Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Correctional Officers

Multiple sources have reported that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among correctional officers is double the rate found among military veterans and police officers.  Chronic and severe understaffing causing excessive hours and greater risk of violence to both correctional officers and inmates is perhaps the greatest contributor to the stressors of correctional work.  However, the officers often do not get proper training, support and stress management before and during employment.

In 2011, in an article entitled “U.S. Correctional Officers Killed or Injured on the Job” the National Institute of Health reported that they have one of the highest rates of injury on the job in the United States. The rate of work-related injuries or death is four times higher than experienced in the general workforce in the United States.  The problem has grown worse since and will likely get even worse in the future as private prison corporations put profits before safety.

All in all, the conditions of correctional guard employment create a state of hyper-vigilance to the threat of violence and its aftermath.  The results are high rates of mental health issues, including PTSD. Among the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are;  re-living traumatic events, nightmares, self-medicating with drugs and\or alcohol, emotional numbness, tendency to isolate one’s self and problems with anger-management. Correctional Officers also suffer very high rates of suicide with suicide a very real and predictable threat to correctional officers and their families.

New Mexico’s Correctional Facilities Far Short of Staffing Standards

Albuquerque local news outlet KQRE ran a piece in March, 2017 called “Costly Crisis Behind Bars” which noted that there are multiple problems in the State of New Mexico’s correctional facilities. The American Corrections Association (ACA) notes that no facility should have a staff vacancy rate exceeding 10% during any eighteen month period. Only two of New Mexico’s prisons even come close to that measure with a number of facilities having staff vacancy rates which exceed one third.

In 2015, according to the source, 34% of positions at the facility in Los Lunas went unfilled. At the Western Facility in Grants over half the positions went unfilled while at the Springer Facility in the Northeastern part of the state an astounding 70% of the positions remained vacant.

Between 2012 and 2016, private correctional facilities paid almost six million dollars in fines for being under-staffed.  That New Mexico’s prison facilities are so woefully understaffed contributes to a wide-range of problems for those who work in our prisons and jails. Working in conditions that can be extremely dangerous and where the aftermath of violence is commonplace takes its toll on correctional staff. The impacts can be long-term, egregious and sometimes catastrophic.

In May, 2017 an article entitled “Life Behind Bars: Working as a Correctional Officer” appeared in the New Mexico News Port. The article interviewed correctional officers working in the State of New Mexico. Officers interviewed noted that the job took an extremely high toll on personal lives, specifically rates of divorce and suicide–noting that the latter is 39% higher than in any other profession.  Officers frequently work 70-80 hours per week and feel they do not have lives outside of the job. Currently, the attrition rate for correctional officers stands at 8%, the highest on record in the history of New Mexico.

Correctional Guards May Have Personal Injury Claims Against Prisons and Jails for PTSD

The law is not well-developed on legal claims related to personal injury lawsuits related to PTSD suffered by correctional guards.  The general rule is that if the injuries happened on the job, the injured employee is limited to benefits under the Workers Compensation Act.  This means that typically, a correctional officer would not be able to file a personal injury lawsuit but instead would be limited to Workers Compensation.   However, based upon prior law in a non-correctional setting, there may be personal claims depending upon the circumstances of the employment and the environment within the prison or jail.

The case that would most apply is the 2001 New Mexico Supreme Court case of Delgado v. Phelps Dodge.  The facts in that case are extreme but there was no indication that the ruling would be limited to the extremely callous and dangerous conduct of the employer in that case.  Delgado set out the requirements for a personal injury claim against an employer for an on the job injury as follows:

“[W]illfulness renders a worker’s injury non-accidental, and therefore outside the scope of the Act, when: (1) the worker or employer engages in an intentional act or omission, without just cause or excuse, that is reasonably expected to result in the injury suffered by the worker; (2) the worker or employer expects the intentional act or omission to result in the injury, or has utterly disregarded the consequences; and (3) the intentional act or omission proximately causes the injury.”

To be clear, this is a very high standard for the employee to meet but the work conditions in New Mexico jails and prisons  may well meet that standard.  On the other hand, if this standard can be met, it may be possible to make New Mexico jails and prisons safer for both correctional guards and inmates.  After all as they say, “money talks….”

Important Deadlines to PTSD Claims Against Jails and Prisons

There are two sets of deadlines depending upon whether the jail/prison is managed by the state, county or municipality, or it is managed by a private corrections company.

For governmentally managed jails and prisons, there are 2 very important deadlines:

  1. Tort Claims Notice:  there is a 90 day deadline for submitting a Tort Claims Notice to the appropriate governmental agency.  DIY Tort Claims Notice instructions and forms can be found on the New Mexico General Services website. 
  2. Statute of Limitations:  the statute of limitations is only 2 years on claims against a New Mexico governmental entity.

Missing either of these will bar your claims completely.

For private corrections company’s, there is simply a 3 year statute of limitations.

U.S. Correctional Officers Killed or Injured on the Job

U.S. Correctional Officers Killed or Injured on the Job In the U.S., approximately half a million correctional officers are responsible for supervising more than two million inmates. Correctional officers are exposed to unique workplace hazards within a controlled prison environment. Of all U.S. workers, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal, work-related injuries.1 In 2011, correctional officers experienced 544 work-related injuries or illnesses per 10,000 full-time employees (FTEs), which were serious enough to require that they missed a day of work. This was more than four times greater than the rate for all workers who missed a day of work (117 cases per 10,000 FTEs).2 Also in 2011, correctional officers experienced 254 work-related injuries per 10,000 FTEs due to assaults and violent acts. This is considerably higher than the rate of injuries from assault and violent acts for all workers (seven per 10,000 FTEs).3


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