Tonya Harry had been working as a correctional officer for about a year when she had one of the most traumatic experiences of her life.
During her shift at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis — also known as the Workhouse — she discovered an inmate who had died by suicide.
“Sometimes I still think about it,” said Harry, who serves as the jail’s chief of security more than 20 years later.
A recent St. Louis University survey of about 300 jail officers in Missouri found more than half reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Not only are officers in U.S. jails at a high risk of injury, they can also have a variety of traumatic experiences, including sexual assault, gang activity and inmate manipulation.
The high inmate turnover rate can make jails a particularly stressful place to work, said Lisa Jaegers, an assistant professor in the SLU Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy.
“People are coming off the street into the facility, potentially having a mental health episode, potentially experiencing extreme trauma going on in their lives,” said Jaegers, who co-authored the study.
Many officers also must cope with other common workplace stressors, including low staffing, inadequate training and mandatory overtime.
The stress of the workday can follow you home, said Chandra Jones, a correctional officer at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis.
“I’m thinking about something everyday,” Jones said. “‘Did I do this? Did I do that? How am I gonna handle tomorrow?’”
Jones, who has worked at the Medium Security Institution for the past 13 years, said one of the most stressful parts of her job is the responsibility of watching over the inmates.
“You don’t want no one to die on your watch,” Jones said. “You just want to make sure everyone is breathing, everyone is alive and well.”
In 2015, Jaegers and her colleagues at SLU surveyed officers at four facilities in Missouri: the Medium Security Institution and the City Justice Center — both in St. Louis city — and two rural jails.
They asked officers to answer two questions commonly used to diagnose PTSD:
Are you bothered by repeated, disturbing memories in the past month? Are you bothered by feeling upset when reminded of past stress?
More than half of Missouri jail officers who responded to the survey reported symptoms of PTSD. That’s more than twice the reported PTSD rate of modern-day war veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officers who complained of burnout — or the feeling that their jobs had hardened them emotionally — also were more likely to have PTSD symptoms.
“Even when we adjust for all of these demographic characteristics — ethnicity, gender, marital status, education — we still find that burnout is a significant predictor of PTSD,” Jaegers said.
Feelings of burnout may affect officer and inmate safety, said Lois James, a professor at Washington State University who did not participate in the study.
“In the same way that nurse burnout or nurse fatigue can affect patient safety, you could just as easily speculate that correctional officer mental health could affect inmate safety,” James said.
In 2013, James found nearly 1 in 5 prison employees surveyed in Washington state showed symptoms of PTSD.
But there was a silver lining: prison employees in Washington state who had positive relationships with their coworkers or were able to talk about their work with family members had a lower risk of PTSD.
That’s what Harry experienced in St. Louis.
After she found the inmate who died by suicide, she said the only thing that helped her through the experience was talking to other people about it.
“I’ll say, ‘Hey can you talk? I had a really bad day at work. Let’s go for a walk,’” Harry said. “Just to get your mind off that, just be in the moment where you are, versus the moment you just left.”
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