Walk A Mile in My Shoes – I Dare You

My Shoes

This is my last pair of shoes that I bought while I was in prison.  I walked a lot of miles in these shoes.

In prison “shoe” is a four-letter word.  The shoes provided as part of the uniform are terrible. Unlike the rest of the uniform the shoes are not manufactured by MSI.  Back in the day the shoes were made of durable materials.  I saw a few of the old timers still wearing them. Leather uppers and soles that polished to a spit shine like a military dress shoe.  The shoes today are constructed of cheap, inferior materials that don’t last six months with daily wear and they hurt your feet.

I have plantar fasciitis and out in the world I wore special shoes and custom arch supports. If I didn’t already have bad feet, wearing prison shoes have ruined my feet like they did so many others.  I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase athletic shoes from a catalog vendor and could avoid wearing uniform shoes except when required to wear them like during visits or off-site transportation.

In order to deal with my foot problems, I bought a new pair of athletic shoes every six months.  I could not get insoles and frequently replaced my shoes at the first signs of wear to prevent trouble.  I routinely power walked 5 – 10 miles per day to exercise and reduce stress, so I needed good shoes. First, the state shoes provided no arch support or insole padding to cushion your step.  And secondly, to get new shoes from the Quarter Master without being charged for them they would need to look like cartoon shoes with the sole half separated from the upper and flapping as you walked.  I tend to pronate when I walk and only wear out the inside edge of the heal prematurely.


Rugged smooth finish leather
Anti-bacterial leather lined
Cushioned insole and arch
Resilient synthetic sole
Color: Black

Product# 2428 – Men’s

Size: 4 – 16

Price: $23.00

Michigan State Industries Website

The only truthful thing about this advertisement is the color of the shoe is black. The shoe was of inferior quality, uncomfortable, provided no arch support and the sole was certainly not resilient.

Diabetics were the only ones that could get special shoes through Medical and those were just black athletic shoes.  Those were also of cheap construction and the soles would become unglued from the uppers. (Good luck getting Medical to get you a replacement pair.)  At least they could wear these shoes for visits and off-site transportation.

For the majority of inmates’ state shoes were the only option.  I never could figure out how guys could job or even walk the track in them let alone play sports like basketball or softball, but they did.  There was a brisk trade in used athletic shoes for those who didn’t have the $60 in their trust account to buy a new pair.  For 2 – 3 bags of coffee you could get a pair to wear until it was time to ride out because the shoes wouldn’t be on your property card and had to be left behind.  I made it a practice to give away my old shoes to someone less fortunate who could benefit from them.  The first time I did this it brought tears to the guy’s eyes.  Only in prison is the gift of used athletic shoes considered a blessing, but the alternative was to curse the state shoes with every step you took.

As bad a prison shoes are they are still a step up from the county jail where the foot wear consisted of open-toed shower shoe flip flops.  I once was forced to wear them outside in the middle of the winter in a snow storm to attend court.  These shower shoes were heavily used and abused; worn, cracked and torn, and frequently not even a matched set.  They aren’t cleaned or sterilized between inmates, simply recycled.  You picked them out of a pile simply hoping to find a left and a right in the same size.


This is an example of a prison visiting room at HMP Parc. located in Bridgend, South Wales, UK. It is the closest example I could find of a visiting room similar to the ones I am familiar with in the MDOC. This is however by far a much nicer set up but is shows vending machines, games and prisoners having contact with their visitors.

The best day in an inmate’s incarceration is the day he is released.  The second best is when he receives a visit.  Many who are incarcerated never get visits.  They go for years without seeing family or friends face to face, relying instead on phone calls, email, or letters for communication. There is still an even smaller minority which are totally isolated and cut off from any contact with those they knew in the free world.

I was one of the fortunate ones, over the course of eight years I averaged a visit once every three weeks or so.  My parents made the trek to where ever I was at great personal sacrifice.  I was lucky in that the facilities where I was incarcerated were approximately one and a half hours drive from their home.  Some facilities in the upper peninsula could have been more than an eight-hour drive to reach.

A typical visit would consume at least six hours of their day.  One and a half hours to travel to the prison, one hour to be processed into the visiting room, two hours to visit, and one and a half hours to return home.  For those with greater distances to travel, less reliable transportation, limited resources, and inflexible schedules, visits to prison might occur infrequently, if at all.

I knew a guy who caught his case while visiting from out of state.  His parents came to visit him once a year but would visit for two whole days. That was both a major blessing for the inmate and a major sacrifice for his parents.

I’ve seen men reunited, however briefly, with their wives, children, girlfriends, home boys, clergy and even their employers.  In every case it took planning, coordination, and fortitude in addition to finances to make these visits happen.  You can’t just show up at a prison to see an inmate, there is a process involved.

Visits start with an application form.  An inmate must submit a list of names and contact information to the unit counselor.  The perspective visitor must complete a visitor application form and submit it weeks before the initial visit in order to get MDOC approval.  Once approved then it is time to schedule a visit.  Most facilities have small visiting rooms that can contain less than 100 people.  Given that most of the prisons in Michigan have doubled the number of prisoners housed than that they were originally designed for it is unfortunate that the visiting rooms were not expanded as well.  Visits then can only occur under some organization such as odd/even days for odd/even prisoner ID numbers. Multi-level facilities that cannot share space, such as a Level I, II, IV must set aside blocks of time for Level IV separate from Level I & II general population. Budget cut backs to the MDOC have also reduced the days of the week that visitation can occur due to staffing and manpower allocation.  Every facility is different and you must check for their specific visitation days and times.

Once the big day arrives it is hurry up and wait.  Depending on how busy the visiting room is and close it is to count time or shift change, your visitors may have to wait for some period of time while they wait to be processed into the visiting room.  All visitors are subject to metal detectors and body pat downs to screen for contraband (think TSA airport security). In today’s technology culture cell phones and watches are not permitted, neither is currency.  Visitors must purchase a plastic debit card in the lobby of the facility and put money on it for use in the vending machines.

