Michigan prison staffers quitting in droves. Will 5% raises make them stay?
In two decades as a corrections officer, Georgiann Stan learned that long hours sometimes come with the job.
But those occasional extended shifts early in her career in Michigan prisons are nothing compared to the grueling days she’s endured the past few years.
“I’m a train wreck every day. I walk around like a zombie,” she told Bridge Michigan, describing a typical week at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.
Stan, 53, said she routinely logs 80-hour weeks, stacking one 16-hour shift atop another ─ mandated overtime driven by chronic staff shortages at the prison.
“I go in at 6 in the morning and I might not get out until 11:30 at night. I’m lucky if I get three or four hours of sleep a night.”
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Stan said the staffing shortage not only leads to burnout, but it also fuels hazardous shortcuts in the prison, often leaving a single corrections officer to monitor a mess hall with more than 200 inmates, the cancelation of classes or shutting down recreation time in an outdoor ‘yard’ that is vital to maintaining prison peace.
“Then inmates get irate. They want their yard time and a fight breaks out, but they don’t even have the staff to handle that. It’s scary and it’s sad and it’s tiring. There’s just so much that’s unsafe,” Stan said.
Worker shortages have plagued jails and prisons nationwide for years, largely because of low pay and high stress. The pandemic exacerbated the problem, as health concerns and retirements led even more officers to quit. Earlier this year, one-third of corrections officer positions were vacant in federal prisons, while prisons in some states reported staff shortages of 25 percent to 70 percent, according to the news site Health Affairs.
Staffing is a “big challenge” in Michigan, Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington said at a state Senate hearing in February. There were about 770 open jobs at the time, out of a workforce of 5,100 corrections officers at the state’s 27 prisons. Since then, the openings have climbed to 900 — meaning that more than 1 in 6 positions are vacant.
One prison analyst pointed to the 2018 riot at an understaffed South Carolina prison that left seven inmates dead as a cautionary tale for what could happen in Michigan, which has avoided such uprisings.
“When you get rid of educational programming and recreation and it happens month after month after month, it’s like a tea kettle,” Joshua Hoe, senior policy analyst for Safe and Just Michigan, a Lansing-based nonprofit prison reform advocacy organization, told Bridge Michigan.
“I’m not saying there will inevitably be an explosion, but it does mean the tensions get higher. There’s an effect on security.”
Rising wages outside prison walls have made hiring even more of a challenge. Washington told lawmakers it’s tough to attract employees who can earn wages elsewhere comparable to the $19-an-hour starting wage of a corrections officer, without the stress of 80-hour work weeks.
“The labor market has also become more competitive, with many potential candidates looking for increased flexibility in their work, which…isn’t really an option for the Department of Corrections,” Washington said.
This year, Michigan and other states are increasing pay in hopes of attracting and retaining corrections officers.
Starting in October, pay will rise 5 percent across the board at a cost of $47 million, the biggest increase in Michigan history. Wisconsin boosted wages by $3 an hour to nearly $23 an hour. Florida is offering new corrections officers bonuses up to $5,000 to help fill a 30 percent vacancy rate.
Overall, Michigan correctional officers and jailers ranked 12th highest in salary among the 50 states. Officers with 5 ½ years of experience in Michigan make about $61,000 per year — well above the national average of about $44,000 —and mandatory overtime can increase that by tens of thousands of dollars.
Even so, veteran officers continue to leave because of the stress and long hours, according to Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization union.
“Officers are walking away from the money to take lesser paying jobs that are safer and allow them to have normal family time,” Osborn said.
Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz told Bridge the state “has spent a lot of time trying to find ways to reach” recruits, pointing to promotional billboards and TV and radio ads.
Gautz said the job offers “competitive state benefits” that include 401k retirement plan health, dental and vision insurance, 12 weeks’ paid parental leave, as at least 13 paid vacation days and 13 paid sick days per year.
Still, he conceded: “We are not only facing the issue of hiring people and getting people to think about this as a career, but we are battling losing people. We lose about 50 corrections officers every month due to retirement and other people leaving.”
A bill approved in April by the state House and awaiting Senate consideration could offer a small measure of relief, as it would allow retired corrections officers to return to work and receive a state paycheck while still collecting their pension. Gautz said a similar bill enacted in 2013 enticed about 30 officers to come back to the job.
Beyond pay and benefits, some states are getting creative: In Pennsylvania, prison officials expanded employee mental-health assistance programs and redesigning break rooms for corrections officers, while states including Florida and Arizona eased age or other application requirements.
But even those measures have met with mixed results, in large part because the job is exceedingly stressful.
A 2019 study of state corrections employees underlined the psychological toll on corrections officers. It found that 41 percent of corrections officers at male facilities met criteria for post traumatic stress disorder, while a quarter met the criteria for alcohol abuse.
