Michigan’s prisons are in crisis. The state cannot find enough corrections officers to staff them. Older officers are retiring, others are quitting, and there are hundreds of officer positions waiting to be filled.
For corrections officerss like Lorraine Emery, that shortage means an exhausting, dangerous job is getting even tougher.
Emery has been a corrections officer for about 17 years. She’s currently at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, in Ionia. When she gets home from her eight-hour shift, the first thing she does is change her clothes.
“I don’t like to bring the prison stink into the house,” she said. Emery, a tall woman with a contagious laugh, talks about the time a fellow officer was assaulted while he was picking up inmates on a work crew. She said she knew before it happened that her job was dangerous – but this was something different.
“You see assaults” she said. “I myself have been assaulted. But this officer was stabbed with a pitchfork and had a pickax taken to him.”
The officer almost died, and Emery said that changed everything for her.
“And I remember thinking that, oh, wow. That could have been any of us,” she said.
That danger is always in the back of Emery’s mind.
Emery said her prison is relatively well-staffed, but everybody’s got to work mandatory overtime at least once a month. In the past it’s been more – and even now, depending on when your turn is up, you can end up working 16 hours straight.
Chris Gautz is with the Michigan Department of Corrections. He said overtime is an issue that they’re working on. Part of that is better recruiting – but it’s not an easy job to recruit for.
“If you think about growing up as a kid, you played, cops and robbers,” he said. “You didn’t play convict and corrections officer."
When those extra hours and mandatory long shifts are combined with the stress of ensuring dangerous criminals are housed, fed, and kept safe, stress is almost inevitable.
More than a quarter of the officers meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, according to a recent study on Michigan corrections officers. Five percent of the officers who participated classify as a high risk for suicide.
That risk to a corrections officer’s mental health is something that the department is conscious of.
“Even one officer suicide is too many and we’ve had far too many this year and the year before, and it’s the number we want to continue to bring down,” Gautz said.
It’s unclear exactly how many suicides are committed by corrections officers each year. According to the corrections officers’ union, four of their members killed themselves in 2017 and three in 2016. The union says that was about three times higher than the general public in those years. The MDOC's numbers are actually higher. The department believes there were two suicides in 2016, seven in 2017 and one so far in 2018. Those numbers come from incidences in which the State of Michigan’s Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program team was called in to help a fellow employee deal with the death.
This spring, 100 new recruits graduated from officer training and are on their way to starting jobs across the state. After the ceremony there was cake and coffee and lots of hugs and pictures.
Joe Wilkins said he became a corrections officer because “I want to work with people and help them become the best people they can be, and I thought this would provide me that opportunity.”
Wilkins, who will be at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility, said the stress and overtime is a concern looming in the back of his mind. He has a plan: Work out. Keep a level head. And try to leave the job at the job.
“But my wife is my rock, and I’m sure that it’ll always be that way and we’ll just, we’ll just get by with her being there,” he said, tearing up.
State prison officials say officers like Wilkins are put on notice early on about how stressful the job is. The department created a wellness team a few weeks ago. The team will explore ways to help reduce stress, help officers deal with seeing a traumatic incident and make sure employees are comfortable asking for help.