In my experience visitation is both the best and worst of times.  Visits are great, but never long enough.  Time flies when you can be with your loved ones after being separated for so long. But you are usually crammed in like sardines, and a full visiting room gets hot and loud.  There may be cards or board games, but very limited table space to play, let alone space for food and drinks.

Vending machines in the visiting room are like Vegas slot machines.  You lose more than you win.  Vending machines are owned and operated by local vending companies, so cards purchased at one facility probably won’t be valid at another facility.  Depending on the time of day and how busy the visiting room is, the vending machines may have a very limited selection of things like sandwiches and desserts.

Machines malfunctioning and taking your money but not giving you any products are par for the course.  You can’t get your money back at the facility, and depending on the vendor, you may or may not get a refund through the mail.  A lot of potential revenue is lost by these vending companies because they can’t keep these machines fully stocked and operational at all times.  Since visits may cause an inmate to miss the chow hall service more than once I have had to make due with only a few snacks or wait to eat something out of my locker when I got back to my housing unit.

The prices charged tend to be 25% higher than what one would expect to pay for what is best described as “gas station” food.  And then the amount of money lost trying to work the machines may ultimately double the cost that your people have to pay to provide you with a meal. I always told my parents it was them not the food that I appreciated most about the visits.

The COs set the tone for the visiting room experience and while there were a few that had customer service and people skills when dealing with the people caning in for visits, many COs treated them almost as badly as they treated the inmates.  Some COs would actually recognize my parents as regular visitors while there were others that were openly hostile and rude. Then there were those COs who didn’t regularly work in the visiting room but are pressed into service by an absence and have no clue how to organize and control the large crowds coming and going, resulting in chaos.

There aren’t any restrooms in the visiting area so visitors and inmates have to processed out and back in, and this can take a while.  It takes a real iron man to last more than two hours in the visiting room.

Visits may also be terminated if there is a backlog of people trying to get in for a visit and the room is already at capacity.  Holidays and weekends are the worst.  Unless your people were from more than 500 miles away, staff could terminate your visit to make room for others.  More than once my visits were cut short because of this.

Having regular meaningful contact with family and friends is a way to ensure that inmates will have the necessary social stability to survive in the world when they are released from prison, yet visits are made so uncomfortable that it takes a major commitment to keep returning to endure such an arduous ordeal.  You would think from a PR perspective the MDOC would want to use visits as an opportunity to put their best face forward for the public coming through their doors. Now granted some people have been caught attempting to smuggle contraband into facilities on visits and occasionally a wife/girlfriend has tried to perform a sexual favor in the visiting room, but these few instances are exceptions and those coming in should be treated with respect even if the inmates aren’t.

Visits are humiliating for inmates in that upon exiting the visiting room they are subjected to a strip search to ensure that nothing is being brought back into the facility.  I have had to wait more than an hour after my visit ended to be processed out, so I could return to my housing unit.  So, between waiting to get processed into and out of a visit, a two-hour visit took closer to four hours, especially when count time or shift changes occurred and prisoner movement was halted.

Typical jail non-contact visit involves talking on a phone separated by glass.

At least these were contact visits.  In county jail there are no contact visits. Visits occurred with glass viewing and phones.  Some jails have gone to video visits so you don’t even get to see your people face to face.  Everything is done in the name of security, but in reality, it is more about inconvenience that it places upon the staff to deal with the public and a failure to appreciate how a little good will would go a long way towards prisoner morale, which ultimately translates into a safer, less stressful prison environment.

Example of video visitation. Set-up varies greatly from jail to jail.

Virtual Reality

When I was in the county jail awaiting sentencing, everyone told me that prison time was what I wanted because the conditions were so much better. Once I got to prison I saw what they meant.  Jail Sucks!  Jumpsuits and shower shoes were the dress code. Meals were either peanut butter or bologna sandwiches, and never enough of either.  No personal property. Communal TV watching.  Non-contact visits.  Grossly overpriced commissary and phone calls.  Locked down 23 hours a day and no yard time.  No general or law library.  No programs except for a weekly Bible study.  Far too many men crammed in far too little space.

When I got to quarantine I nearly cried when they served pizza and ice cream in the chow hall.  I got several sets of uniforms and PJ’s to wear. Daily access to the shower. When I was moved to my first prison assignment I was able to order gym shoes and my own TV.  Gym and Library call-outs weekly, and yard time daily.  A job that paid a few pennies a day and a commissary list with nearly 200 items on it to spend my earnings on. Phone calls and email, contact visits with vending machine food.  Even Level IV was better than doing time in the county jail, which is run like a Level V Maximum security facility.

In 2014 the MDOC came up with the Virtual Prison Program (VPP) not to be confused with the Violence Prevention Program (also VPP).  VPP sends those with sentences of up to 4 years or less to up to 2 years in a county jail, either prior to or after completion of any required programming.  The intent was to fill up under-utilized space in out-state county jails and reduce the number of prisons operated directly by the MDOC.  The decision to send someone to VPP was made either in quarantine or at any point during incarceration.  If you refused to go the department would up your security level which pretty much guaranteed a flop the first time you go to see the Parole Board.

Up to two years in the miserable conditions of a county jail without benefit of the good time credit that inmates sentenced to jail time received of two months on the year.  Only basic medical treatment available from the jail’s nurse.  Not even routine dental such as teeth cleaning is available.  No benefit for being a MDOC prisoner except for a longer non-contact visit being permitted.  Forced to pay higher jail commissary prices for a very limited store list, like $1 Raman noodles and no microwave to cook them in. No access to a Law Library so you can mount an appeal.  No access to voluntary programming to aid you in your rehabilitation.  Back to living in jumpsuits and shower shoes.  No fresh air, no gym.

How can this be anything but cruel and unusual punishment?  To serve twice as long as anyone sentenced to county jail time under those conditions.  Forced to pay more for commissary and phone calls then their prison counterparts.  Deprived of contact visits. Forced to endure a near starvation diet and all the other hardships doesn’t seem fair and equitable to the treatment received by their prison counterparts.  How can the state justify running this type of program?  It must be cheaper than the $23,000 per year cost that it is purported to cost the MDOC to house Level 1 prisoners.  Being able to run this type of program to save money doesn’t mean they should.

