COs protest working conditions in Mich. prisons

"These prisons right now are tinder boxes because of the anxiety over COVID ... it's not safe for us," a union president said

By Lynn Moore

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Dozens of corrections officers protested what their union president called “severely understaffed prisons” during a picket outside two Muskegon-area prisons Friday.

The Aug. 28 picket at the entrance to the Muskegon and Brooks correctional facilities was a “kickoff event” for an informational campaign about the more than 700 corrections officer vacancies in the state, said Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization.

Members of the Michigan Corrections Organization picket outside the Brooks and Muskegon Correctional facilities.
Members of the Michigan Corrections Organization picket outside the Brooks and Muskegon Correctional facilities. (Photo/Lynn Moore of via TNS)

The union represents about 6,000 corrections officers who work at the state’s 29 prisons.

“We’re here today to bring attention to the ongoing staffing shortages with corrections officers in the Michigan Department of Corrections,” Osborn said. “This has been going on for a number of years. We’re frustrated…that the administration has failed to address the ongoing issues with recruitment and retention of officers.”

On Thursday, Aug. 27, the union called for the removal of Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has expressed confidence in Washington, who was appointed in 2015 by former Gov. Rick Snyder.

The Muskegon Correctional Facility has experienced one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks among state prisons. Of the 1,296 inmates there, 812 – or 62 percent -- had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to data on the Michigan Department of Corrections website.

In addition, 23 staff members at the prison have tested positive, according to MDOC.

Osborn said COVID-19 has “exasperated” long-standing problems with vacant corrections officer positions. Losing staff who have had to quarantine “only just poured it on,” he said.

Remaining corrections officers have had to work mandatory overtime – including 16-hour days several days a week, Osborn said. There have been times when there have been 13 officers overseeing 1,000 inmates at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, he said.

“It’s the last straw, really,” Osborn said, explaining that officers, especially those who are single parents, are quitting under the heavy load.

“People didn’t sign up for this,” he said.

On Friday, dozens of corrections officers and their family members lined Sheridan Drive across from the correctional facilities holding signs with such phrases as “We need officers,” “MDOC fails officers,” and “Unsafe conditions.” Many passing motorists honked their horns in support.

“These prisons right now are tinder boxes because of the anxiety over COVID,” Osborn said. “It’s not safe for us. It’s not safe for the prisoners either.”

Statewide, 5,097 inmates – or 13 percent of the total – have tested positive for COVID, according to the department of corrections.

LaNise Moody, who has family at the Muskegon Correctional Facility, contacted MLive with concerns about COVID cases and staffing there.

“They don’t have proper guards,” Moody wrote in an email. “They have two guards per pod…We are seeking justice for our family members that are there and exposed to (COVID) due to the lack of facility workers.”

The union believes recruitment and training of new corrections officers should be decentralized and regionalized to be more effective, Osborn said.

“We believe they’re spinning their wheels,” he said. “The recruitment is poor; the retention is poor.”

He also called on the Legislature to provide retiree health benefits for corrections officers to help with retention.

There are about 734 corrections officer vacancies statewide, MDOC Spokesman Chris Gautz told MLive. The department has authorization to fill 700 of them, he said.

He estimated that about 50 officers leave employment each month, a situation compounded by officers on family leave.

The corrections department received $20 million this year to recruit and train officers, Gautz said. So far, 778 officers have been hired, but training has slowed down due to COVID-19 restrictions, he said.

The department uses social media, “micro-targeting” campaigns, and advertising as part of its recruitment efforts, Gautz said. It also pushes for staff members to recruit officers too, and said it’s important for corrections officers to “talk positively about the job.”


©2020, Walker, Mich.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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