Massachusetts is taking steps to address ways to lessen the risk of suicides among correctional officers.

A report released in June 2019 by a state-formed legislative commission found that 16 active or retired correctional officers in Massachusetts prisons have taken their own lives between 2010 and 2015.

“It was primarily an epidemic,” said Kevin Flanagan, who worked for 20 years as a correctional officer in some of the state's toughest prisons — the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, a maximum security prison, and MCI-Cedar Junction, formerly known as MCI-Walpole, a maximum security prison with an average daily population of approximately 800 adult male inmates.

“To be on the front lines working with an inmate population which sometimes can be volatile and dangerous, that stress falls on the shoulders of officers,” Flanagan said. “And when you leave those walls ... sometimes that stress, you take home with you.”

In 2017, the state legislature formed the Special Commission on the Prevention of Suicide Among Correctional Officers to find ways to reduce the rate of correctional officers taking their own lives. The commission evaluated the policies in place regarding suicide and the existing prevention training for correctional facility staff, and implemented policies to reduce the risk of suicide.

One shocking finding discovered within the commission study was that prison guards have a life expectancy of just 59 years.

"That number is not a secret. All of us officers understand that life expectancy is 59 years," said Flanagan, who served on the 11-member commission. He is also a legislative representative for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents the state’s 3,800 officers.

Prison guards experience some of the highest levels of stress and burnout of any occupation. Some of the causes are straightforward — they work with some of the most dangerous criminals. But the commission also cited understaffing and the lack of peer support as problems.

"Our most important resource [is] our employees, and we need healthy, vibrant employees to do their jobs because the nature of their work is very stressful," said Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger, who served on the commission and who worked as a Lynn police officer before becoming sheriff.

Coppinger said that as a result of the report, sheriffs across the state are working together to implement new policies. At the nine facilities throughout Essex County, he said, correctional officers are offered an Employee Assistance Program that includes counseling, assessments and referrals. Coppinger said a lot of work is being done to recognize officers who may be experiencing emotional distress, and said it's best to "put out small fires before they come conflagrations."

The commission is recommending better staffing levels, counseling, and that prison facilities add workshops to help identify officers who may be on the brink of harming themselves.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson said in a statement that “The safety and well-being of correction officers is a top priority for the Department of Correction, where this year’s in-service training includes a stress awareness module and highlights the effective QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) program outlined in the Special Commission’s report."

Toward that end, the DOC has hired more than 400 new officers in the past year. The latest academy class of 136 COs graduated on Aug. 30. The DOC has also added 100 additional staff, as well.

Flanagan applauded the state legislature for their attention to the matter. He said the Department of Corrections set up an Employee Assisted Service Unit, which is staffed with 11 corrections officers who are trained to deal with officers who are going through stressful situations.

Flanagan said the public should know that correctional officers are regular people, but that they do a very dangerous job.

"We can’t stay stagnant," he said. "We can’t just say, 'Alright, mission complete, we’ve done our job.' We have to keep building on what we’ve done to make sure there are no suicides.”