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2002 Officer of Year called super volunteer

Joseph Stephan Joe Stephan never does anything halfway. Whether he's helping his community or working as a corrections officer at the Boyer Road Correctional Facility, he's a super achiever.A small town family man who cares about his community and the people who live inside it, Stephan is Michigan's 2002 Corrections Officer of the Year.

His community is Belding, Michigan, where he was born and has lived his entire life, but his community feelings extend to the prison where he has worked for the past 13 years.
A mentor for probationary employees, Stephan also counsels prisoners on substance abuse and has developed procedures to ensure proper documentation for prisoner intake, movement and discharge from his housing unit.

Officer Stephan is dedicated to improving himself as a person and as an employee," said Warden Kurt Jones. "He is an effective communicator who appreciates the diversity of people who work and live inside a prison.

Joseph Stephan

Stephan developed procedures to document prisoner movements in his housing unit.

The volunteer activities Stephan undertakes in his community would exhaust the average person:

He is a part-time police officer and a corporal and a trainer in the honor guard in the Belding police force where he has worked for nine years. A supervisor in the city jail, he uses the substance-abuse training he received in the department to counsel public school students and various community groups.

His work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a community program called Stay Off, which encourages school children to stay off drugs and alcohol, helped him become a liaison between the community and the prison.

A trainer for the Belding Police Department's bike patrol, Stephan works through a program called Explorers with middle school and high school students who are considering a career in law enforcement.

Joseph Stephan

Officer Stephan believes good prisoner communication is essential to being a good officer.

Once a week, Stephan volunteers as a room parent in his local elementary school helping teachers and students. In this way, he gets to spend more time with his own children who are students in the school and help children who are learning to recognize letters and to read.

He tries to involve his family in as many of the volunteer activities as possible. If he's working at a concession stand for a school athletic event, the children and his wife are there, too.

If he's riding his bike, his family (the Stephan Train) are with him: his son on an Alley Cat hooked to his father's bike, his daughter in a buggy hooked to the Alley Cat, and his wife bringing up the rear on her bike.

Stephan teaches bike safety, is a summer camp leader, helps to build and maintain nature trails for schools, is a T-ball coach, is active in Special Olympics and the Adopt-A-Highway Program and works in programs to help low-income and single mothers. He helped organize an annual Christmas dinner for elders who live alone and have no families.

The annual Walk for Education program, which he and his wife, Jennifer, developed, raised nearly $2,000 for each elementary school in his area. The money was used to purchase books, computers and other school supplies.

He is a member of the local Humane Society and an organization which works to improve fathering skills.

"It's a great community and I want to give something back to it," said Stephan who recalled that his parents have also been active in the community.

Stephan uses some of his outside activities to relieve the stress of prison work - the biking, for example, and exercise.

"I remember being told in the academy that you can't take your problems at work home to your family and you can't take home problems inside the prison," he said.

"Prisoners like consistency. They are set in their ways. Anything out of the norm upsets them. You have to be consistent with them and watch when things change," he said.

Joseph Stephan
"Prisoners like consistency. They are set in their ways. You have to be consistent with them and watch when things change."

Though he likes his job because of the variety of situations, the diversity of people he deals with and because of the helpful staff and administration, Stephan says there's always a danger involved.

 

"I always kiss my wife and kids and tell them I love them when I leave and when I come home. You just never know when you might not see them again," he said.

 

Stephan, who has an associate's degree in criminal justice from Grand Valley University, believes effective communications is an officer's best tool. "You can de-escalate situations just with communications skills. Without these skills, your actions can actually make a situation worse."

 

Deputy Warden Tony Trierweiler said Stephan, whom he called a role model for other officers and for prisoners, "would rather communicate with prisoners than write tickets."

 

Stephan agrees that writing tickets isn't always the best route to go. "A lot of times I get my point across by talking to them. I make sure prisoners understand the housing unit rules and let them know what to expect."

 

Believing in progressive discipline, Stephan said if the situation is minor and he hasn't dealt with the prisoner before, "I sit down and review the situation with them. Often, I'll offer them a summary judgment and they'll accept it. Some prisoners tell me they appreciate being told what they did wrong because sometimes they actually don't know what they did wrong."

 

Stephan agrees the job isn't for everyone. "You have to be able to handle having people in your face and the paramilitary structure of the prison, but it can be a very rewarding job, too. I learn something new every day. It's not always about policy or procedure, maybe it's about life in general . . . and sometimes it's from prisoners."

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