Tom Modell, the spokesman for the Motel 6 lodging chain used to end his commercials by saying, “We’ll leave a light on for you.” A friendly way of letting people know that they were always prepared to receive guests. The MDOC by contrast is more like the “Hotel California” in that “you can check out any time you want but you can never leave.” Prison and county jails for many are like a rat’s maze that is difficult to navigate, full of many dead ends, and all the exits seem to lead right back in.
Like all areas of government in this day and age, financial resources are tight, yet jails and prisons are critically over crowded. Being asked to do more with less has resulted in a situation where jails and prisons more closely resemble warehouses than rehabilitation centers. It has reached the point where correction has been replaced with punishment. To most, the idea of pointless punishment is considered cruel and unusual, but for the MDOC it is business as usual.
After serving a sentence which is on average 127% of the minimum which is 120% of the federal average, many find themselves back on the streets with a large debt accumulated and limited prospects for an income sufficient to live on let alone spare resources to go toward retiring that debt.
It is the practice of county jails to charge booking fees for each suspect arrested and processed into jail. So, whether you are ultimately found guilty or not you have started accumulating debts which will add up. Many jails also charge inmates a daily rate. Any money found on your person at the time of processing immediately goes toward paying the bill. Any unpaid charges will follow you after your release.
In court you must have legal representation and if you can’t afford a lawyer on will be appointed to you. What used to be provided as a pro bono service by a local attorney or through a public defender’s office at no charge now comes with a significant price. When you pay for your own attorney you must pay up front prior to having services rendered. If you are indigent and can’t afford an attorney they will provide you one and then bill you later. In either case you are out thousands of dollars simply to “negotiate” a plea agreement and tens of thousands of dollars to fight your case in court. Only those with significant financial resources can afford to mount a rigorous defense.
Upon conviction, as part of the sentence agreement you will receive a bill for fines, restitution, and court costs. These will follow you to prison and under state law the MDOC will collect from your prison wages and any deposits to your trust account 50% of what you receive over $50 per month, and if you have multiple cases they can take up to your last $20 or $5 if there are federal charges involved.
To ensure that these costs are recouped, the MDOC has the power to seize your assets, and empty your bank accounts and investment savings -anything that is solely in your name. They don’t have the ability to seize anything that is in a joint account or has a second owner named such as a deed to a house or car.
After paying off the fines, restitution, and court costs including court appointed attorney, the MDOC can then charge prisoners a daily rate for their incarceration, until the seized financial resources have been consumed. Paying for your own room and board in prison does not entitle you to any extra privileges, no extra helping at chow, and no mint on your pillow.
In theory the prison chow hall diet is based on 2000 calories per day, but the reality is somewhat less than filling. Most people will lose 10-20 pounds in prison. Overweight people may lose 50 pounds or more as their fat reserves are tapped. For many, physical activity such as weight lifting, rigorous workouts, and sports are part of a daily routine in prison to help the time pass quicker. However, with increased physical activity comes a biological demand for more calories. To supplement the necessary caloric intake the commissary does a booming business. As this is not a basic necessity but is considered a luxury it comes with a steep price. In county jail a package of Raman noodles may cost a dollar, in prison it costs $0.34, while in the world they go for 10-15 cents each. With a captive market, prisoners pay exorbitant prices for low quality products. Catalog vendors, for instance charge $20 for a pair of sweatpants and another $20 for a sweatshirt that you could buy at WalMart for $15 for the set. Most of what is sold is seconds and irregulars, not high quality durable goods.
Due to safety concerns TVs, radios, headphones, and other appliances approved for purchase must be made of clear plastic so that it is not possible to hide contraband inside. However, some of the plastics used are of an inferior quality and are subject to breakage under conditions of routine usage. A small 13-inch flat screen TV that you probably can’t even buy on the streets will cost you $200.
They say “it sucks to be poor” but it is even worse to be poor in prison. Since the majority of people in prison are from the lover socio-economic classes they and their families are the least able to afford it. Prison didn’t use to be this way. Society paid the cost of keeping the streets safe by paying to incarcerate the violent offenders. Then the “war on drugs” sent a large number of non—violent drug addicts to prison. Prison populations increased dramatically and so did budgets but not at the same rate. Prison officials needing to do more with less have sought ways to charge for services that they previously provided for free. When it’s time to leave prison, you have to turn in your state blues, the state will sell you a pair of khakis cut from the same uniform pattern for $50. Something you wouldn’t even want from the Salvation Army store at half the price.
Dealing with the Quarter Master can be like dealing with a used car sales man. If you lose a towel or a washcloth, they will charge you for them, luxury prices for third world quality. Underwear and socks that are ill fitting and shoes that will ruin your feet. Blankets and sheets are used until they are threadbare and then some. To save money they reduced the number of sets of state blues from 3 pair to 2. At some prisons laundry in only once a week, prisoners have to wear the same set of cloths for days on end.
