30 Aug 2018

Programme to help prison staff suffering from witnessing violence

4:23 pm on 30 August 2018

Prison officers experiencing mental health problems as a result of the violence they see every day have a new programme to help them cope.

Wiri Prison - Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The new programme was launched today by the Corrections Association.

The Corrections Department did not keep a record figures, but the association said every year several of its members developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of what they were exposed to in their work.

Stand TALR was developed by Western Australia's prison officers' union and focuses on the difficult situations experienced by staff behind the wire.

The capacity for staff to develop PTSD as a result of such incidents is well-recognised by New Zealand's Corrections Association.

However its spokesperson, Beven Hanlon, said there was a culture among prison staff that meant people would not admit they needed help, because of the stigma around mental illness and the fear others would think they were weak.

Stand TALR should help people to be more open about that, he said.

"There's concern around how your employer will treat you and trying to raise awareness that that's not a problem and trying to get people to understand that the employer's there with a whole lot of programmes that will help is half of what our programme is about," Mr Hanlon said.

One of the strengths of the Stand TALR programme was that it was put together by prison staff and recognised the unique stresses they faced, Mr Hanlon said.

"If you have a person who comes to work and they're anxious and not feeling right, they're on edge and hyper-vigilant, they're going to react in ways they shouldn't react," he said.

"If someone is aware they can seek help ... they'll just function so much better.

"Feelings of anxiety or depression ...can start to crowd you, [and] you shouldn't be in any workplace, let alone one like ours, where every day our people are exposed to violence you'd usually only see in a movie."

Andy Smith from the Western Australian Prison Officers union said more than 1000 people had now attended the programme sessions over there.

The sessions helped them cope with the aftermath of dealing with violence, intimidation and people who had self-harmed, Mr Smith said.

He said that was reflected in a growing number of prison staff seeking help through the Employee Assistance Programme.

"To have a 25 percent increase in the number of people calling is only a good thing ... it's people recognising the need for assistance and it will [help] them in remaining at work, managing the job properly and building up resilience and that can only be a good thing," Mr Smith said.

One of those who could benefit from the programme is "Kenneth", not his real name, a guard who developed PTSD after being violently attacked while working in a prison.

A prisoner king-hit him from behind and he suffered many physical injuries, but said the mental trauma was still affecting him.

"I became hyper-vigilant and I was operating on fear and that manifested itself in anger and hatred," Kenneth said.

"I hated prisoners with a passion so when I walked into the prison all I wanted to do was stab something into the prisoners' throats and hurt them. All I could think of was ways to hurt them and not be injured myself."

"Kenneth" said he had to try to remain outwardly calm and while other officers knew something was wrong, there was nothing they could do to help.

Australia's Community and Public Sector Union federal secretary Karen Batt said compensating staff like "Kenneth", who suffered mental health injuries at work, could be expensive so the programme also brought benefits for employers.

"If we're actually able to address the risks, identify those risks and mitigate the impact on individuals, whether through counselling or better design of workplaces ... it will save the employer millions by not having claims ... it's a win for both workers and employers."

Mr Smith has run Stand TALR presentations at a couple of New Zealand prisons this week and said he had had a good response from staff.

The programme will be rolled out more widely across New Zealand jails in the coming months.