Looking to reduce stress among prison guards

LANSING (AP) — The Michigan Department of Corrections is trying to address concerns about stress and suicide among corrections officers.

Department Director Heidi Washington recently told the Senate Oversight Committee and a subcommittee on justice and public safety that the agency hired a mental health professional to serve as its employee wellness program manager.

Washington told the senators that corrections officers work in a highly volatile environment, and that reducing stress is “an issue that’s very important to us,” Detroit Free Press reported.

Studies show that there are high rates of suicide and divorce among corrections officers, as well as shorter life spans, Washington said.

One study found that 27 percent of corrections officers have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population, according to Washington.

The state Corrections Department approved a $50,000 study on the prevalence of PTSD last year. A survey was sent to the agency’s roughly 13,000 employees, which includes 6,000 corrections officers, Washington said.

The findings are expected to be released by July.

Meanwhile, the department is working to increase stress management training and to reduce the stigma associated with asking for help.

The agency’s new employee wellness program manager, Lynn Gorski, will manage peer support, the chaplain program and the traumatic incident stress management program.

Gorski comes from the Michigan State Police, where she led programs that approached mental wellness in law enforcement jobs as a necessity, rather than as an extra benefit.

Cary Johnson, an officer at the Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson, said that hiring Gorski is “a great choice.” She told lawmakers that she’s lost four colleagues to suicide in the last two years.

Johnson said the department’s wellness program needs officer buy-in to work, but mandatory overtime and the way discipline is handled hurts morale.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Irwin said mandatory overtime also contributes to stress, as well as the agency’s staffing shortage.

Irwin recommended that Washington focus on reducing forced overtime.