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Michigan prison agency wants to reduce stress, suicide among corrections officers
Detroit Free Press - 5/13/2019
May 13-- May 13--LANSING -- Responding to concerns about stress and suicides among corrections officers, the Michigan Department of Corrections has appointed an employee wellness program manager.
Lynn Gorski joins the department from the Michigan State Police, where she worked for close to nine years and headed programs designed around the idea that mental wellness in law enforcement jobs is "a necessity, not a perk," a Senate committee was told last week.
Department Director Heidi Washington told a joint meeting of the Senate Oversight Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety that her officers "work in a highly volatile ... environment," and reducing stress is "an issue that's very important to us."
Since 2015, at least 14 active or recently retired corrections officers have committed suicide, said Anita Lloyd, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Corrections Organization union.
Cary Johnson, an officer at the Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson, told the committees that she's lost four of her colleagues to suicide in the last two years.
Johnson said Gorski is "a great choice" to head the wellness program.
However, "in order for all this to work, this needs officer buy-in," and that is made difficult by issues over mandatory overtime and the way discipline is handled, which hurts morale, she said.
Gorski also said that building trust is critical. When the wellness program started at MSP, "we were responding to crises." But as trust built, the work went from reactive to proactive, she said.
Washington said studies show corrections officers have high rates of suicide and divorce, as well as shorter life spans. One study indicated that 3.5% of the general population has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but 27% of corrections officers do, she said.
Last year, the department commissioned a $50,000 study about the prevalence of PTSD, and a survey went out to all of the roughly 13,000 employees, of which about 6,000 are corrections officers, Washington said. Results are expected by July, she said.
Gorski, a licensed mental health professional who has worked 25 years in law enforcement and criminal justice, will manage three programs: peer support, the chaplain program, and an improved Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program. She has a salary range of $76,954 to $110,691, spokesman Chris Gautz said.
Washington said that starting in 2018, all staff had to complete a classroom-based program related to stress. Officials currently are working on a staff resilience program to include in the 2020 training plan, she said. In addition to increasing training, the department wants to reduce the stigma associated with stress and asking for help, she said.
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, chairman of the Oversight Committee, said he's heard from many prison employees that there is a prevalent feeling that the department doesn't care and those who speak out will face retribution. The department needs to change that, he said.
Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said short staffing and mandatory overtime at many facilities contribute to stress.
Reducing forced overtime is "where I would encourage you to focus your efforts," Irwin told Washington.
He said he's heard of cases where employees were mandated to work the next shift on very short notice and weren't able to notify relatives they would miss an important family event, such as a funeral.
When that happens, "we feel a loss of agency; we feel a loss of control," which "drives despair," Irwin said.
Washington said the department is working hard on recruitment. It recently graduated a class of 200 officers and another class of about the same size is starting soon. The goal is to get vacancies down to about 400, which is about the staffing level that can be covered by current appropriations, she said.
The department is "well on our way there now," Washington said.
Contact Paul Egan at 517-372-8660 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.
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