Michigan Corrections addresses 'crisis' in employee mental health

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Michigan prison staffers, particularly those who work with inmates, are in a state of crisis regarding their mental health, according to two studies in the last four years. 

The latest study, which was made public in July, found elevated levels of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts among staff who work in a custody role over inmates.

The findings were punctuated by three Michigan Department of Corrections staffer suicides in 2019. 

“These findings are a cause for grave concern, as they point to a mental health crisis among MDOC employees and a workplace culture in dire need of assistance and support,” said the 2019 study, funded by the department. 

Now, the department is working with a wellness team designed for employees and retirees to ease stress, anxiety and other issues. A peer support group could be next.

"We are going to each and every work site, across the state, and not just speak with wardens and supervisors, but to employees," said Lynn Gorski, a recently hired employee wellness manager for the department. "Each work site is unique, but I've been thrilled with the response."

Gorski has visited 20 work sites so far, with many more to go, she said. By the end of the year, Gorski hopes to establish a peer support group. 

"Those volunteers will be vetted and trained," she said. "It's not just having a number of people in place who want to help, it's about having the right people."

These are rolls of barbed wire near the front entrance of the Parnall Correctional Facility.

Trauma part of the job

The three employees who killed themselves this year included a father of nine. One prison facility, G. Robert Cotton in Jackson County, has seen four suicides of current or recently retired staff since 2017.

Overall, according to Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing correctional officers, 11 officers and 5 recent retirees have killed themselves since 2015.

The 2019 study, done via voluntary employee participation in an anonymous online survey conducted between Dec. 5 and Jan. 12, also found that 34 employees were "currently and actively planning to complete suicide.”

These results come at a time when Michigan has its lowest incarceration numbers since the early 1990s and the lowest recidivism rate in its history, 28%.

The studies point to a crisis and offer different reasons for the despair. 

In 2016, a Michigan Corrections Organization-commissioned study blamed poor employee mental health on the nature of corrections work itself, particularly staffers' exposure to violence, injury and death. Both the 2016 and 2019 studies were conducted by the Arizona-based Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, which declined comment to The Detroit News.

Trauma is definitely part of the issue, officers say.

The 2019 study instead found that “work health,” issues like discipline, not having a seat at the table when decisions are made, and little say in scheduling, was a much bigger mental health hurdle.

“The most impactful outcome variable is work health,” the 2019 study said. “Its effects are larger than any other variable. Work health affects mental health, family health, and personal health,” and is “notably larger than effects of trauma exposure or working in a custody role.”

One in four employees of the state of Michigan works for the Michigan Department of Corrections. More than half of the department's employees are corrections officers. 

Of the eight groups of corrections employees identified in the 2019 study, the highest levels of clinical disorder took place among two: custody staff at male prisons, and custody staff at the Women’s Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti, the state’s only prison for women.

'I do have a cross to bear'

Cary Johnson was Corrections Officer of the Year in 2017, and is a 24-year veteran of the department. 

Johnson has made it her mission to talk about the issue of what she calls "corrections fatigue" to colleagues, many of whom are men, and most of whom are reluctant to admit to any crack in their psyche.

Johnson believes that being a woman makes her more likely to ask for help and to speak out on such issues. 

She’s been heavily involved in the leadership of the officers’ union since early in her career and has sounded the alarm about the mental health issues she and her colleagues face. 

But for all of Johnson's advocacy, outreach and her work with the union, it’s the death of a colleague that told her how much more work there was to do. 

It was January, and colleague Michael Perdue had been facing discipline issues at work. He approached Johnson, his friend and union representative.

“We were both rushing in to work,” Johnson said. “We show up very close to when we start. He said, ‘Cary, do you have a second?’

“I said to call me anytime," Johnson recalled. "He said he would call later that day. But the very next day is when it happened. I have to live with that. I did not know how bad it was, but I do have a cross to bear.”

Perdue, 45, was the father of nine children with almost 25 years of service with the department when he killed himself.

His death cast a pall over the entire facility, said corrections officer Steve Hammond, 48. 

“Even the inmates were sad that day,” Hammond recalled. “He was a family guy, church guy. I fell to my knees. Why is everyone killing themselves?”

Hammond is three years from the earliest he can retire. It’s only slightly an exaggeration to say he’s counting the days. 

The nature of corrections work, he and Johnson said, requires hyper-vigilance. When they go to a ball game, they prefer aisle seats. When they eat out at restaurants, they sit facing the door. That’s become part of their personalities, both say, and probably always will be. 

Both say their circle of friends has shrunk over the years and became more insular, mostly consisting of other corrections officers. Family members and civilian friends only care to hear so much about the work.

Even if they were willing to open up, who could they talk to? 

Gorski, 50, fresh from nine years with the Michigan State Police, hopes she and her team can be that resource. Not only for employees, but retirees as well.

