubik-Richards said. “A high stress environment is not good for anyone, and an environment that is chaotic or dangerous or volatile is not good for anyone.”

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