The Department of Corrections provides officers and other frontline staff mental wellness and stress management training. It’s developing a peer-to-peer support program and creating “wellness spaces” within the prisons for staff when they need to decompress.
And those at the Berlin prison can also call on Riley, a comfort dog owned by Lt. Michael Wedge.
The department will ask the Executive Council for permission on Wednesday to accept an $1,800 donation from the State Employees Association to expand that program beyond Berlin to its Concord sites.
In her written request to councilors, Commissioner Helen Hanks said the dog would be available for staff during times of crisis but also to its community partners when they work with victims of violence and trauma. The money will be used for dog training and the handler’s travel expenses.
“The Department of Corrections is taking a multifaceted approach to advancing departmental employee wellness due to the stressors of working in correctional environments as they are real and the hours worked by our … correctional officers is significant,” Hanks wrote. “Corrections officers are first responders when those incarcerated attempt and/or complete suicide, engage in self-injurious behavior, overdose, and engage in acts of violence, to list a few incidents that trigger trauma symptoms in our departmental staff.”
Hanks included grim research findings with her request.
One study found that 19 percent of prison workers, including nurses, social workers, and others working with inmates, reported symptoms severe enough to be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate six times higher than that found in the general population.
“The comfort dog will improve interaction, mitigate stress, and increase communication between employees, the citizens, and visitors,” said department spokesperson Richelle Angeli.
The department adopted a 10-page comfort dog policy in February.
Annmarie Timmins is a senior reporter with New Hampshire Bulletin (newhampshirebulletin.com). She is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years.