Two employee wellness coordinators joined her team late last month, and the department is close to posting positions for a third wellness coordinator and the chaplaincy coordinator. 

The officers' vigilance shows in matters of privacy. Both studies mentioned employees' fears that what they shared wouldn't be kept confidential. That's the same understanding staffers require when speaking with wellness staff.

"I can say it's confidential and explain that, but you have to develop trust with that person, and that's going to take time," Gorski said. "One of the benchmarks is to establish trust and maintain confidentiality."

'A state of crisis'

Gorski has worked with law enforcement for two decades now and appreciates the difficulty of a wellness push.

While MDOC wellness efforts predate her tenure, she says a "cultural shift" is still required, and she hopes her team can facilitate it.

“It’s a very large project,” Gorski told The News. “It’s a program not only for our employees, but retirees and their families.”

“When we looked across the board nationally, it’s in a state of crisis,” Gorski said of the corrections field. “When you look at the rates of employee suicide, the high level of symptoms related to PTSD and depression, and even job satisfaction, across the board. That’s one of the defining reasons I made the leap from state police, because this is an absolute need.”

Building trust takes time, she said.

“I truly believe this department is experiencing a time when people are ready for this,” Gorski said.

Suicide, she said, “doesn’t just happen overnight. And people in this field may not know how stressed they are, until it’s a crisis.”

Gorski noted that corrections staffers are “very loyal to each other,” and it's that peer-to-peer duty she works to emphasize in her meetings with staffers — to not only be aware of their own well-being, but see something and say something when a colleague needs help. When they don’t have the words, the wellness team can supply them.

There is some cynicism she’ll have to break through. Some have made a point of telling her the wellness effort will fail.

“That’s a person who feels there’s no hope, that nothing will change,” Gorski said. “But this program cannot fail. It will not fail.” 

'Pick your battles'

“I can deal with prisoners in my sleep,” Hammond said. 

Bosses, though, are another matter. 

Hammond said he feels bogged down by “petty” discipline for missteps as seemingly small as carrying too many ink pens into the building, or "contraband" such as coffee creamer to a work station. Often these breaks in code result in write-ups rather than warnings, he said.

“We don’t even get that petty with the prisoners,” Hammond said. 

He said sometimes young employees, new to the work, will start their tenures writing a lot of tickets to inmates.

“I’ll pull them aside and tell them, you gotta pick your battles,” Hammond said. 

Another sticking point, expressed by the two officers and Andy Potter, head of the correctional union, and himself a former corrections officer: mandatory overtime. 

Sometimes employees learn so late in their shift that they’ll be “mandatoried," as they call it, that they have to miss funerals, weddings, school pick-ups, and may or may not be able to tell loved ones beforehand. When eight-hour days regularly become 16-hour days, staffers say, burnout results. 

“They’re literally killing people with this overtime,” Hammond said. 

Hammond calls corrections officers a “hidden branch of law enforcement,” as their work is done in secure facilities, out of the public eye.

The department has about 605 open positions but will never fill them all, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman. It started the year with 785 vacancies, hired 651 people, and has had 447 separations through late June, he said. 

But even a hiring boom wouldn’t be an immediate fix to staffing shortages, Gautz said. New hires need to be paired up with more experienced officers for their first eight weeks in the field. 

As the calendar turns toward his retirement, Hammond is working to put a lid on his anger. He’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t. The gym helps, he said. 

Potter, head of the union, when asked what officers want, what would make things better, said a seat at the decision table would help.

Staffers say the paramilitary nature of law enforcement may lead bosses to think they need only give orders, not seek buy-in. And that, they say, is a mistake. 

Johnson and Hammond were more specific, citing roll-calls, which were eliminated as a budget move years ago, as a possible morale booster. Neither asked for a raise, or for air-conditioning to be installed in prison facilities, or for a pension bump.

Roll-call forced employees to show up early, to be in place “no later than six minutes before their shift started,” Hammond said, and those six minutes were paid.

Supervisors would look over officers’ outfits. Staffers would have the chance to look each other in the eye. And before starting a shift, they’d learn what had happened the previous shift.

The door would be locked and anyone who didn’t make it in time would be forced to stand outside the room, their dereliction clear to all inside.

“That set the tone of professionalism and info-sharing,” Hammond said. 

Roll-call used to be 12 minutes. Then six. Now, zero. Now, Hammond said, employees kind of roll in one-by-one, and staffers “never know what was going on.”

"Certainly, information is passed along that is important to people," even without the formal roll-call, Gautz said. "To bring that back would cost about $12 million annually."

Gorski visited the Cotton facility in mid-July and met with a group of employees, including Johnson and Hammond. While Johnson was looking for a fellow traveler to preach the issue of wellness, and found one, Hammond came in more cynical.

Both, though, left impressed with what they heard.

"She talked about how we need to take care of each other," Hammond said. "How it's not about the bosses or anything like that, but the people we work with every day. I could get on board with that."