Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press Published 2:50 p.m. ET July 15, 2019 | Updated 4:46 p.m. ET July 15, 2019
Amber Dotson, a corrections officer at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, says she sometimes has to work six consecutive double shifts. Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press
LANSING – A new survey points to a “mental health crisis” among Michigan Department of Corrections workers, who suffer from levels of PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicide and alcohol abuse far higher than those in the general population, officials said Monday.
The survey also points to rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among Michigan prison workers that are significantly higher than first responders such as police and firefighters, though the study’s authors say they may not be far out of line with rates among prison workers in other states.
The $50,000 study by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach of Colorado was based largely on anonymous surveys sent to all of the department’s more than 12,000 employees. Department-wide estimates were calculated based on answers from the 29% of employees who responded.
Among the findings:
- Just under one in four employees, or 24%, meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, the study found. Symptoms can include irritability, anger, aggression, and trouble sleeping. National rates are 3.5% for the general population, 2.5% for the military, and 10% for first responders such as police officers or firefighters, the study said. The highest rates were 41% for custody staff in male prisons and 31% for custody staff in the women’s prison.
- One in six department employees have symptoms consistent with “major depressive disorder,” with the highest rate of this condition — 24% — found among custody staff at men’s prisons. The rate for custody staff in Michigan’s only women’s prison was 13%, and it was 12% at department headquarters, the study found. The national average is 6.7%, and first responders such as police and firefighters average 21.4%.
- About 140 employees are currently and actively planning to commit suicide
- Nearly half — or 49% — of all department employees have medium or high anxiety levels consistent with general anxiety disorder. National rates of generalized anxiety range between 3% and 5% for civilians and military. The highest rates in the Michigan Department of Corrections were among custody staff at male prisons (60%), and custody staff at the women’s prison (51%).
- About one in five employees, or 19%, exhibit symptoms of alcohol abuse, compared with 7% in the general population, 1.5% in the military, and 9% among first responders. The highest rate was among custody staff at men’s prisons, where it was 26%, while custody staff at the women’s prison and managers and supervisors at headquarters were tied at 16%.
“These findings are a cause for grave concern, as they point to a mental health crisis among MDOC employees and a workforce culture in dire need of assistance and support,” the report said.
“Similar results have been obtained from correctional agencies in other states and other jurisdictions, which means that MDOC is not the only agency facing these challenges.”
The study, commissioned by the department, is a follow-up on a 2016 study jointly commissioned by the department and the Michigan Corrections Organization union. It called for actions to improve the prisons’ workplace and social culture. Department Director Heidi Washington, who recently created an employee wellness unit in the department, has pledged to do take steps to do so.
“This survey and the report that followed is a clear reminder that there is significant work left to be done to improve the mental and physical well-being of our staff,” Washington said in an email to employees Monday.
She said in a news release that the department must work with lawmakers, unions and others “to protect these brave men and women … by offering them the support they need.”
Andy Potter, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said the union welcomes recent steps by the department but a task force is needed to decide what steps to take next.
With recent and rapid changes in the department, such as new vocational programs for inmates, many workers feel the prisoners are having more meaningful input than corrections officers, Potter said.
In some ways, “it’s more of an us and them than it’s ever been,” Potter said.
In addition to the anonymous employee survey, the report’s authors made limited use of department health, overtime and other records, which were also scrubbed to ensure the anonymity of employees.
Potential contributing factors to stress and other problems include the amount of voluntary and mandatory overtime worked, exposure to trauma, the length of time worked in the prison system, and the prison security level at which the employee works, the study said
The most important variable, the study found, was “work health,” which taps into staff morale, job satisfaction, and energy level related to work.
“The effects of work health are notably larger than the effects of exposure to traumatic events or working in a custody role, which means that the overall quality of the working environment has a greater impact on mental and physical health than exposure to danger or trauma,” the report said.
Factors negatively affecting work health include lack of input into decision making or inadequate employment benefits, the study said.
“Work health and social health are factors that can be remedied through improved working conditions, resources, and evidence-based staff training that aims to improve staff well-being and the health of the workforce culture,” the report said.
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