In Colorado Springs we tend to concentrate on
the problems of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military men
and women, a natural bias given our huge military presence. We have
also long noted
man, or woman, who goes through an abusive intimate relationship is
almost certain to suffer some level of post traumatic stress that, all
too often, develops into PTSD.
However, as Dr. Tudor notes below, PTSD
is found in all professions where high stress and traumatic situations
occur. Also, we have tended to concentrate on the research and
symptoms of the problem, for example see PTSD and TBI Are
. But an academic approach is frequently of little use to
one suffering from the disorder. Thus, the anecdotes presented by Dr.
Tudor in her article below present a much better picture of what PTSD
looks and feels like to the individual.
Her work is with corrections
officers, many of them at Supermax
America's maximum security prison, where obviously the stress levels
are high. But members of any similar profession, police, fire
fighters, military, etc., often suffer from the same problems and, all
too frequently, are ashamed to seek assistance. It is hoped the
following anecdotes will help some recognize their problem and seek
treatment. You may also recognize some of these behaviors in your
friends and coworkers. If so, encourage them to seek help. And PTSD
treatment can be effective, particularly if sought early.
Secret? Post-traumatic Symptoms in the Corrections
by Catarina Spinaris
The following article
appeared originally as the April 2010 Correctional Oasis
It is reproduced here with
permission of the author
The anecdotes presented below are used
with permission. Some details are changed. If your own issues get
triggered as a result of reading this, please see suggestions for help
at the end of the article.
March 15, 2010 - When I began
talking and counseling with corrections personnel in the year 2000, I
noticed that several of them suffered from post-traumatic symptoms.
Some even exhibited full-blown PTSD, often self-medicated with
I also noticed
that, in the proud corrections culture, staff abhorred to admit that
they had been negatively affected by traumatic work experiences.
Theyd often say, Im good. It was just an inmate. But their
eyes had the 2,000-yard stare.
It didnt take me long to realize that
staff feel ashamed about being affected by life-threatening or
horrifically violent work-related circumstances. Due to lack of
understanding of what psychological trauma does to peoples brain,
soul and spirit, some corrections staff even call traumatized
coworkers weak. Consequently, trauma sufferers may refuse
treatment, sentencing themselves to long-term torment.
Psychological trauma occurs (a) when people
are exposed to circumstances that threaten their life or physical
integrity or the life or physical integrity of others; and (b) when
they experience intense fear for their lives, helplessness because
they cannot stop the traumatic event, or horror due to the gruesome
scenes of injury or death they witness.
What does psychological trauma look like in
the corrections ranks?
Here I offer some
examples, by category of PTSD symptoms. For simplicitys sake Ill
use the term C.O. and he. However, these examples are not
limited to security staff or males. They are found among both genders
and in all ranks and positions.
C.O. seeks help after becoming
terrified that he may hurt family
members without meaning to. His 4-year old daughter walked into her
parents bedroom one night after having had a bad dream. As she
tried to climb onto their bed, she bumped against him. C.O. became
fully awake due to his wifes screaming, No! Its Susie!
C.O. realized that, startled in his sleep, he had grabbed his daughter
by the throat and was hauling off to punch her in the face. All that
had happened in an instant, before he could become fully conscious.
C.O. is almost always irritable. To release his anger"¹to have
adrenaline dump, as he calls it"¹he purposely provokes inmates by
staring at them and by saying humiliating things to them in front of
As he gets ready for work, C.O. begins to sweat profusely.
Sometimes he has to change his undershirt and shirt before leaving the
house, because dark stains start to show under his armpits and on his
chest and back. He of course does not want inmates or staff to notice.
The sweating, at times accompanied by a slight uncontrollable shaking
and weak knees, worsens as he gets through the prison gate. He
also sweats at night to the point that in the morning the mattress is
C.O. has become prone to rages. After particularly hard shifts
drives home at 90mph in 65mph zones screaming at the top of his lungs.
C.O. can see fear in his childrens eyes when he approaches
them. His wife has pleaded with him to not give her the prison
look anymore. She has told him that when he gets enraged at her,
she is afraid he wants to kill her.
Wherever C.O. goes, he believes people are watching and
him. He hides behind dark sunglasses. To lessen his anxiety, he avoids
public places as much as possible. His wife does all the shopping now.
When he cannot avoid going to a public place, he feels vulnerable, in
danger. To him everyone he comes across may be affiliated with a gang
or be an inmate family member. At times he gets so worked up in a
public venue that he goes to the bathroom and vomits.
A C.O. is confronted by a road rage young guy who, at a stop
sign, jumps out of his car and starts screaming at him. In a flash,
the C.O. bolts out of his vehicle and lifts the guy off the ground. He
raises him up over his head and body-slams him on the pavement. He
then restrains him and talks to him, like he would with an inmate.
Dude, its over now. Just relax and let go. C.O. realizes
that he only remembers the beginning and the end of the event. Later
on his wife fills him in. She witnessed the event while sitting
petrified in their vehicle.