As a footnote: The program was canceled in 2016 because the MDOC was not reimbursing the counties in anything close to a timely manner.  The county jails refused to continue to accept prisoners from the MDOC.

The Tooth Fairy

tooth fairy

Getting dental services in prison is like pulling teeth.  It may be more accurate to state that dental services in prison consists of pulling teeth and not much else.  The year before I paroled the MDOC changed the policy so that anyone with less than two years in prison didn’t qualify for a teeth cleaning.  With tooth brushes of such poor quality and the removal of dental floss from the commissary it would be very difficult to forestall serious degradation in oral health during this period. How can they justify this policy?

I met several men with such bad teeth that they purposefully did not brush in an attempt to get their teeth to rot enough that dental would have to pull them out and give them dentures.  They had served long sentences and had lost enough teeth that chewing food was difficult and smiling was out of the question.  Their bad breath went beyond halitosis and smelled of rot as they let nature take its course and dental one tooth at a time.

My first encounter with dental was while I was in quarantine at RGC.  Upon arrival at prison after sentencing the first several days were filled with medical, dental and classification appointments.  The dental appointment consisted of an exam to document the condition of my teeth.  They took x-rays and performed a physical exam with a dental tool.  Immediately afterwards I developed a gum infection that resulted in the significant loss of tissue around the base of my tooth.  They don’t have alcohol-based mouth wash in prison so my only option was to get salt to gargle with.  I suspect the dental tool was not properly sterilized.

While I was in Level I a gold crown came loose and fell out.  I submitted an urgent kite to dental to have the dentist re-glue the crown.  Several weeks later I got to see the dentist. It was a struggle to get the crown reinstalled, but he got it in.  Five years later it came out again.

By then I was at a different facility.  I submitted another urgent kite to dental and a month later they saw me.  This time they said they would not re-glue the crown because the policy had changed.  My option was to have the tooth pulled or leave it alone.  Since I was only six months to my out date I elected to leave it alone.  By the time I got to see a dentist out in the world the gap between my teeth had closed and the crown could not be reinstalled.  I ended up spending $1400 to get a new crown.

I made sure to request teeth cleaning every year.  The waiting list to get teeth cleanings was so long that several times the time between cleanings was closer to 1½ years.  When I got home and had my first teeth cleaning the condition of my teeth and guns was poor enough that they scheduled additional teeth cleanings to address the issues.

My experience is typical.  What is urgent and simple to fix in the world can’t be done in prison.  Since when did pulling a tooth become cheaper than preferred to re-gluing my existing crown?  I can understand not wanting to perform an expensive procedure like installing a new crown, but this wasn’t the case.  Just some bean counter at the medical service provider made a cost cutting decision that is not medically sound.

I’ve already told my favorite dental horror story elsewhere about the guy who was mis-diagnosed and suffered a botched root canal and suffered with extreme pain due to a mis-diagnosis of his cancer.

dental humor

For those who get their teeth pulled it was a painful, bloody experience.  One of my bunkies got a tooth pulled and all they gave him were a small handful of aspirin packets to deal with the pain and gauze to repack the hole until the bleeding stopped.  With his face swollen up like a chipmunk with a cheek full of nuts he was unable to sleep or eat for several days.  All for a cavity they wouldn’t fill.

Even the dentists I dealt with were generally apologetic about the policies that prevented them from providing what would be considered reasonable services in the world.  And they should know.  The dentists either had a private practice in the local community and worked at the prison part time or retired from private practice and were just supplementing their retirement and keeping busy.

The Princess and the Pea

princess and pea
A stack of prison mattresses like this would look like heaven to most inmates.  

In the fairy tale the princess was a very sensitive sleeper and could feel a pea under a stack of mattresses.  She certainly would have been unable to sleep at all in the MDOC.  I used to think my college dormitory mattress was bad until I tried to sleep on a prison mattress.

Prison mattresses like everything else are constructed from materials that are inflammable.  They are simple constructions without box springs that fit the metal frame bunkbeds. The mattresses are manufactured by MSI (Michigan State Industries- a prison factory owned and operated in conjunction with the MDOC).  These mattresses are nothing to write home about, except I guess I am.  A few years ago, under the Granholm administration the MDOC contracted an empty prison to the state of Pennsylvania to house their prisoners.  One of several things that they found unacceptable and required to be changed was the mattresses.  As a result, MSI changed from the 3-inch thick solid fill to a 5-inch foam filled style mattress.  While the state of Pennsylvania left in a year, MSI continued to make the new mattress.  The unit counselor is responsible for ordering supplies for the housing unit and has a budget to order replacement mattresses to replace those that are ripped and torn. getting a new mattress is like winning the lottery.  The counselors always wanted to come in under budget so items like mattresses got ordered only under the most extenuating circumstances.

Cotton filled Mattresses are produced using a 12.5 oz. Light Green Colored Sure-Chek Vinyl Ticking, filled with fire-retardant treated cotton and tufted with a nylon tuft with plastic ends to prevent cotton from shifting.  These tufts will not trigger metal detectors or give a false reading when scanned and are visible on our outer tufted mattresses.  Inner tufted mattresses are preferred and highly recommended for                                                                                  more sanitary and durability concerns. 
                                                                         Product#  3282
                                                                         Type inner tufted
                                                                         Size 30″ x 76″ x 4″   
                                                                         Price: $67.80  

Michigan State Industries Website

Whenever a bed opens up, the first thing that happens is someone will check to see if the mattress on the empty bunk is better than the one they have.  It is a game of musical mattresses. Guys going home might even will their mattress to a friend.  For those less fortunate it may be a case of turning the mattress over and end to end in the vain quest to find the least uncomfortable set of lumps to sleep on.

At my last facility cost cutting got so involved that instead of replacing worn out mattresses the old ones simply had new covers sown unto them to cover up the worn, ripped and torn covers leaving the lumps.  It was obvious that the person who made this decision never tried to sleep on one of these old mattresses.

