By Kelvin Gawley
Eric Enger is the archetypal corrections officer – buff and with a deep voice, shaved head, goatee and muscle car. A tough guy who was “full of piss and vinegar” as a young park ranger but who matured into a prison guard who relied more on his “verbal judo skills” to keep order behind bars.
As a member of an emergency response team (ERT), Enger prided himself on his ability to handle dangerous and harrowing situations from riots to fights to suicide attempts.
“I’m right in there, which is, I would say, the aspect of the job that I actually like … There’s a problem, the problem must stop – it’s pretty black and white to me.”
But when Enger needed help, he says he didn’t get the response he needed.
The 51-year-old Abbotsford resident and veteran correctional officer is just one of more than 300 federal corrections staff given a PTSD-related diagnosis between 2011 and 2016. He fought tooth and nail to have his WorkSafeBC claim accepted and he is still trying to get the care he needs to recover.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) says Enger’s story is far from unique. But, as laws change, it’s hoped Enger’s struggle to get hip will increasingly become a story of the past.
In May, the B.C. legislature amended the Workers Compensation Act to add a “presumptive clause.” The clause will remove the onus put on first-responders to prove that their mental health injury is work-related. Advocates say it will remove barriers that have stood between PTSD sufferers and treatment for years.
One day in 2008, Enger was with a female colleague in Mountain Institution when he looked up to see 10 inmates with their faces covered heading for the sports equipment storage room. He knew they meant to take baseball bats and turn them into weapons.
The two officers ran to a pre-designated safe room – a bathroom. Enger had previously measured out a nearby fridge, knowing he could slide it into the bathroom to barricade the door. Not long after they got secured in the room, the angry men came knocking.
“They taunted us with ‘we’re going to kill you, we’re going to rape you,’” Enger recounts in an UCCO-produced video.
He broke off a mop handle, ready to stab the first man that came through the door.
The rioting inmates eventually gave up and left, only to come back three more times in their attempts to break through the barricade and do harm to the two guards.
Enger and his fellow officer could hear over their radios as the rest of the institution fell deeper into disorder. The woman he was with became extremely emotional and as he attempted to comfort her, he was overcome with a dreadful sense of helplessness.
“It’s my jail. I’m ERT. All my coworkers are out there doing what we train to do, and I’m stuck in the bathroom,” he recently told The News.
Hours passed but eventually the riot was quelled and order was returned. But in the weeks, months and years that followed, that helpless feeling creeped back, as he struggled to return his own life to order.
Enger would jump out of bed in a panic as his young son’s knocking on his bedroom door brought him back to the banging baseball bats of the vengeful inmates.
Anger, paranoia and sleeplessness increasingly took hold of his life.
“It pretty much destroyed my marriage.”
Enger was diagnosed with PTSD and major depression.
In the following years, Enger says he struggled with WorkSafe and Correctional Service Canada to find the care and working conditions he needed to begin recovery. Drowning in bureaucracy and paperwork, Enger says the system and the people in it were simply unprepared to handle a situation like his.
“If you lose a little finger, they have a price for it. If you lose a thumb, they have a price for that. But with your head, it’s kind of hard to determine what the damage is.”
The struggle took its own toll on his mental health.
“Your self-worth is really questioned … It’s almost as if they detach you as a person and you become a number.”
Then, in 2011, another trauma.
During a training exercise, a flashbang grenade exploded next to Enger’s leg. He was severely injured and forced to spend the next month in hospital.
And another battle with WorkSafe was set.
“The amount of disrespect from the organization and WCB, I could write it off as one incident, which would be the 2008 riot. Although when I had the 2011 gunshot injury, it happened all over again. I got the same crummy treatment from the employer, I got the same crummy treatment from WCB.”
He filed a claim with WorkSafeBC. The verdict: he would receive five per cent wage-loss benefits – meaning it was deemed he needed only sporadic visits with a therapist, which he says was far from the case.
“I bled for my job, and this is what you think that’s worth?”
He successfully appealed, with help from his therapist and union. But not before going through years of stress.
• • • • •
Another local correctional officer told The News a similar story. The woman who worked with a drug-sniffing dog asked not to be named in this story.
While on the job, she administered CPR to a man suffering a massive heart attack who later died. It took a year before panic attacks rendered her unable to work, she says. She filed a claim. WCB said she had waited too long.
The appeals process has been long, arduous and dehumanizing, she says. And two years on, she’s still fighting.
During a meeting with a WCB case worker, the guard’s social media posts were raised. She was asked how she could have taken a vacation if she was indeed suffering from PTSD. She says the trip was booked long before the disorder took hold of her life.
“I left that meeting and I got very drunk.”
She now faces another psychological exam before she can get the psychological treatments she knows she needs. She says the hours-long process will mentally strip her down, instead of building her back up.
• • • • •
With the presumptive clause legislation becoming law, the hope is these stories will become a thing of the past.
When corrections workers and other first responders get hurt mentally, the hope is that they will only have to worry about working with the mental health professionals provided to them. They won’t have to fight for it.
Already, regional UCCO vice-president John Randle says the CSC has stopped appealing most claims when a guard is diagnosed by a doctor.
“That was a second huge step in the right direction for treatment because that’s one of the big things because treatment as early as possible helps get you back to work and helps deal with the issues.”
The union has long lobbied provincial and federal politicians for these changes and, Randle, who has himself been a corrections officer for 10 years, says a corner is finally being turned.
“It has changed immensely from my start time, to now.”
With “tough guys” like Enger speaking out, Randle says the stigma around PTSD is falling and more and more sufferers are coming forward.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect yet, but it’s improved immensely.”