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Department of Corrections plans increased focus on mental health of staff and inmates

Village hopes a private prison brings jobs, money
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California inmates will be housed in a Baldwin prison beginning in 2011

More than 700 new corrections officers – that’s how many new hires the Michigan Department of Corrections hopes to make in 2019.

Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the department also needs to hire hundreds of staff members – making the total of projected new hires more than 1,000.

“Every prison is basically a small city, so we need doctors, nurses, dental hygienists, teachers, principals, maintenance staff – we run the whole gamut,” he said.

Hiring more corrections officers is especially crucial – the department has been in the middle of a hiring shortage; shelling out millions in overtime pay. Gautz said all that overtime can also have a negative impact on the mental health of corrections officers. Mental health is another problem the department plans to take on next year.

The MDOC is conducting a survey of officers to figure out what else the department can do to improve mental health in such a stressful environment.

“You know, we’ve had far too many suicides in our department amongst our officer ranks and several others,” he said. Gautz added that the department has a wellness team working on ways to improve employee mental health. That includes a hotline that staff – or concerned family members – can call for help.

The department also says it wants to improve how staff members interact with prisoners. That includes new training focused on understanding trauma and how it informs prisoner actions. Gautz said every interaction with inmates matters.

“That’s a chance that you can start to change their life, their way of thinking,” he said. "Every interaction, there’s something there. So that’s a big piece of what we’re really trying to change; the whole mindset of how corrections works both inside the prison and out.”

The training will become a part of new officer training at the department’s academy, and current officers will take continuing education classes.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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