The Ministry of Silly Walks

Silly Walks The British comedy troupe Monty Python made fun of government bureaucrats in a sketch called ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks.’  In it they portrayed a number of characters with striding characteristics each more outrageous than the next.  If you spend any amount of time in prison you will quickly come to understand that life is stranger than fiction.

The Chain-Gang is the standard method of transporting prisoners outside of the facility. It involves not only the use of handcuffs but also belly chains and leg irons.  The intention is to make it impossible for a person to escape by making it impossible to run. Your hands are cuffed at your sides so that you can’t even scratch your nose.  Your ankles are cuffed together with about 16 inches of chain.  The result is that you cannot take a full stride but must shuffle your feet along.  To see a line of men walking this way is like viewing the March of the Penguins.  Arms hanging limp at their sides, straight legged they shuffle single file at the direction of the officers.  After only a couple of steps the bruises will begin to form as the front leg jerks the cuff of the back leg.  The cuff rests on the ankle bone making it very uncomfortable, especially for those with cankles.

In level IV you are locked down 20+ hours a day.  When you have the opportunity to get out of your cell to go someplace like the chow hall you tend to take your time in order to savor the fresh air and every possible minute outside of your cell.  The Level IV Shuffle looks a lot like the Chain-Gang except that there are no restraints involved.  Hands shoved into pants, legs straight, feet dragging as you slowly move in the intended direction. Progress needs to be sufficient so as to not incur the wrath of the guards who are impatiently escorting you in a scene that looks a bit like herding cats.  Men who have been locked down separately from their associates group up to carry on conversations from their last promenade at the slowest possible pace.

With the closing of state mental hospitals, the prison system has become the dumping ground for the mentally disturbed.  Without adequate mental health care, they end up in trouble with the law for trying to self-medicate or anti-social behavior.  Psychiatric care in prison frequently devolves in sedation.  When they are not sleeping the day away on their bunks you can spot them by their slow, zombie like walk known as the Thorazine Shuffle. At some facilities there are whole units dedicated to housing those participating in outpatient therapy.  At chow time it looks like a scene out of “The Night of The Living Dead” as they stagger to the chow hall.

In prison, how you walk can be part of your fashion statement or possibly a result of it. There is a fashion trend known as “Sagging” in which young men wear the waist of their pants on their upper legs thus exposing the tops of their boxers.  The pants tend to be extra-large and as a result the crotch sags down to their knees.  This fashion statement is meant to defy authority since it is against the rules and could result in a ticket.  The practice of Sagging occurs both inside and outside of prison and is an anti-authority statement.  To keep the pants from falling down one hand must be occupied holding the pants in the designated position.  Activities that require both hands place the individual at the risk of dropping their pants.  One time I had an older gentleman tell me that he had warned his son that if he didn’t keep his pants pulled up properly that one day it would be his downfall. Sure enough, the son tried running from the police with his pants sagging and they fell down and he was captured.  In prison the fashion statement is taken to the extreme with pant waists below the butt exposing two pairs of prison shorts plus boxers in a multi-layer effect.  This fashion faux pas knows no bounds because I have seen guys wearing extremely over-sized sweat suits jogging on the track with one had desperately trying to hold their pants up.  You’d think they’d learned their lesson the first time when they originally got caught.

The average age of prisoners is increasing in Michigan and is now over 40 years of age. This is the result of both the increased length of sentences keeping in prison longer and the number of seniors now coming to prison, many for the first time.  As a result, there is an increasing number of prisoners with physical infirmities that either need a cane or a wheel chair to get around.  We refer to these as Sticks and Wheels.  Now just about everyone in prison is looking for an edge and having a medical disability is a frequent way guys attempt to get that edge.  Having a wheel chair or cane may qualify a person for a special early chow detail and use of an assistant to carry their meal tray.  And not two hours later the same guy may be spotted in the weight pit doing squats or running on the track. I’m not saying that everyone in a wheel chair or using a cane is faking it, but I’ve seen more than my share of miracles.

At the other extreme I’ve seen guys in such poor health that moving from a bunk or toilet to a wheel chair is almost borderline impossible.  Broken bodies that cannot run the gauntlet of double doors, narrow halls and over-crowded living situations.  Men in such poor health that they need to be in assisted living watched over by a nurse and not a guard.  Those who can no longer care for themselves let alone hurt another person.

Putting an air of confidence is important but it can be taken a bit too far on occasion resulting in a walk straight off a Paris fashion runway or a 1970s Superfly movie.  Long leg stride with loose hips and wide slung shoulders, one arm thrusting sharply down. Head erect, eyes forward checking to make sure that all eyes are on him.  All that’s missing is the purple pimp suit with the felt hat and feather.  Someone who knows they’ve got it all going on and are “too cool for school.”  This walk is usually associated with a person who sees them self as a gangster living the hip hop lifestyle.  It is a walk meant to impress, but in prison we’re still not sure who.

As mentioned before there are a lot of seniors in prison and early mornings on the big yard look a bit like early mornings at the mall.  Mall Walkers are health conscious seniors who walk as a primary means of exercise.  Since there are no malls or indoor tracks they have to go out to the big yard and walk the track in the early morning, which allows them to beat the crowds of younger people later in the day.  Since the seniors tend to be early risers and the younger people sleep in it is just part of their natural cycles to separate themselves.  To be a true Mall Walker in prison takes dedication since you’ll be outdoors in all kinds of weather undeterred by only the most brutal winter weather or monsoonal rains.  Mall Walkers tend to walk alone with their thoughts.  They are not the fastest people on the track and probably don’t work up a heavy sweat, but have heeded their doctor’s warnings and will get a couple of miles in before retiring to a park bench for the rest of the day.

The middle age counterpart to the Mall Walker is the Power Walker.  More than likely many Mall Walkers are retired Power Walkers.  Power Walkers are people who can no longer run due to health conditions like bad knees. They follow their doctor’s advice to get their heart rate elevated for at least 30 minutes 3 to 5 times per week.  Many Power Walkers remember their youth from 5-10 years ago when playing softball on the weekend didn’t take all week to recover from it.  Brisk walking with swinging arm motion really gets the blood pumping, burns calories, and reduces stress.  It is also a good way to get out of the house.  Out in the world many of these people would probably have a large dog to walk.  In prison they walk singly or in pairs and are forced to weave in and out of traffic as they move at a higher rate of speed than the average track walker.

