If You Can’t Stand the Heat

The expression was popularized by US President Harry S Truman to tell someone that if they cannot deal with a difficult situation, they should leave that situation.  Somewhat insulting, it implies that the person addressed cannot tolerate pressure and that they should leave others to deal with it rather than complaining.

While on parole I worked in a commercial kitchen.  I started out as a dishwasher and moved up to be a prep cook.  I can tell you that the kitchen is an extremely hot place to work, especially in the summer.  Hot stoves, ovens, deep fryers, and dishwashers coupled with limited staffing, space & time, and combined with high output workloads during meal service creates an incredibly stressful situation that few people can thrive in.  At times it felt like it was an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay berating young inexperienced cooks competing for an opportunity to work in one of his restaurants.  High pressure and high stakes, no room for error and no tolerance for the smallest infraction of the rules.  Either you learn the most efficient and food-safe method of completing your tasks or risk falling behind and poisoning someone.  There were days when I didn’t think I was going to make it, but every day I kept showing up and gradually I got stronger, smarter, and wiser.  Unfortunately, working in a commercial kitchen doesn’t pay very well, the hours can be somewhat erratic, and holidays tend to be worked and not celebrate.  I look back on my time in the kitchen and appreciate the things I learned that made me a better cook at home.  I miss some of my coworkers and how well I ate.  I don’t miss the heat, the stress, or the hours.

As I write this article, we are amid a week of 90-degree days and I’m thankful for air conditioning, ice cubes and shade that keeps me calm, cool, and collected.  However, most prison housing units in America don’t have air conditioning or even adequate ventilation.  The driving factor in prison design is control, not comfort.  In some places millage’s to build new jails specifically stated that air conditioning was not included as a way of gaining votes from people who think that inmates don’t deserve it.  There is a mentality that says that if some people in the general public can’t afford air conditioning then prisoners don’t deserve this luxury. 

True the electrical expense associated with cooling large buildings can be expensive, but this way of thinking fails to see the whole picture.  To prevent being an easy means of escape many windows in correctional facilities don’t open and the ones that do are either too small to allow an average sized inmate from climbing thru or have some type of grated cover on the outside.  This significantly limits the access to fresh air inside or the ability to create cross ventilation or breezes.  Some places compensate by adding commercial sized exhaust fans, ceiling fans, or personal fans to create any air movement.  But by and large these in my experience had little effect in hot weather.  In the Level I pole barns where I stayed the exhaust fans created such a significant amount of negative pressure that it required a lot of effort to open the exit door, even when all the windows in the unit were open.

Iowa inmates endure summer heat as lawmakers put off prison repairs

Headline of a July 2020 Iowa Capital Dispatch article by Linh Ta

The primary construction materials for prisons are brick and steel.  These tend to absorb and retain heat in the summer adding to the building heat load.  Many prison buildings are over 35 years old, have poor insulation and lack thermal pane windows.  I have written previously about how cold it got in my county jail cell with not just frost but ice forming on the inside of the window.  Given their inability to heat the cells in the winter in the medical wing, how could they possibly cool them in the summer?  Quarantine in the MDOC utilizes part of the old walled Jackson prison complex.  Those housing units have 4 galleries of cells facing large windows many with broken or missing panes that let in plenty of light, bugs, weather, etc.  They also do little to regulate the heat or cold since they are made of individually glazed divided light single pane glass which comprise roughly 50 percent of the exterior wall.

In many parts of the country including Michigan, climate change has resulted in longer hotter summers that were not a consideration when many prison buildings were designed.  I recently read the account of a man who spent nearly 35 years in a north Texas prison.  He recalls how during the winter there was occasionally snow on the surrounding fields and that summer had relatively few days where the temperatures went above 90 degrees.  However, over time the winters got warmer and the summer heat lasted much longer.  The change in weather resulting in unbearable living conditions.  In fact, there have been several lawsuits brought against various states and the federal prison system claiming that the lack of air conditioning is cruel and unusual punishment. 

Inmates who are elderly, have medical conditions or take medication that place them at elevated risk for heat related illness are particularly likely to have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to building temperatures that can remain 10-15 degrees higher than the nighttime low.  The thermometer in one of my housing units would still be in the upper 80s at 11PM on summer nights after the daytime temperature soared into the 90s.  It could stay like this for several weeks at a time during July and August.    Like most lawsuits brought by inmates they have a difficult time prevailing in the courts and when they do the gains are either short lived when overturned on appeal or simply ignored by the prison administrators without some form of judicial oversight.  An aging prison population with a disproportionate number of inmates with chronic health conditions was also never factored into the building design.

How Global Warming Makes Overcrowded Prisons Even More Dangerous

Headline of a Bloomberg City Lab article written by Brentin Mock in September 2015.

Even as evidence of climate change mounts, little is done to address the problem except when the corrections officer’s union gets involved because it’s not just the inmates that contend with the heat but anyone who has to work in buildings without the benefit of air conditioning.  In Michigan prisons the administration, school, medical buildings, and the chow hall generally had air conditioning.  It was the housing units that were unconditioned, except for the housing unit counselor’s office.  One of the perks of my job as a tutor was spending seven hours a day in the school, where it was relatively cool.  I dreaded going back to the housing unit to endure the stifling hot air that left the aftertaste of BO in your mouth.

In 2008 Lakeland and Florence Crane correctional facilities partnered with Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan (RPSM) to form a prisoner/dog foster care and training program.

