SALT LAKE CITY — They are sworn to watch over some of the state's most dangerous residents.
On any given day they might be spit on, assaulted, threatened, forced to break up violent fights, or asked to try and save the life of a person who has attempted suicide.
Yet some employees with the Utah Department of Corrections, the agency responsible for maintaining the Utah State Prison and watching over those paroled from prison, have a salary so low that they qualify for food stamps.
Tragically, those difficult working conditions, high stress, low pay and long hours can take their toll.
Beginning in late October, the corrections department lost three employees in six weeks to suicide. In the past year, it has lost four employees to suicide.
The reasons for each incident were due to a combination of issues and not any one thing in particular, said Rollin Cook, the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections.
"The one common denominator was that they worked for us. But there were a lot of other things going on in each of the individual’s lives, and that’s where we felt like we weren’t doing enough,” Cook said.
Although it is a topic that has traditionally been taboo for law enforcement to talk about, Cook says his department wants to be open about the suicides. Part of the reason is to try and prevent others from occurring.
Higher rate of suicide
Corrections officers in the United States have a much higher suicide rate than other occupations, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice report. Cook said one study estimates the rate is as much as 39 percent higher than other occupations.
"The challenges that we see every single day lead to things such as (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression. When you’re working in an environment where you have people who the rest of society, in many cases, has completely ignored or wants to banish or push them away, and you have to manage the population every day, it takes a toll,” Cook said.
For some, the stress doesn't end when an officer goes home. Some leave work with the fear of running into a former inmate in public.
"When you work every single day with someone and you see them, you are more likely, when you get out, to recognize them,” Cook said.
It's that fear of running into a former inmate at a public gathering that prevents some officers from doing simple family activities like going to the zoo, Fourth of July fireworks or even going to Lagoon.
"When we think of that, we have to think about who we’re going to run into. That constant strain is another attribute or characteristic that is leading to the depression, and constant worry. And look what it does to a family,” he said. "All of this isolation starts to play a part in the mindset and the challenges we face in Corrections.”
Yet, many corrections officers won't talk to their own families about the stresses of the job.
"Many of us as corrections officers we don’t want to talk about it. Even to our wives, we just say, ‘It’s OK,’” Cook said.
Following the recent spate of suicides, Cook brought in representatives from the Colorado-based nonprofit group Desert Waters Correction Outreach for help. The group consists of former corrections officers who know firsthand what it's like working in prisons or for Adult Probation and Parole. They specialize in "corrections fatigue," Cook said. In some cases, they are able to point out things to officers that they're often unaware of.
"They'll say, 'You probably don’t know it, but you’re likely suffering from PTSD,'” he said.
The Utah Department of Corrections has always had a peer support team to respond, or react, to incidents after they've already happened. But Cook wanted to bring in a group that had no connection to the department to not only raise awareness and get officers to recognize the red flags of someone who is struggling, but also to help get officers to open up about their own problems.
Corrections officers are a tight-knit family, Cook said.
"When you’re working in an environment where there are some people who would like to kill you or do anything to escape, you have to have the support of each other. You have to have each other’s back. And that oftentimes leads to a certain closeness that you only see in things like sports," he said, comparing employees to a team that's won a major championship.
"When you survive something, when you work together in an environment that most people wouldn’t dream of, you have a sense of love and compassion for each other that many people probably wouldn’t understand."
When officers began taking their own lives, the fallout was devastating on all employees, he said. Many questioned themselves about what signs they could have seen.
That raised awareness and bringing Desert Waters workers to Utah may have resulted in the prevention of additional suicides within the past six months because of employees looking out for each other, according to Cook.
While the executive director continues to work internally to improve conditions for his employees, he said he would also like to see more external support, both from the state and the public in general.
The corrections department has a public stigma, he said. Many believe officers at the prison simply have the job of opening and closing cell doors each day. Officers are often referred to as "guards" — a term they do not find complimentary.
Corrections officers being assaulted at the prison don't make headlines as often as police officers on the street who are assaulted, Cook said. And rarely are there community events to show appreciation for corrections officers like there are for police officers and firefighters.
Cook stressed that he is taking nothing away from the job that police officers do every day, and he doesn't want people to feel sorry his department. But he does want the public to recognize how difficult corrections jobs are, and the importance of his employees.
"I mean, they are responsible for keeping people enclosed, managed and improving them, helping them with rehabilitation prior to them getting out,” he said. "Our staff work with the inmates their entire career, every hour of every day."
Cook has asked Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to approve a pay-step salary plan for corrections employees to receive raises annually — something they have never had.
"Although money isn’t everything, it is when you have to pay the bills. A lot of our folks face significant challenges in that they actually can qualify for state programs like food stamps because the pay is so low,” Cook said.
Even things like the proposed new state prison, which is expected to be designed both to keep inmates secure and give officers a better working environment, will help morale.
"Showing them how worthy they are and how valued they are, it makes for a better mindset," he said. "It's difficult to come up with answers, but we want employees to know they’re cared about."