A Day in the Life of a Corrections Officer

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.

For some people, a bad day at work consists of spilling coffee, an angry phone call from a customer, a last minute project, and a traffic jam on the way home. A bad day at work for Craig Altoft is witnessing a stabbing or injury of a co-worker or inmate.

Altoft is a Department of Corrections Officer at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, and it’s not uncommon for Officer Altoft to respond to an inmate fight at least once a week.

The worst assault Altoft has seen on the job was in December 2015 when his friend and colleague, Officer Terry Grant, was pushed down the stairs by an inmate and hit his head on the concrete below. Grant sustained a permanent brain injury in the incident, which left him in a medically induced coma and required months of therapy for him to re-learn to walk and talk.

“We had lunch together that day, and an hour later, he gets hurt,” Altoft recalled.

Altoft, who was named Michigan Reformatory Officer of the Year and went on to be named the Statewide Officer of the Year in 2016, passed on his title in the Ionia facility to Grant this year.

“If you work here, you can nominate any officer you want. So, I nominated Terry,” said Altoft. “The Warden thought it was a great idea. … I think Terry was really surprised.”

That’s one of the hardest parts about the job, said Altoft – being constantly on-guard because an altercation can happen at any time. But, he said, the only time officers will ever physically restrain an inmate is to prevent him from hurting someone else.

“You have to know the Use of Force Policy and know how much force you can reasonably use.”  

If there’s a serious assault within the prison, the warden will bring in a Traumatic Stress Management Team, made up of psychologists and counselors, to talk with involved officers.

“Being able to vent your frustrations in a positive way helps,” he said.

To try and make fights less likely, the prison offers a “Cage Your Rage” class to teach inmates how to handle their anger and offer healthy alternatives to their normal habits. The prison also offers programs to help inmates reintegrate into society, such as GED and skilled trades programs.

“We partner with outside agencies to help inmates get apartments and jobs after they are released. We try to give them the best possible chance for success. Obviously, the best way to manage prisoners is to make sure they don’t come back,” said Altoft.

The prison also offers the “Paws with a Cause” program – where, after passing an extensive screening process, a select group of inmates are chosen to take care of rescue dogs. The dogs sleep and eat with the inmates, and the inmates teach them basic commands.

“You get unconditional love from an animal. A dog doesn’t know you’re a prisoner. … It’s very emotional for them to be able to have a dog. There are some guys who start crying because they haven’t been around an animal for 20 years,” said Altoft.

“The inmates help socialize dogs that have been abused or mistreated before they’re adopted out. So it’s good for both the inmate and the dog. … The dogs get one-on-one care all the time.”

With the popularity of prison dramas, there’s a stereotype against Corrections officers, which Altoft said isn’t true. “There aren’t many prison movies that remind us of our jobs. How they portray staff is horrible.”

“I’m not here to punish inmates. Being locked up is their punishment. I’m here to manage them, maintain order and control, and prevent escape,” said Altoft.

“This job is about communication. … Just listening to a guy and trying to find out the deeper issues makes things easier for him. Maybe he just received a phone call that a family member died. You have no idea what’s going on in his life unless you communicate with him.”

Altoft has worked as a corrections officer since 1994, when he was 24 years old. He said he’s always had an interest in law enforcement. He first worked at Deerfield Correctional Facility until it closed in March 2009 and has worked at Michigan Reformatory since then.

“I know I’ve affected inmates in a positive way. I treat them like they’re a person.”

Michigan Reformatory Warden Carmen Palmer said of Altoft, “He’s trustworthy, and he’s honest. He does his job to the very best of his ability. He’s a family man, and his children are amazing. They wouldn’t have those qualities if they didn’t have a strong role model.”

Hats off the Officers Craig Altoft and Terry Grant for making the State of Michigan a safer and better place to live.