It was difficult to imagine that due to the efforts of the Humane Society, dog pounds and many livestock barns are air conditioned while prisons are not.  I’m all for treating animals humanely but the very term involves the concept of treating other species in ways that we would treat people.  Yet the concept of humane treatment for prisoners doesn’t rise to that same level.  I wonder if the Humane Society realizes that all the Leader Dog for the Blind and Service Dog training programs that are being run in prisons expose the dogs to inhumane living conditions.  Also, there is irony in that prisons are a great place to socialize dogs but do little to socialize the inmates.

In many communities there are cooling centers set up to accommodate people who don’t have access to air conditioning during heat waves.  Libraries and community centers welcome people to come in and cool off.  In prisons there are also cooling centers of a sort.  Places like the chow hall are opened to those who have a potential to suffer from heat related illness to go and cool off.  This is only during times when the chow hall isn’t serving food and the inmates aren’t allowed to bring anything with them to occupy their time.  No playing cards or books, they can only sit quietly at the tables.  They are not free to come and go but must remain there until dismissed back to their housing units.  During the current Covid-19 pandemic many prisons aren’t running regular chow hall schedules to accommodate a limited form of social distancing, so using them as cooling centers may not be an option this year.  I’m not certain but using the visiting room might be an option at some facilities since visits are currently banned.

I have written previously about the relationship between the hot summer months and the increase in violence and suicides.  Hot weather brings out the worst in people and when the worst of the worst are forced to live in hot cramped living conditions things only get ugly.  You’d think from a security perspective the administration would want to keep the violence to a minimum and reduce the number of suicide attempts, however it doesn’t appear that this type of rational thinking applies. 

Hot and bothered: Experts say violent crime rises with the heat

Headline of a July 2012 CBS News article by Julia Dahl

It ultimately boils down to how inmates are viewed by not just corrections staff, but by the governor, legislature, and the general public.  Are inmates to be considered as people with certain human rights that the rest of society takes for granted or are, they somehow disqualified by virtue of their behavior which was deemed as inappropriate?  There seems be a dichotomy where inmates are expected to rehabilitate themselves, yet they are treated as being unredeemable.  We sentence people to serve time for their crimes in places that are as dystopian as Mad Max’s Thunderdome and then expect them to reintegrate back into society after their release. 

Summer Heat Kills Inmates in Prisons, and That Needs to Change

Headline of a Huffington Post August 2014 article written by Ariel Dulitzky, Director of the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law

When inmates who are not serving life sentences die in prison, it is common to say that they weren’t given life sentences and shouldn’t have had to die there, which is ridiculously obvious.  But the system as it is currently operated doesn’t allow for different standards for inmate care based on their sentences.  Medical care is like that of third world countries where there are many needless deaths and pointless suffering.  In Michigan for example there is no early release program to reward prisoners for good behavior due to the Truth in Sentencing provisions of the Michigan constitution.  Compassionate release programs also don’t have much compassion since most who apply are denied or the considerations are so deliberately slow that the petitioner dies while waiting for an answer.  Much of this boils down to a lack of political will, indifference, and outright animosity toward those assigned to their care.  So why should something like air conditioning receive any consideration?  Because when you can’t get out of the kitchen there isn’t another option.


I first started to write this post in late June/early July when the summer heat was at its worst and the USA was just starting to venture outdoors after a prolonged period of quarantine.  My job had just called me back to work and I went from having too much time on my hands to working seven days a week.  In fact, my company had placed me into a machine shop where the indoor temperature was routinely in the mid to upper 90s.  While it was hot and uncomfortable at work, when I got into my car to go home, I could turn on the air conditioning.  It reminded me of how hot and uncomfortable it can get in prison and that for those incarcerated there is no break from the heat.  Now that it’s almost spring it may seem out of place, but it is still truth and is something worth blogging about since it will repeat itself in a few months.

This blog is an example of how I could feel that what I had to say might not be all that important at the time that I was writing it.  The first outbreaks of Coronavirus that triggered lockdowns in the spring seemed to be easing but by the time I was ready to post this essay cases were on the rise and only accelerated into the fall and winter.  I was stunned as I watched infection rates and deaths spiral out of control.  Prisons and jails were locked down and conditions only got worse for those trapped inside.  It felt trivial and insignificant to write about the heat, but I am certain in the context of the pandemic that the summer heat did add to the misery index.

Speech-less

“When Job’s three friends heard about all the trouble that had come upon him, they met together and agreed to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.  No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”

Job 2:11-13

As the pandemic unfolded it became apparent that jails and prisons were going to face a horrific situation.  Visits and programs were suspended, activities canceled, routines were upended, and lives changed forever.  Many individuals were getting sick and dying alone as prison officials were either unwilling or unable to respond to the humanitarian crisis as the conditions worsened and suffering increased exponentially. As I watched the news, scoured the internet, and talked with others involved in prison ministry I struggled to put into words my frustration, sorrow and ultimately grief at what I saw happening in prison.  I became like Job’s friends, as all I could do was sit silently in solidarity with my brothers and sisters behind bars. 

For ten months I have been unable to write.  My prison experience was now so far removed from what the current conditions are like that it was almost as if my experience couldn’t possibly provide useful insight.  My words of encouragement while needed now more than ever couldn’t begin to empathize only sympathize with the plight of those incarcerated. My desire to write dried up to some extent and instead I found myself engaging in prayer taking my complaints directly to the throne of the Almighty. While I believe in the power of prayer, I’m not so sure about the effect of complaining. To my understanding God is inscrutable, as His ways are not our ways. My belief is that as Christians we are called to have faith that all things work to the good of those who love Him. Asking “Why” is not the question we as Christians should be focusing on but rather seeking discernment about what our role is in bring healing to a hurting world.