C.O. worries greatly about his familys safety. He has
several security devices in his home and has hidden weapons in key
locations in his house. After an inmate escapes from a nearby prison,
C.O. booby traps his back door and patrols his living room every
night, fully armed, until the inmate is apprehended.
C.O. becomes so afraid that its going to be his life or an
inmates life, that he does the unthinkable. When he gets home, he
takes a steak knife and practices putting it through his belt buckle.
He even tapes the handle with black tape to make it blend with his
belt. He then rehearses pulling it out rapidly. In his mind he
practices slashing the inmates throat with one swift move as the
inmate is coming at him. C.O. goes to work armed with the knife hidden
under his jersey. C.O. is so locked onto the moment, what he believes
is the battle for his life, that he does not consider consequences of
his actions. He never stops to ask himself what may happen to him and
his family if he indeed hurt the inmate. Having seen so much killing
and wounding, he has lost his inhibition about causing serious injury
or even death to someone. Thankfully, miraculously, the inmate pleads
to have all animosities between the two of them dropped and asks to be
put in segregation.
- C.O. suffers from insomnia, so much so, that
he has been consuming large amounts of alcohol to fall asleep. While
sleeping, he thrashes about and grinds his teeth. He fights inmates in
his nightmares to the point that he has elbowed and punched his wife
as she slept next to him. She now sleeps in the spare bedroom.
Sometimes he wakes up at 2:00 AM and cannot go back to sleep.
C.O. has nightmares about the
violent incident he witnessed. The
nightmares are like a movie playing or a slide show of the event. The
images remain unaltered, identical to those on the day of the
incident. He wakes up with a start, sweating, heart racing. To avoid
reliving the event in his sleep, he tries to stay awake as much as he
When anyone mentions a gruesome inmate murder that C.O.
he sees the image in his minds eye, hears the gurgling
last sounds of the stab victim and smells the blood all over
again. The rest of the day he keeps having images of the murder pop up
in his mind unbidden and causing him grave distress. At night he has
10 beers before he can go to sleep.
- C.O. who was assaulted by an inmate has a
flashback of the attack while driving. To avoid the inmate in his
minds eye, he ducks and swerves, driving his vehicle into the
ditch. As the flashback subsides, he sits in his car shaking until he
can compose himself enough to drive to his destination.
Avoidance & Emotional
C.O. now sends his family members
to get the mail from the mailbox
in front of his house. He is uncomfortable getting the mail himself
because you never know who may be driving by and see me standing
When asked by family about how is doing at work, C.O.s
is typically Not much is going on or I dont want to talk
C.O. now avoids friends who do not work in corrections. He
relate to them, their interests and their ways of having fun. Instead,
he spends hours playing computer and video games at home.
C.O. is told by coworkers that in the heat of responding to a
prolonged, particularly life-threatening incident, he did and said
things that he does not remember doing or saying.
C.O. avoids going to grocery stores or malls. He is afraid that
some punk there may provoke him by staring at him or by saying
something, and that hell lose self-control and get arrested for
taking him down or worse.
C.O.s young daughter comes to him crying after she falls and
skins her knees while bicycling. While tending to her injury, he
realizes that he cannot feel compassion for her like he used to. He
remembers that he felt nothing while performing CPR on the dead body
of an inmate who had committed suicide by hanging.
C.O. feels like his life has lost its flavor and color. Even
pleasant family activities that he used to enjoy now feel to him to be
C.O. is haunted by the fear that he will die soon. When he goes
bed at night he wonders if hell be alive the next day.
Heparticularly fears dying by the hand of an inmate. To defy
these fears, he dares death by taking serious risks while riding his
motorcycle on winding mountain roads.
Fearing he may get attacked by inmates, C.O. trains himself on
own time to endure physical pain and duress in order to be able to
fight in spite of pain or injury. He takes that to the extreme,
putting his health and safety at risk.
- Since a life-threatening incident at work,
C.O. has withdrawn from social activities in his community. He now
feels safe only at home because he believes that he can control what
some examples of post-traumatic symptoms experienced by correctional
workers. Even if an employee suffers from only one symptom, home life
and work performance are impacted, affecting ones overall quality
of life. That is why the issue of post-traumatic stress needs to be
addressed in corrections in depth, as is currently done in the
military. And, as you probably know, several corrections employees are
also war veterans, compounding the risk of post-traumatic stress and
its dire consequences.
Administrators and supervisors, let
your staff know that corrections workers do get affected by what they
experience at work, and that these effects have nothing to do with
weakness. Terror and horror leave hard-to-erase imprints on peoples
brain, soul and spirit. These traumatic memories and associated
reactions can pop up again and again, unexpectedly and out of control,
unless they are processed and digested.
I implore those of
you who relate to these symptomsto get appropriate help to get
better and to prevent hurting yourself, your loved ones, those at work
or innocent bystanders.
If youve been triggered by reading this,
you have several good options. Contact Desert Waters at 719-784-4727
or firstname.lastname@example.org. Call our
Corrections Ventline at 866-YOU-VENT. Write us at email@example.com. Seek professional help through your EAP, mental
health specialists in posttraumatic stress treatment, or
Do not put it off any
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