Prison Break

By Tim Coy

May 13, 20198 Minutes

Working in correctional services often means that officers experience work overload, diminished access to material and human resources, violent or aggressive exposure to the inmates, overcrowding and a daily perception of fear or danger. Protective factors have been identified as better social support from within the prison environment, improvement of officer training, stimulating social support and offering psychological care when it is needed.

From 2007 to 2011, I was Supervisor for the Men’s prison Maximum and special needs units. This covered several areas of the prison including high security, crisis support, and general population units. It also came with the role of team leader for the prison’s first response team. Late in 2009 Risdon Prison entered lockdown as a riot spread through the Medium Security precinct. This was one of several critical incidents over an intense 2-month period.

 

In the riot our medium security correctional team was cut off – nine staff were surrounded by rioting inmates, two staff were injured and the others seemed to be in a daze and were scattered throughout the precinct. At a sprint, I hit the last gate into the precinct; I heard the gate slam behind me. At that point I realized that I was by myself, I was too far ahead of the rest of the response. I recall thinking ‘today might be the day I do not make it home’. I accepted this and walked into the precinct to find the team. That one riot was part of a series of critical incidents that took place in our prison. Ending for me when two of my team were taken hostage in the high security unit, a nine-hour ordeal where I led the response team and worked with the prisons Tactical Response Group and Police Special Operations Group to have them released.

 

Being involved in all of those events and leading people into situations not knowing from one to the next if this was the one we didn’t walk away from, made a deep impression on me, it was too much to bear and my mind seemed to let me down. I spent a lot of 2010 struggling and by the latter part of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 I was off work, rarely able to leave home and in self-imposed exile (it was self-imposed but I had no choice) . Walks down the street became tactical nightmares; panic, anxiety, and fear were never far away. I was having visual and auditory hallucinations, nightmares, bruxism [teeth grinding], flash backs and I was angry – I was so angry that one night when my kids aged 4 and 6 were eating and laughing over dinner, I felt like I wanted to throw them at the wall. That night I had to leave the house so that I didn’t hurt them. My wife couldn’t understand why I was so angry, on reflection neither can I. How do corrections officers like me come back from such an edge? The truth is that for many of us, we don’t come back.

 

A national study published in the Archives of Suicide Research found that the risk of suicide among correctional officers was 39 percent higher than any other profession. Another study found that 34 percent of corrections officers meet the criteria for PTSD, by comparison to 14 percent of military veterans experiencing those same symptoms. 2. During my search for recovery I met Ian Snape of Frontline Mind. Ian helped me to understand how my body and mind are inseparable and were working to keep me safe, I learnt how to ensure that I can create more useful states and choose my own path, without symptoms taking my life away. I have learned how to cope and develop strategies that have moved me forward to a place where I have an awareness of where I am, where I have been and how I am going to move forward to use all of these experiences for a beneficial, sustainable and happy future. I have been back at work now for several years.

 

Managing a high-risk fast paced female correctional setting brings unique challenges every day – I love my job. Working with Frontline Mind has helped me grow, to develop rapport and resilience, and to know how to lead and manage people. Using leadership and conflict negotiation skills has assisted me in making clean choices and to gain compliance when I need it the most. Correctional work may be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. With the right training in resilience and high performance it can also be some of the most rewarding.

 

Bezerra, Cláudia de Magalhães, Assis, Simone Gonçalves de, & Constantino, Patricia. (2016). Psychological distress and work stress in correctional officers: a literature review. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 21(7), 2135-2146. 2. Suicide risk among correctional officers: A logistic regression analysisc Steven J. Stack & Olga Tsoudis Pages 183-186 | Accepted 09 Oct 1996, Published online: 27 Sep 2007


Tim Coy

Has 16 years’ experience working in Australia’s Risdon Prison in all security classifications, at both male and female facilities. He has worked at all ranks from Officer on the floor to Superintendent of facilities. He currently acts as Supervisor of the Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison, a multi security facility in Tasmania, Australia.