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Michigan lawmakers take issue with Department of Corrections staffing shortages

New recruits for MDOC at swearing in ceremony raising their hand
Michigan Department of Corrections

State lawmakers pressed the Michigan Department of Corrections on staffing shortages and complaints about unsafe conditions this week.

The corrections department estimates it has about 770 unfilled corrections officer positions.

The Senate Oversight Committee held the first of a series of meeting on the issue on Tuesday.

During a phone interview Wednesday, committee chair Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) said he was disappointed he didn’t hear many suggestions for new ideas from corrections department leadership during the hearing.

“It was more of the same kind of bemoaning how bad it is and how troubling it is,” McBroom said. “But not really saying ‘Here’s where our profound problem is, here’s what we need from you and the Legislature to get us out from behind this.'”

McBroom said some potential solutions he’d consider to ease the corrections officer shortage include increasing benefits or bringing back retirees to help reduce the load on current prison employees.

“Part of my frustration continues to be that it’s truly the department’s job to come up with these solutions, and I want to see them doing it. I want to see them successful. I’ve got no animus. I want success to come about,” McBroom said.

A corrections department spokesperson said the department is open to suggestions, but it’s already "doing the work" to address shortages.

“We’ve seen raises in pay; we’ve seen additional supports for our employees that have certainly helped," said spokesperson Chris Gautz. He said recruiting efforts were also helping fill vacant jobs.

Gautz said the department is authorized to bring on 800 new employees each year. But that becomes offset by the retirement of about 50 employees each month, leading to slow growth.

In all, Gautz said the seemingly high number of openings isn’t as bad as it looks.

“The Legislature doesn’t fund us to be at zero officer vacancies. Typically, we try to be in the 400-500 vacancy range,” he said.

Gautz said a few new graduating classes of correctional officers could help close that gap. He credits that to changes implemented when corrections department Director Heidi Washington took over in 2015.

“Every three months, we’re hiring roughly 200 people. We have roughly 200 flat. Sometimes we hit that mark, sometimes we’re a little short. It just depends how many people there are out there,” Gautz said.

Meanwhile, the department is blaming the COVID-19 pandemic and a changing workforce for much of its staffing difficulty.

“This predates COVID. These trends of staffing and retention, the shortage that we’ve had, has gone on for far longer than COVID has,” McBroom said.

He compared the situation facing the department to a feedback loop where having too few employees leads to correctional officers feeling burned out and leaving, resulting in even fewer remaining employees, who feel even more burned out.

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