Ecclesiastes chapter 3 famously says in verse 1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.”  The writer goes on to list the activities contrasted with one another which do not frequently occur together including: “A time to be silent and a time to speak.”  I believe that my ability and desire to write are a spiritual gift from God and that the silence I have experienced wasn’t because I didn’t have anything else left to say about Christ, Crime and Punishment, but rather a time for me to mourn, to monitor, and to meditate.  The Lord has seen fit to once again open my mouth and I will faithfully trust that my words will honor Him, raise awareness of the plight of those who are incarcerated, and motivate others to likewise demand more from our leaders to address this humanitarian crisis.


As of March 2, there have been at least 386,765 cases of Covid-19 and 2,459 deaths reported among prisoners in federal and state prisons nationwide according to The Marshall Project in collaboration with the Associated Press. There have been at least 25,277 cases and 138 deaths from the corona virus reported among prisoners in Michigan. In the state of Michigan 2 out of 3 prisoners have tested positive, which is 10.2 times the rate in Michigan overall. Michigan was one of the first states to begin testing in prisons and there have been at least 713,430 total tests conducted for prisoners and staff according to the MDOC website. Reporting and testing requirements vary significantly among the prison systems, however it is still clear that infection and mortality rates are much higher than in the general population.

Close confinement and overcrowding make prison the ideal ‘breeding ground’ for infectious disease. Image credit: Sandy Huffaker / AFP.

Jails and prisons like other high density housing situations including nursing homes have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Highly contagious diseases have always been a problem. Tuberculosis, norovirus, influenza, and the common cold virus rapidly spread when introduced into confined populations. What is different about COVID is that there were initially no effective treatments and the routine cleaning and disinfectants used in prisons did not work. In prison there are always tradeoffs- facility security and safety versus efficacious chemical use. The best disinfectant available for use in prison is bleach in a dilute form. Unfortunately alcohol that is at least of 70% concentration is the best agent for sanitizing and this is strictly forbidden in prison, therefor no hand sanitizer. Like in the general public it took several months for masks to catch on as a way of reducing transmission. Prisons which use inmates to make garments began to make masks for both the staff and inmates to wear.

There have been many calls for the humanitarian release of non-violent offenders and particularly those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greatest risk. Some states and the federal Bureau of Prisons did make some attempts to grant early and companionate release, while others like Michigan could not. Reducing over-crowding was also accomplished by prisons refusing to accept inmate transfers while at the same time paroling those who have been granted parole. Sick wards were established to quarantine those who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus. Unfortunately these and many other efforts failed to prevent COVID from burning through prison populations like a western wildfire through dry grass.

While a lot has gone wrong with the pandemic response, a few things have changed hopefully for the better.  There will be finger pointing, data evaluation and legislation purposed for some years regarding the correctional systems response.  There will be second guessing, arm-chair quarterbacking, and persistent questions of responsibility and accountability for how those in positions of authority managed and cared for those in their care. Job’s friends ended their silence and began to speak after Job gave his assessment of the situation.  They made many unfounded, unfair, and unhelpful accusations and turned from supporting their friend.  Sometimes it is better to remain silent and to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.  I’m going to let the future judge how we as a country handled the pandemic and specifically how prisons did. Pray for those who are incarcerated.

“Like Being in Jail”

During the Corona virus pandemic many states, including my home state of Michigan, have issued some form of Stay Home order for the general public and specifically request that people with Covid-19 or think they may have been exposed to it, to self-quarantine for some period of time.  When this first started, the news was full of dire warnings and bleak statistics as the virus spread far and wide throughout the world.  Over time as the news started to become more hopeful sounding with signs of flattening the curve and progress toward a vaccine and effective treatments the natives, as they say, are becoming restless. 

The federal and state governments have been working, sometimes together and sometimes at odds to manage the crisis.  Everything from trying to ensure that there is enough PPE for first responders to sufficient hospital beds and ventilators for the critically ill to emergency economic funds to help out individuals and business are being organized, implemented and communicated to the people to ensure the wellbeing of our nation.  Not everything has gone smoothly.  Mistakes have been made.  With this novel coronavirus much is still to be learned about methods of transmission, who is at greatest risk and how best to protect them.  Information, opinion and fake news has come from many sources to cloud the issues, second guess the experts and mislead the public about every aspect of this situation.  People following the verbal ramblings of the president and other charlatans have tried unproven and dangerous treatments, which have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.

Every day there is more bad news about the economy, job losses, and the effect that the shutdown is having on businesses and individuals.  The difficulties of finding basic supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies coupled with social distancing requirements have made shopping a chore.  Add to this the boredom that comes from running out of projects to work on and having caught up on sleep and your favorite television programs.  The insanity of trying to work from home while home schooling the kids and worrying about friends and loved ones.  These difficulties combined with the improving weather of spring and the social tendencies of our species have turned the occasional grumble regarding the inconvenience of the whole situation into a growing chorus of displeasure.  Often the focus of this complaining is the very government which was elected to handle these types of situations if/when they occur.

