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Book cover of Code Blue Prison Officer in Danger by Bruce Perham

The O’Rourke Interviews: Counselling a Prison Officer with a Tough Story to Tell!

Bruce interviewed Neil, their children John, Pat, and Liz O’Rourke early in 2021. While exerts of these interviews were included in Code Blue – Prison Officer in Danger a substantial portion of these interviews was not able to be included. Encouraged by reader response to Code Blue, Bruce decided to publish the full interviews with the O’Rourkes. While this provides a richer insight into Neil’s life as a prison officer it also provides greater depth into his family’s experience of his work on Neil and themselves.

Bruce Perham spent more than a decade going in and out of Victoria’s prisons. A visiting social worker he dealt not with inmates but with hundreds of prison officers who told him alarming stories of their day-to-day workplace experiences, and of how they were left to pick up the pieces after recurring traumatic incidents had hardened some, and left others psychologically or physically scarred.

Perham began to see he was dealing with professionals expected to run towards unpredictably dangerous situations and prisoners, but who remain the most marginalized and unsung of our first responders. With a compassionate ear, Perham listened and argues that prison officers need better backup, post-trauma support, and community acknowledgment for what they do on our behalf.

Book cover of Code Blue Prison Officer in Danger by Bruce Perham

Code Blue: Prison Officer in Danger

Bruce first started providing counselling and critical incident debriefing to prison officers in 2009. In 2015 he was asked to develop a training session for prison officers around their mental health. Senior staff at the prisons were concerned about the impact on the officers of the high level of self-harming amongst the inmates.

Over the next few months, Bruce developed his training paper ‘Managing Stress and Dealing with Trauma’. This training received funding from the Department of Justice and Community Safety and was rolled out to the four high-security prisons in the Melbourne Metropolitan area in 2016. This training experience had a profound impact on Bruce and somewhere in the middle of 2016 the idea of capturing the stories of the many prison officers Bruce had met in a book was born.

There were two main reasons why Bruce wrote ‘Code Blue-Prison Officer in Danger’. The first was to give prison officers a ‘voice’ in terms of their challenging experiences as prison officers and secondly to alert the general community to the psychological complexity of the prisoner officer role and highlight the reality that they are ‘hidden’ First Responders in every sense of the word.

In Code Blue: Prison Officer in Danger, Bruce shares, through the officer’s own words, the inherent trauma and the many challenges they face in the work they do. In particular we hear from Neil [Rowdy] O’Rourke who has been a prison officer for more than thirty years and is now living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bruce also shares his own story of trauma activated when he visited a young mother and her disabled child as a young Social Worker.

While Bruce and Neil’s journey with trauma has been very different, they provide great insight into the challenges of the respective work they do and the importance of knowing what you are going into and then being prepared for it. While this book is primarily written for Prison Officers, as a resource for them, there is a great deal here that is very relevant for any First Responder or First Responder Organisation.