Words that sparked violent attack

When dealing with a violent inmate, Kerry Corbin made a simple request. It would end with a brutal attack that would change his life.

For Kerry Corbin, it happens like a horror movie, playing on loop before his eyes.

The inmate in prison greens, leaning back on his chair.

Corbin asking him not to smoke.

The inmate ignoring him, a plume of smoke billowing defiantly from his mouth.

“For f***’s sake, put it out,” Corbin says.

Now the inmate’s got his shirt off.

He’s pacing, sucking air in and out, blowing it furiously through his lips.

The inmate’s charging towards him – and, one, two, three. Three smarting punches perforate his skull.

Corbin down.

There’s blood everywhere, teeth hang from his mouth.

He could have passed out, he’s not sure, but before he knows it the inmate’s got him again.

He’s skating him across the floor on his own blood.

Tumbling, struggling for control, the men wrestle each other into a door, through a pile of plastic boxes.

The movie ends with Corbin’s body being slammed violently into a table.

Then, it starts again.

This is the horror of living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashbacks.

“Once the movie starts playing I can’t stop it. It just plays over and over again in my mind,” says Corbin, 51, who spent seven years work in Queensland Corrective Services.

“People need to know this is what the system does to you.”

Corbin is just one of many current and former prison workers around the nation grappling with (PTSD).

The mental health disorder, triggered by exposure to trauma, can result in distressing flashbacks and memories, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, negative thoughts, aggressive behavior, and avoidance of reminders of the event.

Australia’s National Centre of Excellence in Posttraumatic Mental Health, Phoenix Australia, reports 4.4 per cent of Australians, or 1 million people, were living with PTSD in the past year.

There are no national statistics for PTSD in corrective service workers however according to a recent study by Washington State University, US prison employees experience PTSD on-par with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Yet unlike other frontline emergency service workers such as police, firefighters, paramedics and medical staff, who are recognised as susceptible to PTSD and are given dedicated resources, many corrective service workers feel they have fallen through the cracks.

There is a culture of bravado, where weakness if frowned upon, and many fear losing opportunities at work as a result of speaking up.

Compounding the sense of disregard is that prison workers are rarely commended for their efforts.

While other emergency services are rightly applauded for performing brave jobs in dangerous and potentially traumatic circumstances, prison workers are overlooked despite routinely dealing with suicides, resuscitations, self-harming, violence, assaults and anti-social behaviour.

During interviews for groundbreaking podcast On Guard – the first podcast series to get exclusive access to the stories of frontline prison staff — this journalist spoke with close to 20 serving and retired corrective service workers.

Listen to a teaser of the On Guard podcast below and subscribe here.

The large majority either recounted their own experience of PTSD or the PTSD or the mental health struggles of a colleague.

Tim Wilson, 32, is a former officer from Parklea Correctional Centre in NSW.

Since leaving the job and relocating to Victoria, Wilson has launched a mental health support group for corrective service workers, spurred by losing his close friend and colleague Chris Lycho to suicide earlier this year.

“We have EAPs (counselling provided through an Employee Assistance Program) but to be honest with you, they’re not really effective at all,” says Wilson, in a sentiment echoed by numerous officers who felt they needed psychologists especially trained in issues facing prison workers to enable them to provide adequate support.

“Heroes in the Dark is hoping to fill that void and provide a safe space for officers across the country to be able to reach out and ask for that support and that help,” he says.

Wilson has not been diagnosed with PTSD but as a former soldier turned corrections worker he has witnessed the widespread and devastating impact it is having on prison employees.

Since starting the Heroes in the Dark Facebook page several months ago he has received upwards of 10 requests for assistance from struggling officers or those concerned about a colleague.

“I think it’s huge … and I think it’s something that is just not recognised. I think there are probably people out there that are suffering but wouldn’t necessarily classify it as PTSD.

“Personally I’ve woken up and been sort of holding my wife down in the bed because I was having a flashback or a dream. So if it was medically diagnosed I suppose there would be a level of (PTSD). But I think it’s quite prevalent and there’s not enough support there.

“It’s just put back on the officers to contact the EAP. I feel as though it’s just a legal check box,” says Wilson.

In the most severe cases, life is barely recognisable due to the disorder.

Despite three attempts, Corbin has been unable to return to corrective services or other employment due to his debilitating PTSD and a neurological disorder, occasioned from the attack.

The once social man is now barely able to leave home.

Crowds are unbearable.

He’s constantly scanning for potential threats or safety hazards, and standing with his back to the wall so no one can approach from behind, just as he was trained a prison officer.

It’s just now, he’s unable to turn that training off, leaving him to ask the question:

“How do you unscrew a screw?”

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