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STATE DECLINES DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS STUDY

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By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A resolution allowing government agencies to examine employment conditions of penitentiaries statewide was tabled this week by the General Assembly’s Committee on Rules.  The resolution, proposed by Delegate Roslyn C. Tyler, D- Jarratt, would have directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study employee health and safety concerns at the Virginia Department of Corrections. The resolution also would have inspected adequacy of staffing levels and turnover rates at correctional facilities across the Commonwealth.  Tyler says the committee acknowledged the study was needed.  However, JLARC is already three years behind in completing other studies.  “There are 30,000 inmates in prisons that (corrections officers) protect us from each day,” Tyler said. “They deserve the right to be kept safe and compensated as any other law enforcement officer.”

Don Baylor, an organizer for the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers’ Virginia chapter, spent nearly 30 years at the DOC before retiring in 2007. During his time with the department, Baylor worked as a corrections officer and watch commander at facilities throughout the state.  Baylor personally conveyed DOC health and safety concerns to Tyler. He says it is time to address the burden understaffing and budget cuts has placed on frontline correctional officers.  “There are a number of reasons why we need this study,” Baylor said. “The stress on these individuals who provide security and protection in these facilities is widespread and increasing.”

According to Baylor, studies by the U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Services and other organizations illustrate deteriorating health conditions among DOC personnel.  “We’re talking about a group of employees who are carrying one of the highest suicide rates, divorce rates and mortality rates of any other employees in this nation,” Baylor said. “Studies show that these folks are reaching stress levels of epidemic proportions.”

One such study was presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a nonprofit organization seeking to improve health and safety of corrections staff through data-driven analysis.  The study sampled more than 3,500 corrections professionals’ from 49 states and three U.S. territories to assess the prevalence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid PTSD/depression among workers.

Desert Waters also explored the relationship between specific disorders and job type, according to official documents. Indices of health and well-being such as doctor visits, work absences and substance use also were measured.  Results show depression and PTSD rates among corrections personnel far exceed those of the general population. Overall, PTSD prevalence was estimated to be about 27 percent, according to the study. More than three times the rate of U.S. adults. 

Additionally, Desert Waters determined corrections officers’ risk of suicide is 39 percent higher than all other professions combined.  Baylor says residents and legislators alike need to be aware of the long-term physical and mental issues DOC working conditions can create.  “We need to take a look at these professionals and understand that if we get to a breaking point -- not only are correctional officers and the (incarcerated) people they are in charge of at risk,” Baylor said. “But the public at large.”

The results highlighted in Desert Waters’ study suggest the need for a comprehensive screening of employee health in corrections.

 According to official documents, system-wide interventions to address elevated levels of depression, PTSD and comorbidity also are necessary.  HJ31 stated all agencies of the commonwealth shall provide assistance to JLARC for this study, upon request. JLARC’s chairman then would submit a summary of its findings and recommendations no later than the first day of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Co-patron Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annadale, and NCPSO President Richard Hatch did not respond to requests for comments.

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