The most dedicated athletes on the track is the Weekend Warrior.  They run laps, do calisthenics and play sports, but this is a fair-weather crowd.  If it is rainy or too cold and snowy they prefer to stay indoors and play cards.  They have a well-rounded exercise program easily distinguished from the Weight Lifters and Body Builders who are in the weight pit or doing calisthenics religiously, but rarely if ever run.  This group is least likely to continue their regiment once they get out of prison.

The Body Builders are distinguished from the Weight Lifters by their goals. Weight Lifters brag about the massive amount of weight they can lift while Body Builders are regularly seen in front of the bathroom mirror flexing. The Weight Lifters and Body Builders are the most prone to sports injury and suffer long term disability because of their “no pain, no gain” philosophy.

The Average Joe out walking the track however isn’t there for any health benefit.  They are there because there is nothing else to do.  They walk in groups of two to six people wandering aimlessly around the track.  They gossip, joke, tell tall tales, and brag about what brought them to prison. They promenade around the track making it difficult for all the other groups by turning it into an obstacle course.  At times the track looks more like rush hour on a Detroit freeway than a NASCAR race because of them.

Tether Ball and Chain

ball and chain

As a condition of my parole I had to wear a GPS tether.  Tethers have become a common tool utilized both for parole and for those on bond awaiting trial.  It provides a way to control moderate risk individuals without having to incarcerate them.  Tethers come in two standard types. Alcohol tethers are used to monitor an individual and raise an alert if alcohol is consumed in violation of their parole conditions.  GPS tethers monitor an individual’s location to within 3 feet. This is useful for those serving house arrest or have restrictions on where an individual is allowed to travel.  Sounds reasonable right?

Like so many other things associated with the MDOC the reality of the situation is not at all like the theory.  While placing a person on tether means that they are not locked up and costing the state $23,000 per year, in fact it doesn’t cost the state anything, the person being monitored is required to cover the cost.  In the case of GPS tether the fee charged is around $363 per month. For a 24-month parole that is $8712.  Making monthly payments is a requirement of parole.  Failure to do so is a parole violation and could send you back to prison.  While I didn’t have to pay the full amount every month I had to pay something.  Any unpaid amount remaining at the end of the parole would be turned over to a collection agency.

Those on GPS tether not only have their every movement tracked.  Every movement away from home must be scheduled and approved in advance by your parole agent.  The date, time, location, and purpose of the trip had to be disclosed.  No spur of the moment decisions like running to the corner store for milk when you run out or accepting an invitation for coffee today. Life becomes deliberate, ordered, and simplified, in other words a lot like prison.

Parole is supposed to be a transition period from the controlled environment of prison back into society.  But where is the transition? Parole conditions remain static during the entire parole period.  There were no milestones that would restore additional freedoms, such as successful completion of programming, successful drug screenings, or attaining gainful employment.

As with everything else associated with the MDOC it’s all stick and no carrot.  At the time that the GPS tether was attached to my leg, I was informed that if I was to cut it off in an attempt to abscond from parole I would be subject to a $10,000 fee for what is at most a $100 piece of electronics.  GPS tethers are another example of a contracted service.  Somebody, sometime, sold the state a bill of goods scheme to make money for themselves and the department.  While I was in prison the rumor was that the state had bought 10,000 tethers in preparation of a move to reduce the prison population by increasing the number of people granted parole at their ERD.  While the parole rates have increased and prison population has decreased I can’t say for certain whether or not tethers played a role in this. All I know is that my decision regarding a plea agreement in my case was predicated on the low odds of receiving a parole at my ERD.  When I did receive my parole at my ERD, it was evident that something had changed. And that if the current conditions had prevailed at the time of my sentencing I have pursued a different plea.  But that is water under the bridge.  You can only make decisions based on the present, not an unknown future.

GPS tethers are routinely used as a condition of bail for those considered a moderate flight risk.  A recent case brought out an interesting bit of information.  A youthful offender accused of a violent crime was denied bail even with a GPS tether because the prosecution claimed that the tether could be cut off on a Friday evening and that there would be no one to follow-up on the abscondsion until Monday, thus giving the accused 2 days to flee.  This claim doesn’t jive with my experience.  If I was out of place the tether would alert me and if I didn’t get home within 10 minutes, I could expect a call from the monitoring center inquiring as to my whereabouts.  If I did not respond to a phone call the tether could be remotely triggered to alert me to call in.  I find it difficult to believe that if I failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact me that my parole agent wouldn’t be alerted, even on the weekend.  While parole agents don’t work 24/7 there is always somebody on duty and no doubt the police would be notified certainly in less than the 2 days claimed by the prosecutor.  Because if that is the case there is 2/7 of the time a gaping hole in the system.

At my first meeting with my parole agent I was informed that the tether required 2 hours to recharge every day.  One twelfth of every day for 2 years was spent sitting in a chair plugged into an electrical outlet, 1460 hours or 60.83 days give or take of enforced down time.  The tether connects to the charger using magnets so I did not trust myself to try and recharge while sleeping since rolling over under the covers could dislodge the charger.

I also did not get a good night’s sleep while wearing the tether.  It was loose on my ankle and if I slept wrong it could get pinned between my leg and the bed.  That was enough at times for the tether to lose contact with the GPS satellite.  When that happened, the tether would flash a warning light and vibrate.  Generally, that was enough to wake me up.  Then I would have to get up and move around in order to reestablish contact.  At times it was even necessary to go outside under the open sky to make contact.  At least a hand full of times I got called because my GPS was triggered by the loss of signal while I slept.

