A guy with a parole in his pocket gets caught with spud juice. (Happens more often than you would think.) His “friends” tried to talk him into closing his brewery, but he told them that he needed to stack up coffee bags since he was going to Detroit Reentry Center (DRC) for a residential substance abuse program and he needed to be able to buy heroin while he was there. His friend’s comment was I guess he didn’t really want to go home.
Guys on parole are sent back to prison for violating the terms of their parole because of drinking or drugs all the time. Equally as often it is something else like staying out after curfew, missing work or meetings with their PO or having police contact because they got into a fight or were out joy-riding. This happened to a guy I know, and the observation of another parolee was “I guess he didn’t serve enough time.”
Whether in prison or on parole some guys have their eyes on the wrong prize. Instead of focusing on gaining and keeping their freedom they are seeking other things. You’d thing they would know better than to play with fire, but it’s obvious that they didn’t learn their lesson from being burned the first time. For some it takes a long time to figure out what is truly important. There is statistical proof that people age out of crime. People in their forties and fifties are significantly less likely to commit crimes than people in their teens and twenties. Prison has a revolving door for those who continue to commit minor felonies and receive sentences from 2-5 years in length. Three strike laws were enacted to address these habitual offenders by increasing the length of their sentences in the hope that they would learn their lesson.
According to recidivism rates those who committed major crimes such as murder or rape and served long sentences are less likely to reoffend and return to prison than those who committed crimes like domestic abuse or selling small quantities of drugs who received shorter sentences. You never hear of someone who spent two 10 to 20-year sentences in prison going back with a third sentence which is basically a life sentence. So, it is true that with age comes wisdom. Even the most stubborn, hard-headed, strong-willed outlaw learns that if they stay in the game too long there are only two options, either be carried out in a pine box or hauled off in handcuffs. The older they get the better retirement looks.
For those in prison eagerly looking forward to their parole there is another form of sabotage that happens. Sometimes other people in prison, who may have years to go before they will even be considered for parole or have already been denied parole will try to get someone else’s parole revoked. You might say that misery loves company. There are those in prison who would go out of their way to do this for any number of reasons. They could be bored, racist, malicious, vindictive, or simply sadistic by getting pleasure from causing pain to another person. For this very reason I know a guy who didn’t tell anyone in prison that he got his parole, let alone his parole date. The morning he paroled, he got up early, dressed in his street clothes, packed his stuff, and went to the officer’s station. He didn’t say a word to anyone.
In prison kite writing is a way of life for some. Kites are notes written to the administration. There is a mailbox in every housing unit, and it is easy to write the warden or unit counselor. Most do this by signing someone else’s name in order to remain anonymous. They make allegations about another individual which may or may not be true, but sufficiently provocative to draw the reaction of staff. This is known as “dry snitching.” It is a passive aggressive tactic that works well enough that it’s not going away any time soon. Claim that someone is threating you, that so-n-so is doing such-n-such, or that your bunkie has a cellphone, shank, drugs, or other serious contraband, then sit back and wait for the show to start. Nothing can ruin your day like being called off the yard to see the Inspector to answer questions about an allegation that you sexually assaulted another inmate.
Getting a Class I Misconduct after receiving your parole and prior to release will result in the loss of your parole and earn you a 12 to 24-month flop. It might even raise your security level or get you rode off the compound. At the very least you will have your property tossed like a fruit salad, be forced to prove your innocence, and lose sleep trying to figure out who wrote the kite. In a place where you are guilty until proven innocent the threat is real, and you need to constantly watch your back.
I had a cubemate that started stealing from me the last month prior to my parole. I had started to sell off my possessions that I wasn’t going to take home. Prison is not like death, you can take your personal property with you, but why would you? I would come back to the cube after work and find something small missing like my earbuds. We both knew that I wouldn’t do anything about it and risk my parole, so every couple of days something else would turn up missing. Then this guy who didn’t have anything was able to get a black market TV. I’m sure my other cubemates knew what was going on, but nobody said anything. On the morning I left prison I slipped under his bed and used my padlock to secure the TV’s power cord to the bed. This would force him to cut the cord in order to move the TV. There were a number of sweeps through the housing unit at that time looking for TV’s that weren’t on the inmate’s property card and securing the TV to his bunk would make it impossible for him to hide it. I hope that there is a special place in hell for prison thieves.