Protests have been organized across the country by those who think that government has overstepped its authority by temporarily closing businesses, banning public/private gatherings, and limiting freedoms that the protesters hold near and dear.  Social media outlets have been asked to police themselves regarding event notices that might be encouraging activities that are illegal during this period of declared state and national emergency.  Protesters waving flags of various origins, toting assault rifles, and flaunting the social distancing advisories march in the streets exercising their rights of assembly, free-speech, and to bear arms.  As the SNL skit about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the protests in Lansing said, “It’s live free or die, not live free and die.”  What does open carry of assault rifles have to do with Covid-19?  As one pundit said, “You can’t shoot the virus.”  Any display of force is by its very nature coercive and there is no place for it in a democracy.

Protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As with any crisis there are people trying to take advantage of the situation.  While the number of major crimes decreased during the initial weeks of the pandemic those numbers are increasing again, especially as thieves target closed stores.  Police departments like most first responders have been hit hard by the virus and many officers are either sick or in quarantine.  This puts a strain on the police to maintain patrols in areas of high crime and respond to calls for aid by those experiencing the life-threatening symptoms of Covid-19.  Police chiefs from the across the country are seen nightly on the news pleading for people to stay home, obey traffic laws, and behave themselves, sometimes to no avail.

On television the trend for talk shows is for the personalities to do their shows from home.  The late-night comedians spend their time lampooning the president, life in quarantine, and the idiots who have earned their 60 seconds of infamy.  The daytime shows continue to pander to celebrity, as if those who can most afford not to work can really relate to those who can’t even file for unemployment due to the overwhelming number of people applying.  The poster child for this may be Ellen DeGeneres.  She made a joke on her first show back after 3 weeks off that those of us who have been there found to be in unbelievably bad taste.  She compared coronavirus self-isolation to being in jail.  “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.”  She has a beautiful, spacious mansion in sunny southern California, with her own green space.  Social distancing is not a problem, she hosts her show from her comfy chair and her guests are all virtual. 

The real situation in jails and prisons across America is slowly being revealed by investigative journalists following up on first and secondhand accounts of what life behinds bars is currently like.  Every day I read at least a half a dozen articles from the Marshall Project, the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Detroit News and Free Press, The Atlantic, and the LA Times just to name a few, that clearly show that neither Ellen nor any other person not currently incarcerated live under conditions even remotely similar to those found in even the best jail.  The picture that these articles paint is very bleak.  Our correctional institutions were not prepared for coronavirus.  Not only that but the system which they are a part of has failed to respond in a timely manner to things like the implementation of CDC guidelines on the control of infectious disease, governmental and court ordered population reduction strategies, and  conducting sufficient testing to determine the true scope of infection. 

Infection rates in some facilities now exceed 50% of the inmate population.  In some regions, the jail or prison is the hot spot responsible for the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community at large, because of the infection rates among correction officers and staff.  Prisons are typically not located in large metropolitan areas with access to hospitals capable of handling more than a few intensive care patients. The result is that inmates are filling up the ICU so that people from the community must go elsewhere.  The notorious prison medical system has exacerbated the situation through callus and unsympathetic care that has resulted in the deaths of prisoners in their cells, which they claim never reported any symptoms to staff.  Inmates report that medical staff do not change gloves between patients; sick inmates are not segregated from the general population immediately; and inmates with mild to moderate symptoms are told to suck it up and sent back to their cells without medications to ease their discomfort.

Attempts by the MDOC to quarantine sick/recovering inmates by setting up quarantine units in several prisons to isolate them from the general population has resulted in the spreading of Covid-19 from one prison to another which had previously been virus free.  The only staff overlap between the quarantine units and the rest of the compound was the medical staff.  There have also been reports that inmates working as cleaning porters have been forced to clean up after infected inmates without any PPE.  The spokes person for the MDOC has repeatedly denied allegations regarding conditions inside of prisons, the same as they have for every other inmate’s complain.  The response as always is that the inmates are lying and that the MDOC has everything under control.  This time he will have a harder time explaining the body count.

Ohio is the only state so far that claims to be testing all its prisoners at all its facilities.  Michigan to date has completed testing at one facility and is now conducting comprehensive testing at a second facility.  This however does not include the correction officers or staff.  At other facilities only those inmates who meet certain criteria are tested.  Since this virus presents itself with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity, including asymptomatic infections; only complete testing of inmates and staff can identify the true number of cases.  Given the scarcity of test kits available, it is not surprising that more testing has not been conducted.  Unfortunately, prisoners comprise one of the most vulnerable populations alongside nursing homes and should be a priority.

Compared to the “real world” prison is a place where reality: including things like common sense, empathy, manners, personal hygiene, health care, personal space, and access to PPE is extremely limited or non-existent.  ICE detainees have gone on hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper.  The federal Bureau of Prisons failed to follow the Justice Departments mandate to reduce prison populations by sending thousands of eligible prisoners home to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest.  Juvenile detention facilities likewise have been slow to release minors who have been deemed to pose no threat to society.  Advocacy groups have been bailing out people who couldn’t afford bail and have been in jails awaiting trials, which have been postponed because the courts have significantly reduced case loads while conducting hearings remotely.  In some states, even after prisons and jails went into quarantine mode, inmates were sent out on work assignments where they risked either catching the virus or spreading the virus into the community.  For example, until just a few days ago inmates from the Rikers Island jail in New York were used to dig graves in a cemetery for the city’s poor.

COVID-19 quotes set to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Quarantine and self-isolation. Stay Home Stay Safe. Limit contact to others. Prevention the spread of Coronavirus. Stock vector illustration.

