*A note to the reader: Some of the details included in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
Josée Gagne had a hunch something was up in late July 2012 when she walked onto the maximum security range in Port Cartier Institution. A correctional officer with eight years experience, she could feel the tension in the air. The inmates in Pavilion E were acting in a bizarre fashion.
“They’d formed a human wall so we couldn’t see what was going on behind them,” she says. When she yelled at them to go back to their cells, one of them – a slight man - staggered towards her, a look of panic in his eyes.
As Josée watched, splotches of blood appeared on his white t-shirt. Behind him was another, much larger inmate, who was stabbing him over and over again.
“Forty-five times,” Josée says, a hollow look in her eyes.
Another officer fired off a round of tear gas and in the midst of the fumes the offender turned and looked at Josée directly in the eye. “He smiled at me,” she says. “He laughed. It was like it gave him pleasure.” The correctional team restrained him and secured the area. The victim was given first aid and driven to the clinic before being sent to the hospital via ambulance.
Miraculously, he survived.
Josée later learned that the attack was intended for her.
The impact of the incident on her was immediate: “That night I had nightmares. At work I would be doing rounds and breaking out in a sweat. I didn't feel well. I started becoming aggressive and mean towards my loved ones. More and more I distanced myself from others. I didn't want to speak to other people.”
A few weeks later, she ran into the victim who was on his way to the clinic. He had been moved to another range that provided protective custody. He walked by her, then turned to face her. Having rarely spoken to a correctional officer, he now mouthed two words to her: “Merci beaucoup.”
“In that moment I began shaking like a leaf,” Josée says. She accompanied him to the clinic, and when he removed his t-shirt she saw the wounds on his body."It hit me then. That was supposed to have been me that was attacked. I walked out of the clinic and broke down. Someone from EAP came to assist me."
Over the next few days, weeks and months, Josée began experiencing all of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “At home I had recurring nightmares,” she says. “I couldn't sleep at night. I had hallucinations of the big inmate coming into my room, stabbing my partner. I could smell the blood. I had severe panic attacks, some causing me to lose consciousness.”
She became reclusive and fearful of others. “I wasn't able to go into stores. Being in crowds caused me to have panic attacks. In the house I could not stand any noise, no TV, no music, no one could come over to visit. I would check the door locks and windows 20 times before going to sleep.”
At a certain point she became suicidal. “I wrote a letter to my daughter and my husband, and then went out to the stable to say goodbye to my horse,” she says.
Having been severely abused previously, her horse would never allow anyone to touch his head. That day though, when Josée went to brush him, her horse must have sensed her distress for he placed his head gently against her chest.
“I started to cry,” she says. “He wouldn't take his head away. I backed up. He came towards me. Every time I retreated he advanced, pushing his head into my chest. Finally, I was pinned to the door and he nudged up against me. We stayed like that for nearly an hour.
“I cried and cried and finally realized that what I was about to do was not right. I was abandoning my child, my family, all of my dreams. From that moment I decided I was going to fight to regain the life that I had lost.”
It has been no easy task. In the five years since that fateful day in 2012, Josée has battled depression, severe anxiety and the gnawing fear that a part of her was lost that day. “I am no longer the same person I was before the incident,” she says. “Before I laughed all the time, I joked around; I had a joie de vivre that was obvious to everyone. Now I have the impression that the Josée that I was before, she died at the same time as the incident.”
From the outset she knew that she would be returning to work. “I love my job,” she says. “There was no question that I would ever give it up.”
In fact, before being ordered to take time off by the doctor, “I wondered what people would think of me,” she says. “We never want to appear weak. Especially not me. I was in charge of training new recruits. My reputation took a severe blow. When I left I already had heard stories of what people thought of those who took leave for mental health reasons. They were viewed as taking advantage of the system.
“It felt like my career was over. I had a sticker on my back. I was asking for help. That made me 'weak.'”
For the next 3-4 years Josée sought help with psychiatrists, psychologists and a variety of different therapists. Through it all, a sobering truth emerged. “When we talk of mental health,” she says, “we are not talking of something that is short term. It is not like breaking a leg. It is something that is cared for over the long-term. I will have scars all of my life. It is undeniable.”
Transitioning back into her role as a correctional officer at Port Cartier Institution came with its own set of challenges. “There were people who were really happy to see me come back to work,” she says. “There were others who stopped talking to me. I had the impression that those people were afraid that I wouldn't be able to react properly if ever there was an intervention.”
Among frontline correctional staff in Canada’s federal penitentiaries, this is perhaps the most persistent stigma facing those who have experienced a serious mental health injury. When you are dependent upon others to protect you in a dangerous and often volatile environment, there is a fear that a colleague with PTSD will not have your back.
“It is easy to think that someone will never be able to do their job properly because of what happened to them,” says Josée, “but perhaps the contrary is true. Maybe that person will be twice as vigilant as another precisely because of the things they have experienced.”
The irony is that most if not all frontline correctional personnel have in some way been marked by the things they have seen and experienced. Josée is convinced that her story is not so unique.
“When you work in a federal penitentiary you see things that no one will ever see. It is certain that other correctional staff suffer from PTSD, like me. You can’t work in an environment with such ever-present danger and not be affected.
“Since I've been at CSC,” she says, “I have had urine thrown at me. I’ve been spit in the face, cut with a blade, and pricked with a needle at the base of my glove. I've had death threats and physical and verbal altercations with offenders. I've had to deal with inmates who have been so badly beaten that they are unrecognizable, and seen inmates who were hurting themselves to the point of having to be restrained.”
And yet, in spite of the prevalence of mental health injuries on the frontlines of CSC, PTSD often remains misunderstood, not just within the institutions, but also among the Canadian public.
“Canadians may think that these are the risks we take to do our job,” says Josée, “but when we apply to work here it is not to get assaulted, not to get spit on, not to get stabbed. We work with people who have been convicted, in large part, of the worst crimes in Canada. Most of them have nothing to lose. We were hired to ensure the safety of the Canadian public and the inmates, but we also have our mental health, and our physical health which we want to preserve.”
For her it is essential that CSC staff at least begin discussing the issue. “We must listen to each other,” she says. “We must be able to raise our hands when we are struggling. When we are at the end of our rope we are more at risk. That's when we are more likely to fall, to suffer emotional injuries. When we don't listen, we are most at risk.”