Of course, it is those that sabotage themselves like in my opening example that is the primary problem. Prison isn’t about rehabilitation. Programs like the Phase I and Phase II substance abuse classes that are required for those whose crime involved alcohol or drugs or for individuals who have a history of substance abuse, but from what I’ve seem most people treat the class like a joke. For more serious cases there are residential treatment programs where more in-depth programming and counseling is available. With the demand for bed space in these programs there tends to be a mentality on the part of those running these programs to simply push the inmates through so that many of the participants come out unchanged. Change doesn’t happen unless the individual wants to and for many going to prison wasn’t hitting rock-bottom yet. Intellectual arguments, reciting facts and figures, or telling horror stories about others isn’t enough to persuade many who are happy in their addictions to want to change. They have learned to say the right things to convince the powers that be that they have changed. They get their long-awaited paroles but can’t fly straight long enough to get out or complete their parole. In the end the only person they have fooled is themselves.
I worked as a tutor in the GED program for nearly 5 years, under three different teachers at two different prisons. There isn’t much that was more rewarding than when one of my students would point me out to his family in the visiting room and say, “That man is helping me get my GED.” And there wasn’t much that was more frustrating than seeing a student who could get his GED fail to apply himself and leave prison with nothing to show for his time. Unfortunately, the later occurs far more frequently than the former. A significant percentage of the inmates in prison failed to graduate from high school and most tuned out long before they dropped out. They put no value on gaining a formal education, the streets were their school. Many are functionally illiterate, barely able to write their own name or complete simple arithmetic calculations.
While a few of these men may truly have a learning disability, more however have damaged themselves through drug abuse. Some of my students had received Social Security Disability payments before the came to prison because at some point in time they had been diagnosed with a learning disability when they were in school out in the world. Now they refuse to make any attempt at completing their GED because they would lose their SSD and have to go to work. As adults they are clearly intelligent enough but lack the motivation.
Conditions such as ADHD go untreated in prison and these students are disruptive to those around them in the classroom. Unable to focus they are constantly engaging others in conversation, sometimes even from across the room. They don’t have an indoor voice or even the awareness of how loud they are. More interested in what is going on around them than the assignments they are supposed to be working on, they are like bees buzzing around whatever attracts their attention for a moment before moving on to the next thing. It only frustrates the teacher, the tutors, and the other students who are trying to learn to have them in the classroom. However, only under extraordinary circumstances will these students receive an exemption from the requirement to attend school. It is more likely that the teacher will write a ticket regarding their disruptive behavior and eventually expel them from the classroom. This will almost guarantee that the parole board will flop them. They will be put back on the waiting list to attend school, be assigned to another classroom where they once again be disruptive and repeat the cycle of expulsion and flop again.
There are critical shortages of text books and other teaching materials. The result is that in most prisons the books must stay in the classroom making it difficult for students who do try to apply themselves to do homework and complete their GED quickly. Textbooks are generally in poor condition. One of my tasks was to periodically clean textbooks of graffiti and answers that had been penciled in. I also made repairs to damaged covers and bindings in order to keep the textbooks in circulation for as long as possible. Even after the new GED standard came out the decision was made to continue to use the old textbooks even though they did not contain the new concepts added to the curriculum. The question formats and language changed significantly with the new standard and the result was that students taking the new test were not adequately prepared.
To address the issues of test preparation for the new computerized testing format the MDOC did invest a significant amount of money into new computers and servers capable of running educational software. After several false starts additional resources were allocated to fix the problems, and new programs were just beginning to be introduced around the time I left prison. I don’t know for certain whether this made any improvement in graduation rates, but I suspect not. We only had four computers in a classroom with an average of 18-20 students so relatively few had any significant opportunities to practice. For some that had never used a computer this could actually influence how well they performed on the test.
At the prisons where I was a tutor the classes each ran one hour and thirty minutes a day, Monday through Friday. There were four periods, two before lunch and two afterwards. When I was at a multi-level facility the level IV students were able to mix with those from Level II or I in school. This and in medical were the only places that inmates of the higher security level were able to. The rest of the time whether in the gym, library, or yard separation was strictly maintained. At level IV-only facilities I would have been able to serve as a tutor however, in the multi-level facility I had to wait until my security level was down-graded to Level II.