Directions to inmates from the MDOC regarding how to protect themselves from the coronavirus have been described as confusing, contradictory, inadequate and/or misleading.  The MDOC instructed MSI, its prison factory service to begin producing cloth face masks for staff and inmates.  It then began to issue 3 masks each to inmates with directions to wear them whenever they leave their cells, but only at facilities which have had a positive case diagnosed.  Even after the pandemic was known to be circulating in prisons, inmates are still being released on parole or probation without being tested to see if they are infected or being instructed to self-isolate for 14 days.  Inmates being paroled can’t find access to critical services that are usually provided by governmental or non-profit agencies to get started in their community placement.

In March when the first signs of community spread of the virus were reported, the MDOC like most other jails and prison systems closed their visiting rooms and banned outside volunteers and program instructors from entering the facility.  Internal programs like GED or mandatory programing continue with fewer inmates allowed to attend each class.  Fewer inmates where allowed to go to chow at one time to promote social distancing.  In the level 1 facility where I was housed, in the chow hall we had 4-man tables which barely had enough room for 4 trays.  Even cutting the seating in half leaves you eating face to face with another person.  In some places where the infection rates are highest the chow halls have now been closed and the food is delivered to the inmates in their cells.

To allow inmates to communicate with their family and friends prison phone companies like Global Tel Link are providing weekly free 5-minute calls to inmates.  Email services like JPay have given inmates free electronic stamps to allow them to write home using the kiosk located in the housing units.  This sounds like a nice gesture from companies who have made millions of dollars from selling overpriced services to inmates for years.  The reality is that phones and kiosks are used by dozens of inmates daily and the limitation on the types of cleaning/disinfectant products allowed means that inmates who uses these devices put themselves at risk.  Sanitizers and cleaning products containing 60% ethanol, or 70% isopropyl alcohol have been shown to be the most effective against the coronavirus however, only dilute bleach is allowed.  The old technique of putting a sock over the phone may not protect you from contracting the coronavirus when you put the handset to your face. 

Approximately 95% of all inmates in the US will be released back into society when they complete their sentence.  Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects.  There have been numerous tragic stories reported in the news of inmates within days, weeks or months of being released who have contracted the virus and died.  One of the saddest was the case of a women in jail who gave birth while on a ventilator and later died without ever getting to know her child.  Another involved a man who had been incarcerated 44 years.  He was convicted of murder at age 16.  He had turned down parole earlier in the year, intending to ‘max out’ his sentence and leave prison a free man.  Having reconsidered that decision after the pandemic started, he was scheduled to be paroled in a matter of weeks when he passed away from the virus.  Technical parole violators who have been sent to jail or returned to prison have gotten sick and died. 

Jails and prisons are like petri dishes which culture microorganisms.  Even in the best of times they are unsanitary places full of unhygienic people.  When I was in jail awaiting my court hearings there was no warm/hot water available in my cell, only cold water from the sink and shower.  The soap provided was so poor that it did not foam or suds making it difficult to wash after using the bathroom or before meals.  Very few people are incarcerated in single-man cells, most are crowded into dormitories with a hundred other people.  Social distancing is just not an option so when one gets sick, many get sick.  Getting a cold or the flu in prison is miserable, getting Covid-19 for many could be a death sentence.  Knowing this, the level of fear among inmates is running extremely high. 

Incarceration is a stressful situation in the best of times, now it is nearly at panic levels.  Around the world and even in the US there have been prison riots over fears about Covid-19 and what it could do inside the walls.  Video from a cell phone that had been smuggled into the Wayne County jail in Detroit showed inmates with their tee-shirts pulled up like masks over their faces pleading for help.  Pictures of the Cook County jail showed a window with a message spelled out in toilet paper calling for help.  In addition to the non-profit organizations that were bailing people out of jail, others have begun to supply soap free of charge to inmates that were not getting it otherwise.  While gestures like this are appreciated, they do not address the underlying issues that are putting so many people at risk.

Prisoners hung signs pleading for help in a window of the Cook County jail on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Vondruska/Reuters

Since the early 2000s prison populations in many, but not all states, have been slowly but steadily decreasing.  Violent crime rates with a few exceptions have also been decreasing during this time according to FBI statistics.  According to a recent report from the MDOC the prisoner population in 2019 was at 96.9% of capacity.  There was also a reduction of 445 beds due to prison closings that resulted from the decrease in population.  What they are not telling you is that the current prison capacity is double of what they were originally designed for.  I was in two different prisons with level 1 pole barns that had originally been equipped for 80 men.  There were 4 men assigned to each cubical.  Now there are 160 men in the housing unit and 8 men to a cube.  When I was in level 2 and level 4 the cells were two-man rooms.  While level 2 was designed that way, level 4 was not, they were supposed to be one-man cells with their own toilet and sink.  Instead of addressing the overcrowding issue by keeping prisons open with fewer inmates the MDOC decided to maintain few prisons in order to offset cost increases while keeping its $2 Billion budget flat. 

It is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking to say that this was a fatal mistake.  Many people have been speaking out about this problem for years, yet the MDOC ignored the warning signs such as outbreaks of norovirus that have resulted in prisons being quarantined on a regular basis.  The sad thing is that unlike the Flint water crisis there will be no Attorney General investigation, no one will lose their jobs, and no one will be held responsible for the criminal negligence that has led to the unnecessary loss of life that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Having said all of this, I hope I have made my point that self-isolation at home is not like being in jail.

