The Other Side of the Bars: Sault Ste. Marie Correctional Officers on Workplace Trauma

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*Editor’s Note: The following article contains some graphic content and may be upsetting or offensive to some readers.

Since April 2014 twenty-six first responders inclusive of police officers, correctional workers, firefighters and paramedics, have killed themselves. Of those twenty-six, nineteen lived in Ontario. The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been a growing concern among the Canadian military but the alarming spike in suicides has called attention to the condition as suffered by first responders at home.

Grace and Lori had already put in their order for brunch by the time I joined them at the table at Casey’s restaurant. They were sitting across from one another sipping their coffee. Grace is on the cusp of fifty and Lori is in her early forties. Grace has big brown eyes and an enthusiastic nurturing disposition. Lori appears younger than her years and there is a softness about her.

Together they share just over forty years of experience working in corrections. Today, both work as correctional officers at the Algoma Remand and Treatment Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The two women are more than colleagues or work buddies. Their friendship is bound stronger and more profound by the similar trauma that they both experienced on the job seven years apart from one another.

“You can go first,” Lori said to Grace just as the waitress slid their plates of bacon and eggs onto the table. “You went through it before I did.”

“Ha! That’s your way of saying I’m older,” laughed Grace. And so she began.

Grace

It was August of ‘99 when a young woman was delivered to the little old Sault Ste. Marie jailhouse on McNabb St. The twenty year old girl, who looked more like a thirteen year old, was admitted with a charge of attempted murder of a police officer. She had been pulled over by the cops. She fled the scene in a vehicle, dragging a police officer behind her.

Grace and fellow officers were encouraging the medical staff to place the young woman on a suicide watch. But she never was.

“She was very depressed, being held on a very serious charge and she was unknown to us. We didn’t know what her history was. All of these things were red flags.”

The young woman had been in jail for three days awaiting her bail hearing. The night she did it she had found out that her parents weren’t going to post her bail.

“It was around 11 p.m. I was the last person to talk to her. I was making my rounds and she asked me to leave the light on. She was the only female inmate that we had at the time. I went back seventeen minutes later and she had hung herself.”

Grace is speaking automatically- like she’s told this story a thousand times before.

“I was the first one to find her. I called for help and we cut her down. She left with a pulse but she was brain dead. She died eleven days later.”

The young woman’s death devastated Grace who after ten years had already seen her share of blood, guts and attempted suicides. “I think something that made it especially horrifying was that she just looked so young. I had two little girls at the time. They were three and six years old. I worried about them constantly. I became hyper-vigilant about everything in my life. Home started to feel like work- I was on guard all the time. After I dropped my kids off at school I’d come home and lay on the sofa all day. I was exhausted. My mind never stopped.”

In November of ’99, three months after the incident, Grace finally took some time off. “After a month I thought I would be ok and went back to work. I had a family, a mortgage- and that’s what you do. You go to work.”

blue ladyBy March 2000 reporting for duty at the jail became unbearable for Grace. “I cried all the way to work. I was having flashbacks to the suicide constantly. I was having visions of my daughters hanging in their rooms at night when I would walk by. On my way home from work I would have visions of opening the garage door and finding my husband hanging from the rafters. I was having ridiculous anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. I thought I was losing my mind.”

The two week inquest following the suicide compounded Grace’s anxiety. “If you’re the last person to see an inmate alive there’s a lot of questions. Everyone knew that the officers were not happy. She tried to kill one of their own. So the family thought that somehow we were involved in her death other than her committing suicide.”

During the inquest the Crown Attorney approached Grace. The Crown represents the deceased in such cases and the lawyer for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) typically provides counsel for the correctional facility staff. The Crown approached Grace and advised that she seek out her own lawyer. Grace was being thrown under the bus. “ The jail just wanted it all to go away. That young woman left with a pulse. That seemed to escape everybody.”

Lori

Lori was a single mother when she launched her career as a correctional worker sixteen years ago. Her father was a police officer and enforcement seemed to be a natural progression for Lori. She has worked at the Algoma Remand and Treatment Centre for the past ten years.

Lori had just begun the day shift. There was an overflow of male inmates and a few of the guys were temporarily placed in the holding cells. A young man in his early 20’s was being held there. He was new to the facility and his history had not been disclosed to the correctional facility.

“He slept for the first few rounds of my shift. The holding cell didn’t have a toilet and he asked if he could use the washroom. He thanked me afterwards and that was the last time I saw him alive. The next time I came around I found him hanging.”

Lori called for assistance and wrapped her arms around the young man’s body, holding him up, until help arrived. Lori untied the knot and his body was lowered to the ground. A colleague began CPR but it was hopeless- the young man was gone.