The qualifications for being a tutor were that you had to have attained at least a GED and achieved a grade level of at least 11.5 on a standardized test of Reading, Math, and Language skills administered to potential tutor candidates. Most of the tutors that I knew held college degrees. At one facility where I was, a certain well-known, disgraced former mayor of a major Michigan city was working as a tutor. There were usually 3-4 tutors in a classroom. The pay for tutors was one of the highest paying jobs for inmates. With a college degree I made around $3.60 per day for 6 hours of work. Duties and responsibilities varied depending on the teacher. At times I had students waiting in line for help or we worked in small groups. At other times I read all the books, newspapers, and magazines I could get my hands on to keep from being bored.
Some teachers tried to maintain a classroom environment that would be conducive to learning with library-like silence where students worked independently on assignments. It was in these classrooms that the disruptive students tended to be the biggest problem. Other teachers ran their classes more like a daycare were students engaged in non-academic discussions and little if any learning occurred on a daily basis. While I’m sure the statistics such as graduation rates or student progress on the quarterly standardized tests could be generated on an individual teacher basis, to the best of my knowledge teacher performance in terms of academic success is not a factor in their job performance evaluations.
Principles and school psychologists are generally overseeing schools at several facilities. This meant that the principle was generally in the school office at each facility one day a week. There was a school secretary and they generally over saw an inmate clerk to manage the day-to-day activities. Inmates seeking to contact the principle unfortunately rarely got a response to kites submitted for a range of inquires from requesting a change of classroom into one that was more conducive to learning to requests to get into or out of school for whatever reason. The psychologist was the one that could make an evaluation of whether a student was sufficiently impaired to qualify for an exemption do a true learning disability or whether students with learning disabilities qualified for more time or helps while taking exams. The criteria they used was clearly different from the criteria used by schools out in the world because so many students had been previously diagnosed with a learning disability but were neither exempt from school or given extra time or helps on exams.
The school secretary and clerks were vitally important. They maintained records on every inmate on the compound. When inmates were transferred to another facility their school records also had to be transferred. The Classification office would need to verify inmate records like whether they had a GED, high school diploma, or college degree to determine whether inmates met the qualifications for positions like tutors or clerks, and the pay grade associated with each level of education attained. By records I am of course referring to paper files. The MDOC is archaic in its systems. I once had to fill out a paper form to request a college transcript to confirm my college education. This form was then faxed to a phone number that was looked up in a large book listing the contact information of every school and university in the state. It took three tries to get my transcript and it only happened because the teacher I was tutoring for was a fellow alumnus, who took it upon himself to follow-up on the request with the university. An original certified copy of the transcript submitted by my family was unacceptable because it had not come directly from the school or university to the principle’s attention at the school office. Since the certified copy of my college transcript had been accepted by the MDOC when compiling information for the Pre-Sentence Investigation report and placed in my permanent record this really made no sense.
While the classroom was supposed to be maintained as an environment where students could study, the same could not be said for the housing units. The typical Level I housing unit is crowded, noisy and dark. In the typical cubical setting what started out as one bed, locker, and desk per inmate in a four-man cubical has been changed to eight men. To make room for the extra bunk beds some of the desks were removed leaving little space for someone to study even if it wasn’t noisy and dark. In Level II the two-man cells provided each inmate with a desk and light. By closing the door, you could get some quiet in order to study. The problem being that in the higher security levels inmates were there for only one of two reasons, either they were serving long sentences with many years until their ERD or they were unmanageable in the lower levels. In either case they were more likely to be at the bottom of the waiting list to get into school. The number or inmates waiting to get into the GED program is greater than the number of students enrolled. The waiting list is based on prioritizing those who are closest to their ERD.
Once an inmate is in school, he will remain there until he completes his GED, paroles or is kicked out due to behavioral problems. I have known students who were fortunate to get into the GED program with many years to go before their ERD. They got into school because the facility had a short waiting list at some point. Once in the program they remained there because they couldn’t or wouldn’t put in the effort to study and pass the GED exams. There is no time limit in which to complete the program except for parole. I have known men who spent over ten years in school without making any progress towards or completing any of the GED test subjects. Students take quarterly standardized tests to measure their progress or the lack of progress. The teachers are supposed to write regular progress reports and generate educational plans for each student to monitor their progress and set goals to help them achieve. Unfortunately, like so many other things in the MDOC it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The students most motivated and capable of earning their GED will do so in six months to a year. The rest will be stuck in a form of purgatory, either hoping to win the lottery and pass the GED exams by luck or they are simply waiting out their time until they parole.