Anti-Social Distancing

It has been widely reported in the news recently about the fears of what could happen with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading inside of jails and prisons.  There has been much talk but little action nation wide to reduce the population density by releasing non-violent offenders and those with high risk factors such as the elderly or those with sever chronic health issues.  Defense attorneys and prisoner advocates along with some District Attorneys have petitioned the courts and the various state correction agencies to act on humanitarian grounds to little effect so far.

In Michigan, the MDOC itself can do little to reduce prison population due to Truth in Sentencing.  This policy was enacted by a vote of the people and would require a super-majority in both houses of the legislature to overturn.  Michigan is about the only state in the country which enacted this draconian punishment back in the 1980s that still persists in this failed deterrence strategy.  It was part of the Tough on Crime policing laws, where inmates would not be considered for parole until they had reached their Earliest Release Date (ERD).  Combined with harsh sentencing guidelines Truth in Sentencing caused an explosion in the incarceration rate which lead to the current over crowing situation. 

Now Michigan prisons are full of inmates serving long indeterminate sentences.  While your Earliest Release Date (ERD) might be 7 years, your maximum release date could be 15 years.  The result is that there is no guarantee that you will qualify for parole after serving 7 years.  There is no good time or disciplinary credit unless you were sentenced before Truth in Sentencing.  Longer sentences and harsher policies like the 3-Strike law mean that the number of older prisoners has increased significantly as a percentage of the total inmate population.  This runs counter to the evidence that people typically age out of crime and the fact that the number of older convicts going to prison for the first time is significantly lower than for those in their teens, twenties or thirties. 

Inmates in general tend to be in poorer health than the general population.  This is due in part to the large number of older inmates, but also to the number of inmates with underlying medical conditions, mental conditions, and/or addictions.  Combine this with poor health care which has been the subject of oversight by a federal judge, the result is that even in good times there are needless deaths due to inadequate treatment, medication and therapy. 

It’s been known for many years that jails and prisons are a breeding ground for disease.  Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV, MERSA, Norovirus, and Influenza, just to name a few, have been of significant concern.  In the MDOC, Hepatitis and Influenza vaccinations are available.  TB skin tests are performed routinely.  Prior to release all parolees are tested for HIV.  Every year there are individual prisons quarantined due to an epidemic of one sort or another.

It’s been well documented that prisons are severely overcrowded.  Even with falling rates of incarceration in Michigan, the MDOC closes prisons rather than reduce population density because of the cost savings.  Housing units that were originally designed to hold 80 men now contain 160.  Single beds were replaced with bunk beds.  Desks were removed to make room for additional lockers.  This effectively reduced the square footage allotted per inmate by 50%.  Infrastructure could not be updated so toilets, sinks and showers have double the utilization.  This happened all across the MDOC.

In prison, access to cleaning chemicals is limited.  The cleaning chemicals available are highly diluted because concentrated chemicals can be weaponized.  Heavy bathroom utilization combined with unsanitary conditions due to inadequate custodial maintenance and poor personal hygiene by many inmates, leads to a breeding ground for germs, bacteria and mold.  Add in outdated, inoperative ventilation and old plumbing subject to frequent backups, you have a recipe for disaster. 

While I was incarcerated, I experienced a norovirus quarantine.  It was the only time when dilute bleach was made available for the inmates to clean their areas of control.  5-gallon buckets of bleach water were put out with a few rags and was moved from cube to cube down the hall.  The problem was that not everyone participated in the housekeeping and I’m not sure how well the common areas of the units were cleaned.

Like most of the epidemics in prison, personal hygiene plays a big part in transmission.  Hand washing isn’t widely practiced and there are lots of places where there is no access to soap.  Places like the school building bathroom frequently did not have soap, let alone toilet paper.  Hand sanitizer is not available because it contains alcohol.  The mouthwash doesn’t contain alcohol either.  Alcohol pads from medical used by the insulin dependent diabetics are contraband.  The basic tools used to combat the spread of infectious disease are either not practiced adequately by inmates, poorly implemented and executed by staff,  or prevented by policy as security risks.

Policy says that soap made by MSI will be supplied to inmates as needed.  That didn’t mean that soap was always available.  Housing units generally only order a certain amount based on their budget as determined by the unit counselor.   State soap didn’t have the best reputation, so if you had the funds in your trust account, you would order soap from the commissary. 

Recent news from the MDOC website reports that Michigan State Industries (MSI) is making masks and other PPE for officers and inmates.  Like the recommendation from the CDC that the general population should be wearing cloth masks when going out in public, the MDOC has begun distributing masks to inmates in prisons with confirmed cases of COVID-19.  This fails to take the rest of the CDC guidelines into account.  Inmates can’t separate themselves from others who might be showing the initial symptoms of the virus.  Instead staff must make the determination to quarantine the inmate pending the result of a confirmation test.

Masks without the proper way to clean your hands before and after handling them or being able to properly clean and sanitize them, can lead to contamination.  If anything, they will provide a sense of false security.  When doctors, nurses and first responders who have been trained in proper PPE handling techniques are getting sick with the virus, what chance do inmates have?  In an article I read recently the author concluded that wearing a cloth mask was better than wearing nothing.  Hardly a strong recommendation, but still better than simply pulling up your tee-shirt over your nose which has been shown to provide almost no protection.