I had heard stories of guys using aluminum foil to block the signal of their tether for short periods of time to sneak off without disclosing their true location.  They probably lied about their whereabouts to the monitoring agent.  I never could understand how my body could shield the GPS signal in my own one-story house, while I could ride up an elevator in an office building without incident.  I guess it just goes to prove that this technology isn’t fool proof.  In my experience serving parole on GPS tether is a lot like boat ownership.  The happiest days are the first and last, and it is an expensive hobby with lots of hidden responsibilities.


sand paper

Nothing epitomizes the prison experience better than the 1-ply toilet paper that is available for personal hygiene.  It is bought in bulk, delivered by the pallet to the housing units but passed out sparingly, used thoughtlessly, and discarded unceremoniously.  Toilet paper (TP) is essential and yet taken for granted.  There is nothing cottony soft about the industrial grade sandpaper that is purchased for prisoner use.  Think of the flimsiest, least absorbent, roughest TP you have used in a public bathroom.  Now imagine having to use it 24/7/365 instead of once in a blue moon.  The idea should rub you the wrong way, let alone the reality.

There are however at least 101 uses for TP in prison.  Besides the obvious use as Kleenex for blowing your nose it has other uses that you would have thought of at home.  TP is used for wedging between the bunk bed and the wall to keep the bed from shaking when your bunkie hops off the top bunk. The average is between 4 – 8 rolls for every bunk. In the higher security levels, the bunks are secured to the floor, so depending on the distance 2 rolls may be squashed together to bridge the gap.  In Level I the bunks are generally free range and so a single roll is sufficient since the bunk can be pushed into the wall.

TP is a useful substitute for paper towels in the kitchenette.  Paper towels are had to come by so TP is used to clean up the mess left by the previous microwave chef.  Wads of TP can serve as pot holders for a hot dish.  TP also serves as napkins for wiping fingers and faces.

TP is also used as ear plugs.  The housing units are noisy and ear plugs are very helpful for getting a good night’s sleep.  If you don’t have a pair of real foam ones that are sold in the commissary then wads of TP stuffed in the ears will work in a pinch.  With 160 guys living in a space originally designed for 80 there is a good chance someone in your area either saws logs in their sleep with a chain saw or stays awake all night laughing at the TV or working on their latest rap song.

Partial TP rolls are carelessly abandoned in the bathroom stalls by owners who have dropped them on the filthy floor and do not want to risk contaminating their locker with stray fecal material or rolls that have become wet sponges soaking up sweaty toilet water and urine.  More than once I accidentally dropped brand new rolls on the floor of the bathroom. You just have to write them off and move on.

Large commercial rolls in the bathrooms were ruled a fire hazard and removed from the housing units.  The metal hardware that was abandoned has become a theft target for those trying to arm themselves.  Although few were successful at liberating the metal bars and brackets that were so securely attached that they will still be standing when the building has fallen down around them.

As ubiquitous as TP maybe it sometimes becomes a valuable commodity. When the TP supply runs out in the housing unit a day or two before the supply truck is scheduled to deliver more, guys will resort to theft to get a roll when nature calls.  Someone else’s unattended roll left carelessly on a desk or a bunk may become wobbly.  Why inconvenience yourself or your bunkie when you can grab someone else’s wedge?

TP rolls constantly fly around when lobbed randomly from cube to cube in an undeclared war over music volume or sports rivalries.  This certainly beats the alternative when AA or D cell batteries begin to fly!

TP is hoarded by those who don’t want to do without.  But you can’t take it with you. I’ve seen COs fill trash bags full of rolls when shaking down a cube.  But as with all the other cat and games that inmates and COs engage in the previous owners of those TP rolls will reload in just a matter of days by hitting up every CO on every shift for rolls from the stash that was relocated from their cube to the officer’s station.

Even the card board box the case of TP is shipped and stored in may have a second life as building materials for art projects or shelving units inside lockers.  This card board is considered contraband and the inmates really aren’t supposed to use it.  But depending on the whims of the housing unit counselor or COs they my or not make a point of removing these temporary infrastructure improvements.  And the cat and mouse nature of the inmate/CO relationship will result in these structures being rebuilt as soon as they are removed like a beaver damning a stream with single-minded determination.

While you might not think of it TP is a useful art supply.  More specifically the card board tube at the center of the roll finds a second life as a container for holding colored pencils or pens. It may also become a work of art by incorporating the stiff card board into building structures created by hobby craft enthusiasts.

TP my not be the most glamorous thing but you certainly miss it when the nice 2-p1y that so many enjoy in the free world is not available.  There was a better grade of TP available for $0.78 per roll in the commissary, but when most inmates don’t have any source of outside support and the average pay for prison jobs is less than $1 per day, the price for TP puts it out of reach. Also compared to the $0.50 per roll or less that most people pay in the free the prison cost makes it a luxury item with a 50% mark-up.

Satanic Psalms

In prison, rap lyrics are the only style of music that you hear being recited endlessly without the aid of a radio or MP3 player.  People don’t just sing along, they have memorized the words and meditate on them: “get money”; “bitches” and “ho’,”: “nigga”this and “nigga” that; Steal, Kill, and Destroy.  Rap lyrics are satanic psalms.

A friend once said that he didn’t think he’d be able to go to the bathroom out in the world because there wouldn’t be some guy in the next stall rapping.  There are wanna be rappers in the housing units, the chow hall, the school, waiting in lines-everywhere, not just on the yard.  They speak out loud into the air, but mostly to themselves.  Some original pieces, but most what they have learned from commercial artists.

Like your home town or gang affiliation, there are certain artists that are liked and others that are disliked.  Most have studied intently the biographies of their favorite artists and follow them on TV, radio, and in print.  When the next song comes out they gotta have it and discuss it among themselves like theologians or philosophers seeking to get all of the nuanced meaning out of the lyrics.

When a person spends their time, hour upon hour, meditating on, thinking about, internalizing and identifying with the ideas, lifestyle and morality expressed in music, it penetrates down deep into the bones and psyche. The old adage is true “you are what you eat.”  By saturating yourself in rap music you become enamored with violence, sex, drugs, gangs, selfish and self-gratifying behavior.  It is all you know, destroying any desire to learn about anything else.