Students in the GED or Vocational education programs are paid $0.56 per school day to attend class. Students aren’t eligible to hold other jobs except in cases of institutional need, which I never saw. On average a student makes $12 a month. Just enough to keep them above indigent status, but unable to afford even the basic necessary hygiene items in the commissary. If a student gets expelled from school, he is not eligible to work. So, unless the student has some form of family support he must survive by hustling, theft or simply try to survive on nothing but chow hall food and state soap.
Some men that were required to attend school had worked for many years without an education maintaining steady employment or even a career prior to incarceration. I have also known older men who were over the age of 65 that would be eligible to Social Security retirement benefits out in the world that were forced to attend class. Policy clearly stated that both of these circumstances made the men eligible for exemption, but as with so many other situations in the MDOC policy and procedure were not the same.
The prison GED classes are not like traditional primary or secondary school classes. There is a mishmash of individuals at different places in their educational journey randomly placed into classrooms. Teachers don’t actually teach but rather take attendance, process paperwork, and try to keep the peace while trying not to be stolen blind. The GED program is a learn at your own pace, self-taught program where teachers and tutors work with students to develop a course of study, however it is solely up to the student whether or not they will do any work. The tutors are available to help one-on-one for those who would avail themselves of the service. Many students choose to attempt to go it alone and never seek assistance even though they have only elementary school grade levels in reading and math skills and are completely unable to be self-taught. I think that in some cases it was pride. Men who wouldn’t ask for help because they thought of themselves as “grown assed men” and not kids who could take care of themselves preferring to fail on their own than ask for help from anyone.
Only a small percentage of the students who come into the classroom with an early elementary grade level education will complete the GED. Most students who complete the GED already score in the Middle/High school level on standardized TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) tests which are administered quarterly to all students in school. These students may only be in school for 1-2 years and graduate. The result is a very limited turnover rate and the accumulation of poor students clogging up the limited number of available slots in the GED program.
Just as a school must maintain a proper learning environment to encourage students to excel the MDOC needs to create a proper learning environment if they expect to have success with its educational program. This goes beyond the school environment, if the home environment does not support and encourage education then no amount of school effort will be sufficient. Likewise unless the MDOC addresses the environment in the housing units, no amount of programming effort will succeed. Desks, lighting, noise, access to educational resources, distraction from non-students all are issues in the housing units. At some facilities the MDOC has begun a program of placing vocational education students into designated housing units. The intent is to create a better living environment that will compliment the learning environment. The same should be done for ABE/GED students because they need to study outside of the classroom to be successful. One and a half hours a day in class is not enough time dedicated to academics. They need mandatory study halls equal to class time or at the least a housing unit environment in which they can study. Classes need to be taught, not self-taught for Adult Basic Education (ABE) students with reading levels below the 6th grade. Separate ABE and GED into separate classrooms. Place more emphasis on reading. Inmates can’t get anything out of the parole board mandated programing if they can’t read and write. Do not disrupt class time with other call-outs to medical or other programs by blocking out times in the morning/afternoon for class/study.
While this may sound harsh coming from a former inmate, I believe the MDOC must stop playing games when it comes to inmate compliance with programming requirements. Good faith effort must be demonstrated by inmates in required programming to achieve parole. Flop a few guys for trying to skate on their education and more of them will get the message. Anyone who resists cooperating with required programming is not fit to be released back into society. While having a zero-tolerance policy for slackers, this must be balanced with the MDOC doing a better job of identifying the truly learning disabled and providing resources for their required programs.
(Update to this post on April 25, 2019)
The 2019 National Teacher of the Year was awarded to a Social Studies teacher who works at a juvenile detention center in Virginia. He has been studying the school to prison pipeline problem for several years and has published a number of articles and educational curriculum through Yale University. Among his discoveries he found that empathy not sympathy was an effective way to reach his students. He encouraged the other teachers and corrections staff to help him create a positive learning environment. He utilizes materials that include curriculum on race, culture and punishment to help his students understand the system and circumstances that led to their incarceration, and better understand how to avoid future incarceration. For the next year he will be traveling the country advocating for students and teachers and is looking forward to share the story of his students. The MDOC needs thinking outside of the box like this to address the deficiencies in its educational programming.
(cartoon by J.D. Crowe/Press Register) SC 1 ST Berkeley News – UC Berkeley
King Solomon famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there was nothing new under the sun.” Three thousand years ago man’s folly was already tending to repeat itself. Patterns of behavior and the propensity to do evil were well documented back then. Man’s inhumanity to man is the same old sad tale repeated over and over, unfortunately it is not limited to those who choose to do evil. While researching for the writing of this blog I have read a number of prison memoirs and research papers and it is apparent that the observations that I make about prison and prison life cross both space and time. From a World War II German Military prison to 1970s Great Britain; from California to Texas to Michigan and prisons in between; from the 1930s until today, written by theologians and PhDs to the uneducated, unifying themes regarding prison life and treatment of prisoners demonstrate that my observations of life inside the MDOC in many ways are both honest and disturbing.
