Desmond Tutu once said, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

In the world of corrections, there is an inordinately low percentage of individuals or organizations doing either one. But when you find people doing both, it’s cause to stop, pay tribute to the efforts, and recognize the value of the lives being rescued.

At a recent conference, Shane Fausey, President of the National Council of Prison Locals 33, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), took the opportunity to announce a very significant turn of events in the battle towards alleviating the plight of corrections staff.

When the challenges are beyond comprehension and it seems as if there’s just no way to turn the tide, you will hear someone say, “It will take an Act of Congress…” Well, that is exactly what has happened.

Largely through the tireless efforts of a precious few organizations advocating for the lives and families of corrections staff, a new law has been passed.

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program, established in 1976, provides death benefits to the survivors of law enforcement officers, firefighters, and other first responders whose death (or catastrophic injury) was the direct and proximate result of an injury sustained in the line of duty.*

On August 16, 2022, President Biden signed the Public Safety Officer Support Act of 2022 (PLAW-117), recognizing for the first time in the history of the PSOB Program the impact of exposures to traumatic events to public safety officers and their mental health and well-being, including the consideration of claims for officer death (or catastrophic injury) due to suicide (or an attempt to die by suicide) *. The PSOB Program provides three types of benefits:

  • Death benefits: These are one-time
  • Disability benefits
  • Education benefits

This is truly a significant step in the right direction.

Caterina explains further, “Since Desert Waters’ inception in 2003, my heart’s desire has been that the adverse impact of the job on correctional staff – especially regarding their work-related traumatic exposure – be publicly acknowledged at the highest places in our government, and that steps be taken to mitigate the damage through steps of prevention or intervention.

“Staff, especially Correctional Officers, feel so much toxic shame when they develop symptoms of emotional wounding, especially post-traumatic symptoms. They often feel that this means that they are “weak” and unfit for the job, and that they’ve failed their colleagues.

“Tragically, some of them succumb to the lie that the only honorable way for them to deal with their ‘breaking’ is to kill themselves.

“Others can no longer work due to psychological difficulties, but this may not have been recognized or accepted as a work-related injury and disability. That of course leaves their families devastated both emotionally and financially.

“PLAW-117 deals a serious blow to this unwarranted shame, but making it clear that due to occupational hazards, Public Safety Officers can be wounded invisibly ‘at the soul and spirit level,’ and also at the brain/neurological level, in addition to possibly being wounded physically in ways that are visible.

“PLAW-117 validates staff’s experiences, de-shames, and offers much needed financial and moral support and opportunities to them and also to their surviving families – especially in the case of a ‘line of duty’ suicide or catastrophic injury – acknowledging suicide as a line of duty death.”

Caterina has been prioritizing the needs of corrections staff since 2003 through the establishment of Desert Waters and her tireless efforts providing for the needs of corrections staff through it. The groundbreaking research conducted by Desert Waters in 2012 showed for the first time ever highly disturbing rates of post-traumatic symptoms in U.S. corrections professionals. Subsequent studies by Desert Waters and others corroborated these initial findings, confirming that the mental health of a large proportion of corrections staff is severely compromised due to occupational hazards. It is for this reason that she as well as Andy Potter and Brian Dawe, Founder/Executive Director and National Director of One Voice United, respectively, were all three honored with Congressional copies of the law, signed by President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Patrick Leahy.

The presentation of these was an emotional moment, recognizing that decades of effort were paying off. Just 20 years ago, no one was even willing to talk about the impact a career in corrections can have on individuals. Now the highest Office in the country publicly acknowledges some of the reasons behind why corrections staff are “falling in” the river, as Desmond Tutu so aptly put it.

During our chat about this, Caterina added, “During that announcement, I flashed back to when I told the Lord in my heart way back that I wanted Him to use Desert Waters to put PTSD permanently ‘on the books’ as an occupational hazard facing all correctional staff, and especially the frontline staff, the officers. To me the announcement was a heavenly confirmation of ‘mission accomplished’ regarding the havoc traumatic exposure confers on staff, and with the consequences inevitably also trickling down to adversely impact the staff’s families and also incarcerated persons,” Caterina says.

Indeed, one mission is accomplished. There’s more to be done. Thank you for partnering with us as we, by God’s grace and favor, continue “pulling [staff] out of the river.”

The Importance of the Law

Public Safety Officers Eligible for PSOB Program Benefits

The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Act (42 U.S.C. 3796, et seq.) was enacted in 1976 to assist in the recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers and firefighters. Specifically, Congress was concerned that the hazards inherent in law enforcement and fire suppression and the low level of state and local death benefits might discourage qualified individuals from seeking careers in these fields, thus hampering the ability of communities to provide for public safety. The PSOB Act was designed to offer peace of mind to men and women seeking careers in public safety and to make a strong statement about the value American society places on the contributions of those who serve their communities in potentially dangerous circumstances.

Under the PSOB Program, a public safety officer is a person serving a public agency in an official capacity, with or without compensation, as a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or member of a public rescue squad or ambulance crew. Law enforcement officers include, but are not limited to, police, corrections, probation, parole, and judicial officers. (Emphasis added.)