NORMAN, Okla. — Former Oklahoma prison guard Virgil Stillwell is among the 34% of all correctional officers nationwide who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

Stillwell, who spent three years working for the state Department of Corrections, rose to the rank of sergeant, but during this time he witnessed inmate stabbings on a regular basis, worked extraordinarily long hours and would often go home covered in inmates’ blood after fights or medical related issues.

“In the end, I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “When I was there I had thoughts of ‘this is never going to end.’”

Proposed legislation looks at ways to combat these issues during this year’s session.

Stillwell is a now mortgage inspector with normal hours and better pay, but he still suffers from PTSD because of his former work and the events he witnessed at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.

When Stillwell worked at the prison, he was in charge of a mental health unit that handles some of the most volatile offenders including those who hurt themselves and others. He was almost stabbed three times and tried unsuccessfully to revive inmates with chest compressions.

Stillwell, who spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, said his time at DOC was “more horrific” than all of his military service. At the same time, most corrections officers don’t start their job with the idea they might die or have to watch an inmate die.

“These are just regular people who don’t have a lot of money and they’re looking for a job,” he said. “They say you’re law enforcement, but you’re really not. They haven’t gone through a law enforcement-type academy.”

Oklahoma’s prison guards have for years worked 12-hour shifts for five or six days a week. At one point, Stillwell said he worked 21 consecutive days, which is a significant contributor to PTSD and anxiety.

Those work hours plus low pay and dangerous conditions have been a concern for corrections officers. Last year, the Oklahoma Legislature approved a $4,000 a year pay increase for corrections officers, raising the hourly rate from $12 to $15.94, or about $33,155 a year. The long hours and the dangerous conditions, attributed in large part to low staffing levels, probably won’t improve any time soon.

“The raise was given to all employees behind the fence,” said Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an organization that promotes the safety and welfare of prison guards. “The people who do this love it. They don’t love the wages but they love the chance to help someone and make a difference in their lives.”

DOC officials claim they’ve worked the past six years to obtain more funding for higher pay. Agency spokesman Matt Elliott said the pay hike has created an increase in applications for corrections officers.

“For that, we thank out state’s elected leaders and Gov. Stitt for supporting the men and women who keep the public safe by manning our prisons 24-7,” Elliott said.

The number of correctional officers rose by 60 statewide from the end of 2018 to the same time period in 2019. Oklahoma has 24 prisons, both public and private.

Still, advocates for corrections officers believe the staffing levels are far from adequate.

“We need more corrections officers and fewer administrative employees,” Cleveland said. “We need 1,000 guards to be fully staffed. For awhile, they would hire 50 and lose 100.”

The Department of Corrections is the second largest state agency with 4,500 employees, but is the fifth largest in terms of funding. 

In the 2020 legislative session, Cleveland will be working with lawmakers to get a bill approved that would give guards two 15-minute breaks during a 12-hour shift. DOC officials remain non-committal on that proposal or any others.

“Lawmakers will decide which bills are most worthy of becoming law. We stand ready to provide needed information to legislators during session to help them make the most educated decisions concerning what is best for our employees,” Elliott said.

In addition, Cleveland is asking legislators to allow PTSD be covered under a worker’s compensation claim filed by DOC workers.

“PTSD is not considered an injury by the DOC,” said Cleveland, a former state legislator. “Right now, corrections officers are not allowed to qualify for worker’s comp without some type of physical injury.”

Cleveland and Stillwell believe most, if not all, corrections officers need some form of mental health treatment because of the violence they witness on a daily basis.

“It’s not cowardly to seek mental health help,” Cleveland said. “But from what I’ve been told, higher ranking officials in DOC tease the guards who seek that type of help.”

DOC officials agreed that research suggests members of law enforcement and public safety agencies can suffer from PTSD. In response to a question from the Transcript about corrections officers being diagnosed with PTSD, Elliott said the agency offers access to counseling through the state’s Employee Assistance Program. Employee insurance plans also provide mental health resources, he said.

“They’ll either deal with PTSD or we’re creating monsters,” Stillwell said.

But PTSD isn’t the only concern for corrections officers. In many instances, corrections officers have to be worried about contracting HIV or Hepatitis C from inmates.

“I’ve been covered in blood when I got home because of a fight and I’ve had blood all on my boots which had to be bleached,” Stillwell recalled. “Everything is a danger. Everything is a threat.”

These issues, plus many others such as high blood pressure and panic attacks, can push corrections officers into a dark world of alcohol abuse that hits 1 out of every five officers. It becomes a self-medicating problem that eventually forces these men and women to reach out for psychological help. In some instances, corrections officers take their pain to work with them and abuse the inmates, Stillwell said.

“DOC is responsible for not reaching out to them,” he said.

Now that Stillwell has embarked on a new life away from prisons, he’s happier and life is “fantastic.” When he was a corrections officer Stillwell’s relationship with his wife and children was almost non-existent. His children almost didn’t him, he insists.

“My youngest daughter wouldn’t come up and talk to me,” he said. “DOC broke me but they’re not going to do anything to fix me.”

The fixing, Stillwell says, is up to the individual. For him, the anxiety is much less because he doesn’t work the same number of hours each week or witness the brutality that is common in Oklahoma’s 24 public and private prisons.

“Today, things are great,” he said. “It’s 100% better.”

Tim Farley

366-3539

tfarley@normantranscript.com

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