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 more than 600 officer positions waiting to be filled. For corrections officers, that shortage means an exhausting, dangerous job is getting even tougher.
Lorraine Emery just wrapped up her typical eight-hour shift at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. She drives an hour to work each way for a shift. As soon as she gets home, she changes her clothes.
"I’m ganna get out of my uniform, I don’t like to bring the prison stink into the house."
We’re sitting in her kitchen in Diamondale, just outside of Lansing, and it smells like the apple cookies Emery’s daughter made. She pulls her hair down – Emery’s a tall woman with a contagious laugh that fills the kitchen like the smell of the cookies.
"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 says that changed everything for her.
"And I remember thinking that, oh, wow. That could have been any of us.”
That danger is always in the back of Emery’s mind.
She’s one of more than six thousand corrections officers in Michigan. She says her prison is well-staffed, but everybody’s gotta 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 says 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 because it’s not a career path people typically consider.
"If you think about growing up as a kid, you played cops and robbers. 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."
It’s unclear exactly how many suicides are committed by corrections officers each year. Gautz says the department believes there were two suicides in 2016, seven in 2017, and one so far in 2018. Those were suicides where the State of Michigan’s Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program team was called in to help a fellow employee deal with the death. The corrections officers’ union has different numbers.
[fade in corrections officer graduation and voice over]
This spring, 100 new recruits graduated from officer training and are on their way to starting jobs across the state. After the ceremony, there’s cake and coffee and lots of hugs and pictures.
"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."
Joe Wilkins will be at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility. Wilkins says the stress and overtime is a concern looming in the back of his mind. He has a plan – workout. Keep a level head. 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, so. Makes me emotional I’m sorry."
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.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.