DETROIT – Corrections officers dealing with grueling, stressful conditions on a daily basis is creating a crisis inside Michigan prisons.
A study released this summer by the Michigan Department of Corrections took a look at prison staff members and mental health. It found officers, especially those who work with inmates, are in a state of crisis in terms of their mental health.
"It's a dark place," said Cary Johnson, a corrections officer at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. "Bad things happen there."
Johnson is a 24-year veteran of the Michigan Department of Corrections. She said she's seen a lot over that time.
"I have seen some crazy things," Johnson said. "Fights, deaths, suicides, stabbings. This job changes someone."
Three officers who worked with Johnson in Jackson killed themselves this year. Officials at the facility have dealt with four staff suicides since 2017.
"They were amazing men," Johnson said. "They were role models. They were really good at their jobs. Three of them were recently retired. One was on active duty. All of those men I would have never believed it for a second. I would have told you, 'No way.'"
MDOC officials released their most recent report findings in July on the heels of those suicides.
"Our numbers are alarming," Johnson said. "We have a higher rate of depression, alcohol and substance abuse and divorce, suicide, than combat veterans. I have seen men that did not drink a lot, drink a lot now. I have seen lots of people who were social -- they are no longer social."
Johnson is making it her mission to talk to her friends and colleagues and get them to open up about what they're going through and what they see on the job day-in and day-out.
"It's gruesome," Johnson said. "It's not something people want to think about. You are around people in their worst way, their rock bottom."
She said their work behind bars often goes unnoticed.
"Our veterans are heroes," Johnson said. "They are recognized as heroes. People get to see them doing their jobs and honor them. We are a hidden branch of law enforcement. People don't really know what we do and they don't want to know."
"We are taking it very seriously," MDOC director Heidi Washington said. "It's a very real thing."
Washington said she knows she is dealing with a crisis.
"This is an issue we can't afford not to tackle," she said.
MDOC officials are investing in ways to deal with the problem, including a newly formed wellness unit designed for employees and retirees. They're working on ways to reduce stress and anxiety, along with other issues that come along with working so closely with inmates.
"It's not something that has been talked about in the way it has been talked about now," Washington said. "This isn't just a Michigan issue. It's important to point that out."
Johnson said she's looking ahead toward her future, but at times she can't help but reflect about her past.
"I think I would have chosen my line in this path differently," Johnson said. "I remained an officer because I liked it and I thought I was good at it. Things have changed significantly since I made the decision to stay an officer. I may have chosen a different path."
As part of the new wellness program, the wellness team is visiting every work site across the state, talking to wardens, supervisors and employees. The team has been to 20 sites so far and hope to establish a peer support group by the end of the year.