The MDOC requires that prisoners either attend school or work. Students are paid $0.58 per day for a 5-day school week. Pay rates for the various jobs from porter to kitchen worker and wheel chair pusher to clerks and tutors vary significantly. Most jobs pay less than $1 per day. Depending on whether it is a 3, 4 or 5-day detail or has overtime available some earn as little as $10-15 a month while others may earn as much as $70-100. For those very few who are fortunate to work for the Michigan State Industries (MSI) or Braille Transcription Service income rates may be higher still. Pay rates for prisoners have been stagnate for years and in some cases have gone down significantly, such as when they eliminated bonuses for kitchen workers.
And the cost of living keeps rising so that what little buying power they had has eroded. Currently in the commissary prisoners are allowed to spend $100 per store every two weeks. From this they must purchase their necessary hygiene and food items. For an individual with no outside resources they must live on what little income they have earned from some type of hustle on the yard. There is a great gap between the haves and the have nots. A small bag of instant coffee costs $4, so for many it is the only luxury item they can afford and may preferentially choose that over soap and deodorant.
If you have need of medical service from Health Care there will be a $5 co-pay required for all routine services including teeth cleanings, eye exams, illnesses and non-job-related injuries. If you don’t have the money in your account, service will be rendered but they will take the money out first when some shows up. Additionally, over time the co-pay has been applied to chronic care visits for those with long-term and possibly life-threatening conditions that cause the person to seek medical services beyond the semi-annual exam.
For those who are unable to work or receive outside support, the Prisoner Benefit Fund (PBF) can provide $11 a month to those who meet the criteria for indigent status. This is a loan that must be paid back when there are funds in the inmate’s trust account. To qualify a person must have had no money in their account for the last 30 days. The funds provided are for necessary hygiene only.
Health Care no longer provides basic medical pharmaceuticals such as aspirin for headaches, cough drops, cold pills, antacid, fiber laxative or hemorrhoid cream. In the crowded living conditions colds and other illnesses spread rapidly throughout the population due to poor hygiene and sanitization. Those unable to afford the remedies available for purchase in the commissary must struggle through their illness without symptom relief.
With the inability to earn money to pay for the basic necessities and large debts assessed by the courts most prisoners leave prison without any financial resources at all only to find out that the debt accumulation is not over. On parole oversight fees and electronic tether monitoring fees can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars more. Depending on the type of programing required by the Parole Board there may be additional program fees incurred. All outstanding fees owed at the end of parole will be turned over to a private collection agency on behalf of the state.
The longer a person is on parole the higher the chances of violating that parole. Recidivism rates within the first 3 years of release from prison range as high as 75% for some categories of felonies. Random drug and alcohol testing, random curfew enforcement checks, failure to comply with reporting and work requirements can all result in the revocation of the parole and send you back to prison.
For some the only hope to break this cycle is to “max out” on their sentence so that they can avoid having to deal with parole. The result is that a person doing 2-10 years may be eligible for parole at their earliest release date (ERD) of 2 years may return to prison several more times due to parole violations and received a flop by the parole board and end up doing the full ten years on the installment plan.
For some this is not an option, since the tail on their sentences from multiple convictions have been stacked so that they have a potential 25 to life that they could theoretically have to serve in prison. But in either case it sets up a revolving door whereby a person can expect to return to prison for some additional period of time.
To address the high recidivism rates and the critics accusations of warehousing, the MDOC does offer programming for some categories of felonies. Violent offenders may be required to take Violence Prevention Programming (VPP) or Thinking for A Change. Sex offenders may be required to take Sex Offender Programming (SOP). Those that have drugs or alcohol involved in their cases may have to take Phase 1 and Phase 2 Substance Abuse and additionally have to take ASAP/RSAP which are residential treatment programs. Domestic abuse cases may have to take Bridges. There are group classes, some of which are conducted by Psych Services. Positive reports must be earned or else the parole board may not grant parole. For those without education or with learning and/or psychological disabilities this can be a challenge. Also, the mentality of so many prisoners is to resist authority, a “you can’t make me learn” mentality, or simply a person who likes who/what they are and doesn’t feel the need to change. These programs will do little good to ensure a positive outcome and successful rehabilitation for these people. For some repeat offenders who have completed all the applicable programming and returned with a new case for the same crime no additional classes may be assigned, not even a refresher course. The opposite is also a possibility, a person back on a parole violation may be required to complete the programming a second time even when the violation was on a technicality not a new conviction. In either case all they can do is hope for the best with the parole board. Just as it is true that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. You can send a felon to prison but you can’t make him think.
Going to prison is costly both financially and in human terms. Lost productivity which can never be recouped, lost years of family time including weddings, births, and funerals. A debt to society that society refuses to accept payment for. Trust that has been broken by both parties in the relationship but for which separation is not an option. For many in prison the only light at the end of the tunnel is the oncoming train.