Even though the traumatic incident happened eight years ago, Lori weeps while retelling those events as though they have only just happened.

“I touched him. I held him. I brought him down,” she sobs. “I went home and burned my uniform. It was dirty, there was death on it.”

Using her sick time, Lori took about a month off and during that time met with a counsellor provided through her Employee Assistance Program benefits. Having experienced a loss in her family due to suicide Lori believed that after a bit of time to decompress she would be back to herself. And like Grace, Lori was no rookie to the unpleasantness associated with the frontline environment of corrections. What she wasn’t banking on was that the cumulative toll of numerous suicide attempts- hangings, slashings and the efforts of inmates to drown themselves in toilet bowls, would challenge her ability to rebound.

“During the first eight months I would see his face- the way it looked when he was hanging. I had a hard time falling asleep because as soon as I closed my eyes I saw his face. I had to sleep with the lights on for a long time. I’ll never forget his face. I know it’s not really there- but I see it anyways.”

Unlike Grace, Lori’s experience in the follow up inquest was less prolonged than Grace’s ordeal. It was disclosed at the time of the inquest that attending doctors from the hospital had cleared the young man of any tendency towards suicidal ideations. In fact, the young man had a lengthy history of attempted suicides prior to the fatal morning that Lori discovered him hanging in the holding cell. While the information did little to alter the tragedy of the circumstances it did alleviate the burden of blame on Lori.

“Everybody says it’s not about finding someone to blame but everybody also knows that’s what it’s really about- finding someone to blame.”

What’s Left Behind

Grace and Lori, like all first responders, are subject to the stereotypes of the general public. These men and women are differentiated from the mainstream by their courage to run towards danger when most are running from it. But that is where the distinction ends.

“We are expected to perform our jobs without any emotion and we are expected to not have any weakness,” Grace said between bites of her Western sandwich. “There is an expectation that we should not react when in fact that is exactly what we don’t do. We react to everything that happens in there. We run in. We have to run in when there’s fighting and there’s blood and there’s guts flying- and you don’t know who’s around the corner ready to jump you. Even at our little jail. We react because that’s exactly what we have to do.”

First responders bear the burden of those stereotypes and as a result, and often, they attempt to uphold those misconceptions in the workplace. Organizations like Tema Conter Memorial Trust have launched international campaigns that re-humanize our perception of everyday heroes. Creating safe places, especially in the workplace, where first responders can disclose bad experiences on the job without being perceived as inadequate or weak will be an important step in challenging the stigma that exists around mental injuries, such as PTSD, anxiety or depression, that have been acquired while on the job.

Lori admits that her decision to return to work after one month off on WSIB was prompted by the fact that she was the sole breadwinner for herself and her young son.

Of her return to work Lori shared, “When I went back to work I think one of the hardest things to deal with was the staff- whether it be the blueshirts or management. People don’t know how to treat you. On my first day back – I was there literally three minutes, and someone from management asked me ‘hey can I give you a hanging joke or is it too soon’. And all the guys are around so I have to save face and laugh along. And it really bothered me.”

Beyond the inappropriate and awkward humour, Grace and Lori expressed that they are painfully aware that among management and their co-workers there exists a lack of understanding about conditions like anxiety and PTSD.

report prepared by the Ministry of Labour concerning PTSD and first responders included, in a concise list of recommendations, a suggestion that peer-oriented approacheswith a focus on educating those in the workplace about how to support colleagues who are returning to the workplace following a traumatic event.

Grace knows that her co-workers question why she hasn’t returned to the floor and Lori frequently fences questions about Grace’s accommodation. “My situation is different than Graces and everybody copes in different ways. Unless someone has been through what we have they just don’t understand. They don’t understand what it was like to not be able to sleep, the don’t understand the constant flashbacks. And they don’t understand how hard it was to move past it.”

After a very lengthy investigation Grace was awarded her WSIB claim. She eventually returned to work in 2003. She had wanted to return to work prior but was told that there wasn’t a job for her. One condition of Grace’s accommodation negotiated through WSIB, was that she would no longer perform rounds and she no longer had to work nights. Currently she works in the main control area.

“I feel fine now but I don’t know if I could be triggered again. I can’t take that risk by returning to night rounds,” Grace confided. “I was in a very dark place for a long time- I can’t go back there again.”

At her lowest point, there was a fleeting moment when Grace contemplated a reckless act of suicide. “I didn’t try it and I didn’t think about doing it again. But my mind keeps going back to the time when I did think about it and how it felt very possible that I could do it. That’s what terrified me. I really felt that I could do it. When it’s not a visible injury people don’t believe you. That’s been very hard.”