Ones does not expect in the twenty-first century to encounter ideas and practices discredited long ago to be the standard operating conditions. That America and all it claims to stand for has been set aside in one area of governing a civil society is both disturbing and alarming. As I was writing this essay there were images of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man on the news and an advertisement for a new TV drama about a group of criminal investigators whose job was to ensure that the innocent were not wrongly convicted. The abuses of the criminal justice system are finally making headway against the “tough on crime” agenda of the politicians, police, and corrections agencies in this country. Grass roots organizations are cropping up in every state of the union calling for reform. Even the president, whether you agree with his polices in general or not, has gone against the conventional wisdom of his political party and seeks to introduce some reforms into the federal corrections system.
A recent news article put a spotlight on the fact that we are not talking simply about convicted felons, but that a much larger number of people accused of misdemeanors that don’t even carry jail/prison time are serving time simply because they can’t afford bail. According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice over 11 million people pass through 3000 jails in the US every year. People are even dying in jail from lack of urgent medical care and proper oversight in over-crowded and antiquated facilities. During the recent arctic cold blast, a jail in Brooklyn, New York was plunged into darkness and freezing cold for several days when the electric and heating service to a portion of the facility was interrupted by an electrical fire. The inmates were apparently tapping S.O.S on the windows of their cells calling for help. The warden of the facility denied the severity of the problem even while inmates were calling the defenders office and pleading for help. My own experience in jail was a cell so cold that frost formed on the inside of the window, no extra blankets and only a thin cotton jumpsuit for warmth in a room so cold you could see your breath. So, I can empathize with the desperation of the situation and believe that it is true contrary to the official statements of the warden.
George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” I find myself falling into the first category. Don’t get me wrong, we need dreamers but after living through the nightmare of prison I don’t sleep very well at night. Change must happen and the longer it is put off the higher the cost both financially and in human terms. That is the point of prison reform. Not just the recognition that there is a problem but there needs to be action taken to address the issue. Not studies to determine the severity of the problem or pilot programs to explore alternatives. The experts have already done these. It is up to the people to demand that those in leadership of our government stop denying or minimizing the problem but take the advice of those whose occupation and preoccupation is focused on the problem. It is like global warming. People look at the cold winter and ask where is this so-called “global warming?” The problem is that global warming is a poor term often used out of context when the issue really is “human activity induced climate change.” A short catchphrase doesn’t properly encapsulate the issue. The use of the phrase “prison reform” has the same sort of problem. People look at crimes reported on our 24/7 news cycle and think that our society is less safe than it once was. FBI crime statistics have shown that crime rates for all major categories have decreased steadily since the 1980s. They then give credence and credit to the stricter laws and harsher penalties for causing this trend. Research has shown that other factors have had a greater effect on crime reduction and that the stricter laws and harsher penalties have actually hindered what would have been even larger reductions to crime rates.
Prison reform is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and taking a reasonable approach to punishment. Broken homes, single parent families, education, addiction, and poverty are at the core of prison reform. Shutting off the street to prison pipeline that is responsible for the severe overcrowding, and all the problems that come along with that is what we are talking about. The racial disparities in incarceration rates among the minorities from urban environments. The aging infrastructure of prisons and jails that our society can’t afford to maintain let alone build more. The erosion of respect for others different from ourselves that allows us to justify treating them not just poorly but as subhuman. As somehow not deserving of basic human rights even thought they are enshrined in the Constitution. This is was prison reform is about.
To know about a crime either before or after it occurs and failing to do anything with that knowledge is to be considered an accessory and makes one guilty by association. So, wouldn’t it be true then that to ignore the advice of experts regarding the urgent need for prison reform could rise to the level of criminal negligence at the very least, or a gross misconduct in office and breach of trust by politicians who cling to alternate facts or decry reporting on prison problems as fake news? For once I would like to see Solomon proved wrong that there is something new under the sun. I pray that the logjam will be broken, and long overdue reforms will be instituted to our criminal justice system. This will only happen when the people hold their representatives accountable and demand better treatment of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends, neighbors and aliens.