By allowing rap music into prisons by way of TV, MP3 downloads and television, the MDOC allows the perpetuation of these errors in thinking: the dysfunctional and dystopian world view, the depraved and denigrating view of women, the glorification of violence and drugs as a way of life that brought so many to prison in the first place and keeps returning them in through a revolving door.

By living in an isolated sub-culture that has no redeeming value, no positive contribution to the greater society, fails to provide for itself through legal means, fails to utilize government programs as they are intended but rather uses the resources to perpetuate the lifestyle from generation to generation. The result is that 25% of the American population which identifies itself as African-American represents 50% of the incarcerated in the U.S.

Proverbs 23: 7 says, “For as a man thinks in his heart, so he is.”  Prison is intended to take a person out of a society in which they committed the offense and be rehabilitated so that they can be released without exposing the society to further risk.  As long as rap music is allowed to remain in prison, with its sub-culture, then it is undermining attempts at rehabilitation by singing its siren song.

Psalms 1:1-5 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law, he meditates day and night.  He shall be like a tree planted by rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither and whatever he does shall prosper.”

Psalms 1 makes it clear that if you do the right things and think about the right things, you will be successful in life.  Prison needs to be about training those who have broken the law, not only to do the right thing next time, but to think in positive, constructive ways.  Education, both vocational and moral must be taught to those who do not have socially acceptable job skills or behavior. Raise the expectations for those in prison to change their behavior, to acquire the knowledge and skills required to make a legal living.  In some cases, it may need to be looked at like trying to deprogram someone who has spent time in a cult.  You have to remove them from the environment and then present compelling reasons to change, coupled with new information to overwrite the old.  Intensive programming like that must occur not only in the classroom or therapy group, but in the housing unit as well.

It doesn’t do to give the kids a bath when they are muddy and then let them go out and roll around in the muddy backyard.  You need to plant grass and provide other activities for them to participate in if you want them to stay clean.  The MDOC is only just beginning to understand this concept. Vocational students are being placed in housing units together with the intent of fostering a living environment that will make the learning process more effective.  If you don’t create an environment where you go to bed at a reasonable time and get up ready to work in the morning, the vocational training will not be placed within the context of developing good work habits or work ethics.

Sex offender programming is being conducted in sex offender housing units. This is a step in the right direction, however, if you don’t remove pornography and sexually explicit materials from the unit or block overtly sexual images from TV you are not going to help the person with a sexual addiction.  The same is true of violence and drugs.  Violent people need to be removed from conflict and drugs and alcohol need to be removed from the grasp of the addict.

If the MDOC can’t control the environment in prison then they aren’t really in control, the inmates are.  Very few people will successfully be able to change with help, let alone on their own in a negative environment.  It is the exception, not the rule, for a person to rise from poverty to wealth from illiteracy and ignorance to knowledge and comprehension, or from addiction to health.  You have to take the person out of the place where the problems allowed to flourish or fix the place before you can begin to address the problem effectively.

A simple place to start with is rap music.  It is not an attack on any specific ethnic group or race, but a necessary step to take control of undesirable sub-cultural influences that have a negative effect on the prison environment and is contrary to the departments goals for rehabilitation and correction.

Room Without A View

St. Louis Correctional

St. Louis Correctional Facility- the largest Level IV prison in Michigan.

Jails and prisons are not known for their hospitality, luxury, comfort, convenience, or aesthetics.  They are utilitarian facilities designed for security, control, functionality, and durability. The compound consists of a secure perimeter designed for controlled entrance and egress.  Razor wire, cameras, notion sensors, officer patrols on foot and by vehicle, inspections, metal detectors and body searches are the basis of security on the perimeter.  Prisons in many ways are based on the military model.  The difference being the focus on keeping inmates in.  However, with the advent of drones, smuggling contraband like cell phones and drugs in prison security is having to adapt to these new threats.

In the MDOC there are currently four levels of security: Level I, II, IV, and V. Level V is maximum security.  I’ve never been there but they tell me it’s not nice.  There are two ways to get there.  Maximum security is for those that are uncontrollable at lower levels of security or the entry point into the prison system for those serving life or very long sentences.

Level V is one-man cells, highly controlled movement and no creature comforts.  No personal property, no gym or yard time, no libraries, TVs, or day rooms.  Locked down 23 hours a day with only brief exercise periods outside in a cage.  Good behavior is the only way out.

Level IV is two-man cells, controlled movement and limited creature comforts.  Basic personal property like athletic shoes, radios, TVs, and books.  Locked down 22 hours a day with access to yard time and the day room.  Call outs for the gym, library and school are available. There are two types of level IV facilities.  There are those that stand alone and those that are part of a multi-level facility.  The latter type was the type of level IV that I’ve experienced.

Level IV is also a destination for those whose behavior could not be controlled in general population or for those with more than seven years to serve till their ERD.  I spent seven months in Level IV.  In multi-level facilities level IV prisoners are segregated and not allowed to interact with those from other levels.  Separate yard, gym, library, medical, chow and visits.

In level IV cells the doors lock from the outside.  The furniture is bolted to the floor.  The toilet is in the cell.  The windows have bars over the glass and only a small vent to get fresh air. An officer must let you out of your cell to go to work, take a shower, attend call outs or do anything at all.  Church services were held in the housing unit and inmate lead with occasional outside volunteer speakers.

Level II along with level I is called General Population.  Level II is as far down as lifers will ever get.  Two-man cells and they give you your own room key.  Incoming prisoners with a minimum of 5 years to serve and a maximum of 7 years are generally assigned to level II.  Prisoners with disciplinary issues in level I and sent to level II.  In fact, some people dislike level I so much that they will intentionally earn enough points from minor tickets to get sent to level II.

In multi-level facilities level I and II prisoners go to school together, worship together, attend gym, library and medical callouts together and go on visits together.  They used to share the big yard together but there at the multi-level facility I was at they separated the big yard time for level I and II there because there was too much violence.

The cells have a bunk bed, two desks with chairs and two lockers.  While the windows have a vent to get fresh air there were no bars over them.  Toilets and showers were down the hall. A big improvement over level IV.

