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Work in corrections takes tough toll on participants

Doug Gilbertson

When you think of prisons, what do you picture? Does it conjure images seen on TV of great, gothic style prisons like on Shawshank Redemption? Maybe you think of the criminals inside the prison or jail, awaiting sentencing or perhaps already doing their “time” inside the walls of one of our state prisons.

You maybe think of the people incarcerated, but rarely do people think of the other people doing time inside the prison system — the people working there.

When the term re-entry is brought up, people think about the inmate’s re-entry into society to become a productive citizen. But we rarely think about the people making the drive to prison to punch in and out every day, and who must make that adjustment back into society every day.

We must go from the authoritarian role of a correctional officer, who stands toe to toe with a convicted murderer and tells them to go lock up for count, to that of a family man sitting down after dinner to help his child with math homework.

When you think about it, the 20-plus years that we spend in a prison is more than most offenders spend there. And the time spent going back and forth between these two worlds leaves its indelible mark on our lives.

Correctional environments take their toll on all who pass through the gates. When you walk into prison, you are immediately struck with the odor of bodies being housed together, the noise of voices trying to be heard over each other, the sounds literally bouncing off iron and concrete walls, and the feeling of violence looming all around. You are always on guard. It is often said: A correctional officer can never be weak.

The impact that this environment has on the overall health of correctional staff has been addressed in several studies: Rogers, John B., 2001, FOCUS I Survey and Final Report surveyed correctional staff to learn about their stress levels, mental health, and risk behaviors.

In terms of their mental health, Rogers found staggering rates of depression, feelings of hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide. Twenty-five percent of correctional officers reported feeling a lack of emotional responsiveness, 20% reported an inability to find pleasure in anything, and 13% report hopelessness and/or worthlessness.

Approximately 50% of participants reported having no energy or being excessively tired; 44% reported frequent headaches, with 12% having monthly migraines. “Almost 20% of the (respondents) reported that they felt blue or depressed at least once to a few times a month,” according to the report. In terms of suicidal thoughts, “3% reported thoughts of ending their lives at least once a month, and an additional 6% report such thoughts 1-2 times in the past six months.”

In 2016, the National Institute of Justice awarded a $500,000 grant to Northeastern University in Massachusetts to study the impacts of correctional officer suicide. In the “Background” section of the award it states:

“The rate of suicide among correctional officers in Massachusetts since 2010 has been at least five times higher than the national average and almost eight times higher than the suicide rate in the state.”

 From 2010 to 2016, eighteen Massachusetts correctional officers took their lives.

Although there has not been a study conducted in Michigan by the state, MCO-SEIU, the union representing Correctional Officers for the state of Michigan, conducted its own study in 2016.

They found 34% of respondents showed signs of PTSD (which is higher than combat veterans) and 5% were classified as being at high risk of suicide. MCO has also kept track of the number of officers that have committed suicide. Since 2015, at least ten Michigan correctional officers and four retirees have taken their own lives.

Even one officer is too many.

Correctional officers work under different conditions than the rest of the population. But don’t forget that we are people, too, men and women subject to the same doubts and regrets that all of us have. I’m not asking for anyone to cut us slack, not at all.

But a little understanding and recognition for the conditions under which these men and women operate would go a long way.

Editor’s note: Doug Gilbertson has been a corrections officer at Baraga Correctional Facility since 2008. He is the president of Michigan Corrections Organization’s Baraga chapter. The Department of Corrections is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views expressed are his personal views and are not necessarily those of the Department.