Accommodation was not a part of Lori’s return to work plan. Even though it has been six years since the traumatic incident Lori continues to experience a sense of anxiety when conducting her rounds- particularly on the night shift. Every twenty minutes for twelve hours the stage is recreated when Lori begins her rounds. Her alert is set to high, her guard is up, and with every corner she turns and every door window she peers through she braces for the macabre vision of a lifeless body hanging by its neck.

Some shifts are better than others but a recent in house death has triggered some of the symptoms that Lori experienced shortly after the suicide in 2006. “Since the last death I’ve had a harder time doing night rounds. At home when I’m trying to sleep I have to keep the TV on all night.”

While doing her rounds at night Lori is concerned that there is not enough light to observe whether or not the inmates are safe. Each cell has a night light that cannot be turned off but inmates will cover the light with towels or use toothpaste to glue pieces of paper over the light. “It’s my job to see them- to make sure they’re alright but it’s too dark to see. I’m constantly begging management to help me do my job properly. They just cleaned up the lights and replaced the bulbs. It was ok for a while but its back to the way it was now. I don’t want to go through another suicide or another inquest again.”

Fifteen years have passed since Grace left the light on for that young woman. But still the images of that night haunt her. “I think you just get use to them coming into your head. It’s not such a surprise anymore.”

Looking Ahead

In 2008 New Democrat MPP, Cheri DiNovo, introduced Bill 67 -a version of today’s Bill 2. The Bill proposes amendments to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act that would make claims of PTSD among first responders a presumed occupational disease unless evidence could prove otherwise. Seven years later the Bill has only passed its first reading in Senate.

Should Bill 2 become law, first responders would no longer have to endure WSIB investigations into PTSD claims that can take years to resolve. The very investigative process itself often triggers symptoms associated with the initial trauma.

Grace’s WSIB claim was investigated for a year and a half. In 1999 Grace’s employer did not press her to complete WSIB forms and it was because of the encouragement from her family doctor that Grace submitted her claim in January 2000- five months after the incident. Grace was awarded her claim in March of 2001 and was finally able to receive the cognitive behavioural therapy that she so desperately needed.

Seven years later Lori’s experience was quite a bit different. After her traumatic incident, WSIB forms were filed immediately and within in month she was receiving her benefit. However, it still remains that until Bill 2 becomes law more often than not those who enter a claim of PTSD can be subject to gruelling investigations and re-injury.

two%20women%20talking%20paint_0For Lori there wasn’t any medical benefit for cognitive behavioural therapy- but she did have Grace. Grace was at the jail the morning that Lori wrapped her arms around that dead young man. Grace was there to guide a shell shocked Lori through the necessary steps- “Fill out your WSIB claims immediately, take time off immediately, go see your doctor immediately. Talk to me.”

Lori did meet with a counsellor provided through EAP but the handful of professional sessions could not compare to the understanding and guidance that her colleague could offer her.

“Grace knows and understands the dynamics of how the building works, how the co-workers are. I wouldn’t have a lot of the same conversations with other workers because you can’t show that emotion. You’ll come across as weak. The EAP might not understand how the boys club is -you can’t say things, you can’t tear up at work when you’re talking about it. You can’t show that emotion at work. Grace gets it. She’s been there and she’s done it. She understands all the dynamics. When I went to the EAP I don’t think she understood where I was coming from – and she was good- I’m not trying to say she was bad. She just didn’t understand it the way Grace did. The general public doesn’t get it.”

In a report to the Northern Hoot earlier this year, local paramedic and representative on the Joint Health and Safety Committee, Richard Bennett, advocated for resources that would arm first responders with the knowledge they require to offer peer to peer support to colleagues who identify with a diagnosis or potential diagnosis of PTSD. It has been shown that there is greater trust and bonding when a first responder receives guidance from a peer support trained colleague.

“When I returned to work it was my mission to help other people not have to go through what I did,” shared Grace. “Whether it’s helping them fill out the paperwork that they need to take care of or just being someone that could understand and relate to what they were experiencing- I wanted to be that person. Going through something like that is hard enough without having to feel like you are alone through it all.”

*The Northern Hoot did reach out to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to include their voice in this piece. However, the Ministry was unable to provide responses to specific questions by the publication deadline. The Northern Hoot  is anticipating a reply from MCSCS later today.

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Do you need to talk to someone?

Tema Conter Memorial Trust, Peer to Peer Support and Family Assistance: 1-888-288-8036 

Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600

Algoma District, Central Access: 705.759.5989 or 855.366.1466

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