Rehumanization: Correctional Officer Story by Andy Potter

Bio
Andy Potter is the Founder of One Voice United and the Executive Director of the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO). He is a nationally recognized leader in the labor and economic justice movements, with particular expertise in worker rights and leadership development. Andy began his career as a correctional officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) where he worked for nearly three decades. He has held gubernatorial appointments on several task forces, including serving on the Michigan Corrections Officers Training Council from 2004 to 2013. He chairs several committees such as the SEIU National Conservative Member Engagement Committee, the SEIU National Corrections Council and is a member of the Michigan State Council. In 2019 he was appointed to serve as a Vice President for SEIU’s International Executive Board. Since 2015, Andy has been the Executive Director of MCO representing 6,500 corrections and forensic security officers throughout the state of Michigan. During his time as Executive Director, Potter spearheaded several new initiatives that revolutionized officer engagement and restructured internal operations to maximize the organization’s impact and sustainability. The 21st Century strategies that Potter implemented at MCO have garnered national recognition as a model for others to replicate. Currently, as the Founder of the national non-profit organization, One Voice United, Andy is working to transform the criminal justice system by building bridges and unearthing common ground between all impacted stakeholders.

“When you come in, you are trained and conditioned to be desensitized. You have very little space to be vulnerable. People come in and say that it's not going to change them, and they are going to be different. But it does change you.”

I began my career as a Correctional Officer in the late 1980s working at the Michigan Training Unit. I also worked at a maximum-security facility called Oaks Correctional Facility and then I transferred back to the training unit. Currently, I serve as the executive director for the Michigan Corrections Organization. I’m also the founder of One Voice United, working with a lot of corrections groups around the United States to help them navigate their way to the front of the conversation around corrections issues, reform, and things that will affect their work for the next five or 10 years.

I grew up in the 1980s in a very small town with very few options for a future. Many of us were in and out of trouble growing up, myself included. Higher education wasn’t an option for us. This was when there was a huge emphasis on getting tough on crime, the whole “say no to drugs” thing. They were starting to incarcerate more and more people, so the prison industry was growing.

For me, corrections seemed to be a good profession, with a pension, good health care, and relatively good pay. It was a pathway into the middle-class. When you can get into an industry or a profession where you can possibly make a difference in somebody’s life, that becomes a part of your choice, and it certainly was for me. I talk to a lot of new recruits and most say it would be great if they could make a difference. Sadly, the light in their eyes goes out between the time they go into the academy and when they go through those front gates to work on the first day. That light is gone because the system makes sure that it’s not part of the deal. Corrections were never initially designed or built for success in the rehabilitation of inmates.

When you come in, you are trained and conditioned to be desensitized. You have very little space to be vulnerable. People come in and say that it’s not going to change them, and they are going to be different. But it does change you. You walk in on your first day and are immediately on this very intense, high state of constant alertness. When you grow up in the streets, like I did, that’s a familiar feeling, but it comes and goes. You can leave that situation, but in a prison, you can’t, and it eats away at you mentally and physically. You can’t decompress. I tell new recruits that if you let it, this will get a hold of you and wreck you in a hurry. It can make you very thick-skinned and opinionated. You can’t walk into a mall or a restaurant or a crowded theater without feeling that heightened alertness. You sit with your back against the wall and that is not normal.

The first half of my career was the hardest. I’ve asked myself if I have PTSD and yes, I do. Even now, and I’ve been out of the system for years, it comes back in certain circumstances to a point where I can recognize and understand it. In the beginning, I didn’t understand or even recognize it. Frankly, I didn’t want to admit it. It’s not something that Corrections Officers readily talk about. They don’t sit around and discuss it. They do sit around and try to one-up themselves with stories and different things. Maybe that is their way of coping.

When you work in that environment all the time, you become very cynical and non-trusting. I always think somebody has an ulterior motive. I have daughters that I constantly worry about, knowing what is out there. Even how I am with them is affected. For example, I was going into my daughter’s school once and she pulled me aside and said, “Dad, can you take that line out of the middle of your eyes for a minute?” I was surprised because I was in a good mood and having fun but to others my appearance looked angry. My daughters have told me countless times that their friends don’t like coming around and it’s caused problems because I’m not as trusting as I could be. I tend to call people out if I think they’re lying, and I can be pretty raw about it. My wife always says, “Can you say it in a way that allows them an out, gives them a place to go? You can’t just corner them and say hey, I don’t think you’re telling me the truth.” For my family to have to ask me to be more approachable to people proved this was something I needed to work on.

It causes problems with how you allow people to approach you and communicate with you without feeling like there’s an ulterior motive. The one thing that’s stolen most from Corrections Officers is their ability to be vulnerable. As the saying goes, you can’t really experience love unless you allow yourself to be completely vulnerable to it and to what comes with it – the hurt, the joy and everything that can be a part of a much more amazing experience. It’s a travesty really.