“The rates of PTSD…are nearly 7 times higher than the national average in the general population,” the report concluded.
Using data provided by the state, the study also found that corrections employees averaged nearly five suicides a year from 2016 through 2018 ─ a rate that was more than twice the national average.
Those findings are in line with surveys in other states, as a 2018 study found that 1 in 3 California corrections officers experienced at least one symptom of PTSD and 10 percent had thoughts of killing themselves.
A survey the same year of Washington prison employees found they exhibited PTSD symptoms at levels comparable to U.S. war veterans who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The conditions right now at the prisons are really awful, worse than usual,” said state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, chair of the Senate Oversight Committee that hosted hearings this year on the prison staffing issue.
While McBroom called the staffing shortages “a really difficult problem” to solve, he cited lack of post-retirement mental health care benefits for corrections officers as among many issues the state is failing to address.
McBroom suggested providing corrections officers retirement benefits that include a defined pension comparable that offered state police could help with both recruitment and retention of this prison workforce.
He told Bridge he is working on draft legislation to provide those benefits, but still has no firm figures on what it would cost.
“There’s not much effort I’m seeing from the administration or the department to address these concerns. I find that frustrating,” he told Bridge.
McBroom added that he’s concerned that MDOC ─ in its quest to stem the tide of employee exits ─ is compromising hiring standards.
“We are so desperately trying to fill spaces that we are ending up with some employees that are really not ready for the rigors of the job. They are making it more dangerous for the people they are working with,” he said, adding that he heard those reports from “various officers” and corrections officers who have taken prison jobs in other states.
In response to McBroom, corrections spokesperson Gautz said: “The training corrections officers receive in Michigan is one of the most detailed and stringent in the nation. Before they go through eight weeks of classroom and physical training, and eight more weeks of on-the-job training, they go through a very thorough background check and screening. We…want to be sure we are finding the right people who want to come to work for and make a career out of it.”
‘How long can you go on doing this?’
In the Upper Peninsula, Brian Cowan, 37, has been a corrections officer for almost 10 years at Kinross Correctional Facility, 20 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie.
He told Bridge that his weeks are a haze of long hours ─ three or four 16-hour shifts a week ─ combined with the stress of juggling the needs of his wife and two young children, aged 6 and 8.
That means he often checks in at the prison at 11 p.m. and doesn’t leave until 3 p.m. the following day.
“Then I drive from the prison to school to pick up the kids. I come home, do their school stuff with them, make dinner and as soon as my wife gets home from work at 5:30, I’m off to bed. I don’t even get to tuck them in. Then I get up and shower and I’m going right back to work.”
Cowan said his wife continues to ask: “How long can you go on doing this?”
Over the recent July Fourth weekend, Cowan recalled, he was working second shift as inmates reacted to closing of half the prison recreation yard because “we didn’t have the staffing to open that side yard.”
“We had prisoners sneaking outside the other housing units and they were getting irate with me and my partner. We were telling them, ‘No, the yard’s not open,’ and they take it out on us. They are targeting you, because you are the one telling them no.”
And when tensions get out of hand, Cowan said, corrections officers may be left with half the authorized staffing to deal with a fight.
“Some days you could have eight people responding to a fight when it’s a normal shift, and other days it’s four. Sometimes four guys is not enough to handle the situation. We’re outnumbered big-time.”
Cowan recalled a recent late-night shift in which his unit entered the evening already two officers short of its normal quotient of about 30 officers. Then, he said, over a period of a few hours, a pair of inmates displayed severe reactions to suspected use of a synthetic marijuana drug that was smuggled into the prison.
“They were in bed, yelling, spitting, shaking,” he recalled.
He said two officers were dispatched with each inmate to accompany them to a local hospital.
“Now, we are six officers short for the shift, leaving the whole compound short,” he said.
In response to Cowan’s statements, Gautz said: “We don’t start shifts short. We mandate people to stay over from the previous shift. If there was a medical emergency and officers had to leave to follow an ambulance, we would close other positions temporarily, like the yard and move those officers to cover for the ones on the ER run, and we would be also calling in staff to come in early.”
Cowan said he’s begun searching for other job opportunities outside the prison system, even though he’s cashing big pay checks with all the overtime.
“What’s money over family? I haven’t been able to have a warm dinner with my family in a normal working week in I don’t know how long.”
Back at Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, corrections officer Stan figures she might last a few more years.
“I’m close. I need 27 years on the job to get 80 percent of my health care retirement paid,” she said.
But Stan said many new recruits are getting a taste of the job ─ and soon looking for the exit.
“We probably have five people a month leaving. Most of them are the newer ones, saying, ‘Why should I have to stay in this unsafe atmosphere?’”
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