Corrections officers face many dangers in their work environment, but none may be more serious than the stresses they endure from years of working in such an extreme setting.
To improve the health and wellness of corrections officers nationwide, the Middlesex County Sheriff's Office is launching a campaign to better support officers who feel the heavy burden of their jobs.
One part of the effort will be a conference to share ways to assist corrections officers facing mental or physical job-related stresses, according to the Sheriff's Office. The conference will host experts from across the country to discuss the causes and consequences stemming from a prison work environment. The Sheriff's office, in partnership with the National Sheriff's Association, organized the conference.
The conference was scheduled to be held on Oct. 29, but Hurricane Sandy forced officials to postpone it. A new date has yet to be scheduled.
The conference, to be held at UMass-Lowell is intended to accomplish two main goals, said Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. First, Koutoujian said he wants to shed more light on the job and dangers corrections officers face and the toll it can take on a family, which he said many overlook.
"No one seemed to understand what corrections officers go through and the conditions under which they work," Koutjian said in an interview with Waltham Patch. "When families are sleeping peacefully ... we've got men and women that are protecting them at every moment of the day. I want to draw attention to the noble work."
The other goal is to start a discussion on how sheriff's offices can better support officers who sometimes struggle with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress syndrome, suicide and other ailments. At the moment, Koutoujian said, some studies exist on the suicide rates and substance abuse rates among corrections officers, but he called those into question.
"These numbers were not really statistically valid in a very meaningful way," Koutjoujian said, noting that the studies included police officers as well.
Sadly, Koutoujian's office is familiar with the pain an officer's job can take. Koutoujian said since he took office at the end of 2010, one officer had committed suicide and another died of a heart attack. Koutoujian also cited the death of his predecessor, James DiPaola, who shot himself in a Maine hotel.
"We have had our share of tragedy in the Middlesex Sheriff's office," Koutoujian said.
Sometimes, corrections officers become violent against others. A state Department of Corrections officer last year barricaded himself inside his home in Leominster and was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
In addition to the conference, Koutoujian said his office has already taken many steps to boost officer wellness. He has increased resources for officer support programs, made chaplains more available to officers and inmates and has held more social outings for officers and their families. He also personally thanks officers for good work.
"These are not the answer... but they are part of a number of pieces that have to be put in place," Koutoujian said.
While the Sheriff's Office does not make a point to mention it, Koutoujian has removed several officers for wrongdoing since he took office.
"No one wants to be reflected upon by people that are performing badly," he said.
After the conference, Koutoujian said he wants to create a "white paper" to document the discussion and tips to improve officer wellness.