Dealing with inmates is another issue where you can have a bad experience based on how you approach it and how you carry yourself. A lot of Corrections Officers say that if you show them respect, you’ll get respect in return. That’s not human nature and it’s not realistic. The reality is that your interaction is met differently moment to moment because there’s so many different individuals that are incarcerated, and you must recognize as soon as you can where their attitudes are at.

I’ve had bad experiences. Before I retired, I had this growing sense in me that I probably wouldn’t make it out alive. I have been through a lot. I had been hit in the head with padlocks and suffered other injuries. However, this time I started getting this feeling and it wouldn’t go away. That was a heavy weight on me until I decided it was time for me to go and I’m glad I did.

I’ve never had suicidal thoughts, but I lost some people I grew up with to suicide in the department. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had their family come up to me, maybe the mother of someone I grew up with, crying and asking what can be done about it. What do you say to somebody that lost a child you grew up with? I had one friend who was in the department for 20 years and in good physical health, other than chronic pain from being injured over and over. When someone like him goes to the doctors, the intention is to bring him back to work as quickly as possible. They give out pain meds and maybe a short period of physical therapy and they bring him back.

He did rehabilitation and got off the pain meds. He came back to work like a new man. Six months later, he got injured again and was back on pain meds. A week later he died of an accidental overdose. He had little kids, and it wasn’t that he wasn’t trying to do his job the best he could. He took an oath and he tried to live up to that. There is a set of expectations that come with this job that are tough on people.

Sometimes there are signs, but you react to them a little too late. Corrections officers don’t pry into each other’s business or dig into things. But when they do, they come together. We can scrap and argue with each other, there’s a culture of that, but when the shit hits the fan we’re shoulder to shoulder, we lock arms, whether inside of a prison or outside. When you “roll around in blood with someone,” it’s hard to not see that person differently. When there are situations that can take your life at any second and you roll around in blood with somebody and they had your back, then every time you cross the sidewalk with them, every time you go through a doorway with them, every time you see them, there’s a sense that only you can understand each other. It’s the same for people that go through combat. They recognize each other for life. That’s not normal or healthy.

I’ve had a lot of good experiences. On my last day there, roughly 10 guys met me at the door and were basically like, “Hey, good luck to you.” There aren’t a lot of handshakes and hugs that go on in prison. That was as close as I could get to feeling like I had done a fair job at coaching where I can, mentoring and trying to be an example. Working with inmates, COs don’t get to see a finished product. If I could go home at night and tell a story about how I helped somebody, or I made a difference in some way, then I think COs would feel more fulfilled.

I went through many things that brought me to a place in time where I reflected on all the hurt I had done to people the first half of my life. It wasn’t the hurt that I did to myself. It was the hurt that I did to everybody around me that was revealed to me in a way that could only be from God. I thank God every day because he snatched me right out of hell and allowed me to scrape my eyes clear so I could truly see what things were and who I was. It allowed me a chance to be vulnerable enough to self-reflect and find the pathway back from all that hurt and damage. When I met my wife in the latter part of my career, I had already moved away from self-medicating into a much healthier lifestyle. I believed in a higher power, which made a world of difference, and I understood the impact of that. I knew there was something else out there.

Through my own years in corrections, I’ve managed to take this all apart layer by layer and evaluate it. I’ve seen the pendulum swing over the course of 30 years from warehousing people to attempting to rehabilitate. None of it really includes the voices of COs or frontline staff. If we’re going to reform corrections, or any other system, you need all the stakeholders. Corrections officers are the second largest stakeholder and they’re left out of this conversation. They are just going to be handed a policy one day that says their work has changed and now here is what they have to do. There’s no buy-in for them.

We must acknowledge that PTSD is really an injury, not a disorder. It is an injury, something that’s brought on to you. It’s not something that’s already inside of you. I pushed back on the notion that it’s a disorder based on research done in this field over the last ten years. Corrections officers, unions, and others, myself included, drove that conversation. The system fights back when we try to get funding for it. We must push prison reform to a point where it becomes mainstream, with bipartisan support. It’s a human investment that you pay for up front, but the recuperation from that is undeniable.

I’m a great example of this return on investment because of how badly I treated others in the first part of my life. When it came to abusing myself with alcohol and everything else, it took the hand of God to get me out of it. When you’re given a pass like that, you are not letting that go. I believe I am now in a place one could only dream of being, with a family that loves and supports me unconditionally, that knows everything there is to know about me and still accepts me, and it makes me understand those that don’t have that, and have more empathy for them. I meditate. I pray. I have a strong faith. I can walk through a doorway and have complete faith that it’s the right doorway spiritually, physically, and mentally.

My life’s mission is to advocate for corrections officers and help them find purpose. People assume they know who we are and what we go through. Don’t just take the Shawshank Redemption narrative because it’s not reality. Corrections Officers want their profession to be recognized through a positive lens. They want to be proud of what they do. They want a system that supports them. These people are family members, part-time firemen, school workers. They aren’t thugs. They are a part of your community. They are people you know.