At the time of writing this article the number of inmates in the MDOC with confirmed COVID-19 cases was 338 with 2 deaths.  Thirteen of 29 prisons had confirmed cases.  Thirteen other prisons in the MDOC had tested at least one inmate with negative results.  These numbers have doubled in a week and appear to be following the same trends experienced in the general population.  Changes such as suspending visits, stopping outside volunteers or tours from entering the prisons did not prevent the virus from entering prison.  One prisoner in the upper peninsula contracted the virus while he was in the local hospital where COVID-19 positive patients were being treated.  Inmates arriving from county jail may have also brought in the virus.  However, the most likely avenue for the virus to get into prison was through the staff. 

Staff entering prisons must undergo a daily temperature check and answer a series of questions about possible exposure as they enter for work.  If this is anything as thorough as their inspections for drugs, cellphones or other contraband, then it won’t be long before the virus is in every prison.  This is serious and in addition to 142 staff members testing positive there have been two staff deaths reported.  COVID-19 is a silent killer that is often contagious before any symptoms become apparent.

There have been a number of unusual facts about this Corona virus that are particularly troubling.  First there the observation that the virus kills more men than women.  Then there is the issue around how the virus is affecting brown and black communities and individuals at alarmingly higher rates than in the general population.  Also, the elderly and those with underlying health issues are specifically vulnerable.  Finally, there is the issue of access to health care.  The percentage of men significantly out numbers the number of female prisoners.  There are a much higher percentage of brown and black ethnicities incarcerated than in the general population.  There are a large number of inmates who are either elderly or in very poor health.  Finally is the problem of prison health care even in the best of times. This will combine into a perfect storm that the MDOC and all other jails and prisons, either state or federal are not capable of handling.

When this pandemic is brought under control and life resumes its new normal, my concern is that the successful measures taken to combat the spread of this disease will be eased or rescinded altogether.  That the more onerous measures such as restricting visits and access by volunteers, lock downs and restricted movement by inmates will continue.  And that the lessons learned will be quickly forgotten or ignored by administrators and legislators.  When it comes to corrections there is more than a tendency to cling to the failed, outdated, outmoded policies and procedures of the past.  There is a conscious effort to maintain the status quo, resist change even in the face of significant pressure, and a lack of real accountability in a critical branch of government.

If you have loved ones or friends currently incarcerated- pray about them; reach out to them; speak out for them. 


For information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is affecting those in jail or prison I recommend the coverage being provided by the Marshall Project website.  It is the best source on the internet for daily updates of news being reported across the country the affects our loved ones and friends serving time behind bars.

For specific updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in the MDOC, information can be found on their website at: https://medium.com/@MichiganDOC/mdoc-takes-steps-to-prevent-spread-of-coronavirus-covid-19-250f43144337

Cheapskates

cheapskateThe MDOC requires inmates to work while they are incarcerated unless they are medically unable to or in the GED program.  As with so many other things the reality is far different from the policy.  Inmates do a lot of waiting and that includes on lists to get into school or a job.  I wanted to be a tutor as my first choice from day 1 in prison and since there were no Level IV tutors at my facility I had to settle for a job as a Unit Porter cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors.  When I got to Level II, I was able to get on the waiting list for a position in the school to open up.  In the interim I again worked as a Unit Porter.  When I was moved to another facility, I choose to simply go on the waiting list for a tutor job.  It took a year for a position to open up.  I knew guys who would purposefully choose jobs with long waiting lists simply to avoid working.  The Parole Board couldn’t hold it against you if you didn’t work so long as you were on the waiting list.  It was all part of the game.

The MDOC is exempt from the minimum wage law for paying inmates.  It might be fair to call it slave labor since without inmates working to perform so many functions from food service to facility maintenance, the cost of incarceration would be far more expensive.  According to the Policy Directive 05.02.110 prisoners who are assigned to work and/or school shall be paid and/or receive stipends for the assignment.  Pay rates for most positions range from approximately $0.74 to $3.34 per day depending on the classification of the job as unskilled or skilled.  Students get paid a stipend of $0.54 per day to attend GED classes.  With a satisfactory performance score the rate increases to $0.59.  This translates into a monthly stipend of approximately $10.50 – $12 a month.  With no other source of outside financial support that level of compensation is comparable to those who are indigent.

According to the PD, Unskilled Entry Daily Rates start at $0.74 and rise to $0.84 after 2 months.  Semi-skilled rates start at $0.94 and are eligible for a 15% increase if the inmate possess the related certification, such as a porter who has completed the Custodial Maintenance Technology program on their current prefix.  In other words, if you earned a CMT certificate the last time you were in prison you won’t be eligible to take the program again and won’t get credit for having taken it previously if assigned a position as a porter on your new bit.  In other words, you’re qualified for the job but won’t be compensated for your knowledge because you were dumb enough to come back to prison.  This is a major disincentive to working, but obviously not enough of a disincentive to keep a person from coming back to prison in the first place.  It seems to me that the rules have been written in a way to exclude the maximum number of inmates from earning the higher pay scales in almost every job classification.

Skilled positions such as Tutor start at $1.24 per day with higher pay rates for having a college degree resulting in a maximum daily rate after two months of $3.34.  Or least it used to be this way.  In October 2018 the department changed its policy so that only college degrees in the specific field qualified for the higher rate.  In other words, only those with a teaching degree who worked as a tutor would get the higher rate.  My double major in Chemistry and Biology might no longer afford me the higher rate of compensation and I have no plan on returning to prison to find out.

