Boston University Statehouse Program
A version of this article was also published in The Lowell Sun.
BOSTON — When Rep. Steve Ultrino worked in the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, he saw firsthand the amount of unmanageable pressure put on some correctional officers due to stress, boredom and long hours in a locked facility.
That led to some colleagues and friends taking their own lives, he testified before a legislative committee Tuesday, in support of Acton Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s resolution that, if passed, would establish a commission to study inmate and correctional officer suicides.
“Being in a correctional facility eight-and-a-half hours a day with inmates creates a tough working environment,” Ultrino, D-Malden, told the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. “Please take into consideration and start doing something to support sheriffs and (Department of Correction) staff.”
This is the second time Eldridge has filed the bill, he told the committee, adding that since the last legislative session, he has met with five men and women whose spouses were correctional officers who committed suicide.
“We do have a problem here in Massachusetts both with suicides by prisoners and by correction officers given the very difficult work they have to do,” he said. Being a correction officer is “obviously a very stressful job, it’s a very important job, and this commission would look to address the issue in both of the groups.”
Eldridge, a Democrat, has met with DOC officials who said they are taking steps forward in this field, but more needs to be done, he said.
“It needs to be a cultural change among the management at the DOC,” he said.
DOC currently has an Employee Assistance Services Unit, which provides employees with free help and services to deal with a number of health- and work-related issues, a spokesman said.
Since 2006, 46 inmates at Massachusetts state prisons have killed themselves, according to statistics provided by the DOC.
Four of those inmates died this year, the most recent of which was on Friday in Plymouth. The most high-profile suicide was former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of murder in 2015 and hanged himself in his jail cell in the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley in April, after being acquitted of double murder from a 2012 case.
In the Merrimack Valley, the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica saw at least two inmate suicides this year — one in March and one in April — as well as two suicides in less than one week in 2016.
Linda Delman, a school teacher at North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner and the chapter president for the Local 509 union, said inmates often feel they have no control over their lives, which can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts.
“For instance, the situation in Puerto Rico — if you’re incarcerated, you can’t call your family, they can’t reach their family, they can’t do anything to be there with people they know are suffering,” Delman said after the hearing. “That’s very stressful; it weighs on people’s minds.”
She testified in support of another corrections-related bill in front of the committee that would establish a statewide correctional data base.
Eldridge said the 10-member commission would examine strategies for reducing the instances of prisoner and correctional officer suicide. It would consider developing initiatives and look at best practices used by other states.
Ultrino, also the former director of education for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, said the commission would be helpful for collaboration among different counties to share tips and practices.
“We need to stop talking about it, and we need to do something about it,” he said in an interview. “You’re dealing with some critical incidents that are taking the lives of many hard-working, dedicated professionals”
In corrections, Ultrino said, “there are no happy days, really.”
“It’s a revolving door. So we deal with all of the problems that the community doesn’t see,” he said. “A lot people may not talk about their issues and one day you come in and this person has taken their life.”