One of the best things about level II was access to a microwave oven.  It’s no fun preparing Raman Noodles or instant coffee with warm tap water from the bathroom sink faucet in your level IV cell.

Level I facility housing units are mostly pole barn style dormitories with open cubicles. Level V, IV, II and unsecured level I housing units are cell based.  There are two types of level I facilities- secured and unsecured. Unsecured level I is for level I prisoners with less than two years to their ERD, ticket free and don’t have certain restricted convictions. These prisoners are generally gate pass eligible to work jobs outside the compound fences.  For those qualified, unsecured level I represents an oasis of peace and quiet.  The housing unit still has a fence with barbed wire but not the double row that surrounds secure facilities.  Unsecured level I has come and gone several times as bed space was required.  Technically being located outside the secure facility means that the inmates housed there have limited access to the compound only for medical and the visiting room.  They have their own small yard and meals are served in the housing unit.

Secured level I comprises roughly half of the bed space in the MDOC. When the prison population exploded in the 1980s the MDOC went on a building spree and created what they referred to as “Temporary” facilities.  Rather than utilizing cells the housing units are an open dormitory design with cubicles subdividing the pole barn structure along hallways. While most prisons were made to last, these pole barns were not designed to remain in service as long as they have and it really shows.

I was at level I Temporary facilities with pole barn housing units and they were really showing their age.  Poorly insulated, poorly lighted, bare concrete floors, endless plumbing problems, dusty and a security nightmare.  At my last facility they were closing the pole barns one at a time to perform major repairs and updating things like security cameras.

Originally built to house 80 inmates per unit the pole barns have had their capacity doubled to 160 beds, but not toilets, showers, sinks or day room seating.  According to the American Correctional Association each inmate should have 60 sq. ft. of space in semi-private sleeping areas. In an 8 man cube the furniture takes up all the space and I only had a couple of square feet in front of my bed. Just enough room to put my feet on the floor as I sat on my bed or looked into my locker.

The pole barns were built in the 1980s and 90s.  The biggest thing to change in the MDOC since then is the level of violence in level I.  When the prison population expanded, and prison facilities proliferated these level I temporary facilities were like honors units.  Due to a few bad incidents the work camps and farms were closed and these prisoners were moved to these new secure facilities.  Violence wasn’t tolerated and those that engaged in it found themselves back behind the walls of the old prison in Jackson.

After the closing of the old walled prison and the pressure to reduce cost more inmates were moved into the pole barns including those with violent crimes, less than stellar institutional records or gang affiliation.  The result is that the open design lead to problems with theft and violence inside the housing units.  To address this while I was there they added wire cage structures to the top of the walls that separated the cubicles in the front and back halls and added additional security cameras.  Like putting a Band-Aid on cancer, a cosmetic fix for a truly institutional problem.

Security cameras don’t make things safer.  After the fact they might provide evidence to identify the perpetrator but the damage has already been done. And in an ironic twist, the same cameras used to convict are conveniently broken or didn’t show anything when an innate seeks to use video to exonerate themselves.  But inmates have to take the Inspectors word for it since they can’t be shown the video since it is a security rule.

The wire caging goes from the top of the wall up to the ceiling to prevent inmates and stolen property from crossing from one side of the housing unit to the other out of sight of the cameras which look up and down the halls.  The caging was nothing fancy.  It took the inmate maintenance crew two days to install the panels.  Only time will tell whether these measures will reduce theft and violence in level I pole barns.

As a cost saving measure a few years ago the MDOC closed the level V prison in Standish. That again had a ripple effect across the MDOC.  It wasn’t that there were fewer level V prisoners, they simply waved the security classification to move inmates to lower security levels- V to IV, IV to II, and II to I.  The higher the security level the higher the cost of incarceration.  Level V costs more than twice the cost to house an inmate in level I.  While cutting cost was a political decision when the legislature reduced the department’s budget, it failed to account for the human cost. When inmates are placed in a lower security level it should be because they have demonstrated good behavior and cooperation in completing programming.  The issue is that you end up in prison because of bad behavior and time in prison alone won’t improve it.  The higher levels are intended to reduce the inmate’s ability to cause mischief through isolation. So, the inmates institutional record at the higher levels by its self my not be a good predictor of what will happen at lower levels.  By waving initiates to lower levels, the MDOC let predators lose in the lower security levels.  There were still in prison where the general public was protected from than but free to hurt other inmates.  But they’re just inmates, right?

Housing units in the MDOC are not air conditioned.  During the summer the air temperature inside will often exceed 80˚F and with a heat wave can approach 90˚F or higher.  Without air conditioning there is no dehumidification so you also have to account for the heat index as well.

The school, medical and administration buildings where the staff work do have air conditioning and many of the housing unit counselors have retrofit air conditioners installed in their offices.  So apparently suffering through the heat is part of the punishment.

For those inmates with certain medical conditions where hot temperatures could put them at risk for a medical emergency their medical classification will include an accommodation for heat related illness that will allow them to utilize designated cooling centers when the facility is under a heat advisory.  Heat advisories are issued when the heat index goes above 100˚F. During a heat advisory all strenuous activity is curtailed, no weight pit, no outdoor sports of any kind.

When it gets hot in the housing unit it tends to remain hot.  The brick and concrete construction absorbs the heat and holds it long after it cools off outside.  I had many miserable nights unable to sleep because it was too hot.  There is little air movement because the windows in Level II and IV only have small vents for fresh air.  With the cell doors closed there is no way to generate air movement.  The level I pole barns have slightly larger windows which open with screens.  Unfortunately, the building design prohibits good air circulation.  Ceiling fans do little to move air in/out of the building.  The bunks closet to the windows are highly coveted because they are the only that benefit from the fresh air.

The heat really takes its toll physically and heat stroke is a real possibility. In housing units with fixed temperature controls in the showers even taking a cool isn’t an option.  The small personal fans do almost nothing to alleviate the discomfort.

Most facilities don’t have ice makers in the housing units.  Those that do can’t provide enough ice to cool 160 men.  You could expect that it would be empty before count time and that there would be a stampede when count clears as guys try to beat the adage about ice water in hell.