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Why are so many prison guards committing suicide?




Guards prepare to search inmates in the prison's general population before they come out on the prison yard. General population inmates spend many hours a day outside or in common indoor spaces.
Guards prepare to search inmates in the prison's general population before they come out on the prison yard. General population inmates spend many hours a day outside or in common indoor spaces.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Prison guards are committing suicide at a rate that far exceeds the national average. In 2012 alone, 13 guards took their own lives, and prison officials have partnered with researchers from UC-Berkeley to figure out why.

Don Thompson, a reporter with the Associated Press, spoke with Take Two's A Martinez about the latest data. 

The rate of prison guard suicide versus the general population

We got from the prison guards union the deaths of their members from the last 17 years. The suicide rate exceeds the general population in 13 of the last 17 years. It peaked at 13 suicides in 2012, and that was more than four times the state's general population. There was a survey of 8,300 of those correctional officers. That found the rate of suicide ideation was about 10%. That rate, of suicide ideation, is about three times that of the general U.S. population.

Law enforcement is better at preventing suicides in its ranks

There's some studies that the law enforcement community is doing a better job of preventing these sorts of things with better treatment programs, maybe more recognition or less stigma, and that's been credited in some studies as successfully lowering the suicide rate among police officers. They're hoping doing something similar for correctional officers would lower the suicide rate for prison guards.

Prison guards are often reluctant to talk about what's driving them to suicide

It doesn't seem to be as advanced as it is for law enforcement agencies, where they're still concerned about the stigma, the idea they might be retaliated against on the job, both by their employer and fellow employees as a sign of weakness. That seems to be a real issue. That's something the department and union are both trying to confront. The union is trying to get more resources into prison, what they term a social worker in each prison. They're negotiating with the administration now.

What the union that represents the prison guards hopes to achieve

They're trying a number of fronts. They recognize there's a stigma among their members, a reluctance to seek help, whether it's a sign of weakness or a concern about retaliation from fellow employees or the state, so they're trying to end that stigma or get people to seek help when they need it. They also want more resources within the prison, like a social worker. They want a stronger peer support network where you would call up a fellow officer who shares the same experiences and that officer if needed would get that individual professional help.