The PD also has a few exceptions where inmates who have been in certain positions such as Food Service could continue to receive pay and bonuses if they started the work assignment prior to April 2008 when the pay structure was changed to eliminate the bonus.  The catch is you must remain in the same assignment at the same facility and earn above average performance reviews.  If the inmate is transferred to another facility, they would no longer be eligible for the bonus.  The departments work around for this in 2008 was to transfer a significant number of Food Service workers.  I came to prison after this happened, but I heard about how unhappy it made the workers to lose a bonus which allowed them to earn over $100 a month in some cases.  My Level II bunkie was one of the few lucky ones who was still on the job and earning a bonus.  He earned around $90 per month wiping down tables and mopping floors in the chow hall.  He actually made more than I did working as a tutor with my college degree.

In February 2019, the clause in the Advanced Education/Training Pay Scale was applied to inmates working as clerk/facilitators for programs such as Sex Offender Programming (SOP).  The result was that some of these inmates went from earning $3.34 to $1.77 per day.  This is nearly a 50% pay cut.  The PD does not provide the rationale behind the decision to reduce pay by specifying such a narrow definition of acceptable college credit as those “in a field of study related to the position.”  Anyone that has completed an Associates or Bachelor’s Degree should have more than enough knowledge of basic reading, writing, arithmetic, science and history to work effectively as a GED tutor or serve as a clerk and perform the required tasks and responsibilities at a higher level of competency than those with a GED or high school diploma.  I’m not sure how many library majors end up in prison but it’s good to know that they will be compensated at a higher rate for their knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System.

Pay scales for Braille Transcribing and MSI are not included in the PD but from what I remember the inmates working MBTF were paid piecemeal for the projects they work on.  Different types of projects required certifications in different areas such as educational transcription, graphics, mathematical or musical notation and several other specific areas.  The guys in my unit that worked at MBTF earned over $200 per month and could max out with the maximum annual MDOC allowed compensation.  Not only that but many banked projects for when they were to be released from prison so that they could be paid at even higher rates so they could have money for their transition back into society.  Not only that they would then be eligible for work as a professional braille transcriber out in the world.  I wanted to apply for this program, but it required a minimum of 8 years before your ERD to even apply for the program and take the entrance exam.  I believe that there were less than 20 jobs available in MBTF, so they account for less than a tenth of one percent of inmates.  Right on the MBTF website they cite the low cost of prison labor as one of the reasons for their success.

MSI factories make everything from clothes to mattresses to printed forms and eyeglasses.  There were factories making many various products at 10 prisons located all over the state.  There was a factory at my first prison and those inmates could earn up to $200 per month.  If there were large orders, there was also overtime on the weekends in order to complete them on time.  The number of inmates employed by MSI is small, but I don’t know the number but it’s probably less than 2,000.  MSI sells its products to jails and prisons across the country in addition to the MDOC facilities and the low labor cost is no doubt a competitive advantage over commercial companies they are in the market with.

All of this begs the question: Why when the cost of living always goes up is the MDOC reducing compensation for inmate labor?  Commissary prices go up and many inmates can’t even afford basic hygiene items on what they are paid.  Many don’t have outside support or owe so much in restitution, court costs, and fines that the department takes most of what their people put into their accounts.  For some even their prison earnings are garnished if they have more than $50 in their account, so it doesn’t even pay to work.  For the rest prison pay doesn’t buy much.  The maximum amount that can be spent in the commissary is $100 every two weeks, which doesn’t mean anything if all you have is $12 to show for a month’s stipend as a student.

In some other states’ inmates are employed by private corporations and paid a living wage.  A portion of their earnings are placed into a trust account to help them after they’re paroled.  Another portion goes to paying down restitution, court costs, and fines.  The rest is available to the inmate to spend.  Prison is a pretty miserable place and being able to purchase a few items beyond the basic necessities goes a long way towards a positive mindset. And a positive mindset goes a long way toward rehabilitation.  Low wages encourage theft since they have nothing to lose.  Low wages mean hardship and deprivation that wear down the body and the mind which can lead to long term mental, emotional and physical problems that will last long after they are released.

Wages paid to inmates should not be a way for the department to make budget.  That would literally be “penny wise and Pound foolish.”  Cost of living is a factor in determining pay for everyone else, why shouldn’t it apply to inmates.  If you want to send a message and “correct” inmates, then teach them the value of honest work.  Nothing speaks to a person’s self worth more than compensation that respects the individual’s service. I don’t mean that inmates should be paid the state’s prevailing minimum wage but maybe bring in more factory jobs that pay like MSI and follow the model used by other states that allow inmates to save for the future. For in-house positions acknowledge the value of higher education, training, and experience to create a new pay scale that more adequately compensates inmates for the necessary functions that they perform.  Being a miser and a cheapskate is not the way to rehabilitate human beings.

Educated Guess

Time well spent or wasted

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.

kentucky prison GED grad rates
I found this graph of graduation rates published by the Kentucky DOC which reflects the decrease in graduation rates that resulted from the implementation of the new GED requirements.  I could not find a similar graphic for Michigan but I suspect the results to be similiar.

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.

Nothing New Under the Sun

(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.

House Arrest

house arrest

Being on parole is not freedom.  Too many guys coming out of prison think that having received a parole that they have earned their freedom, that their sentence is complete.  But that is not the case.  While on parole you are still under the control of the MDOC.  Parole is prison without the razor wire.  You have a parole agent who keeps track of you, meeting regularly to monitor your compliance with the stipulations of your parole specified by the Parole Board.  They have absolute control over whether you stay out or return to prison for any parole violations.  On parole you must successfully complete some specified term living in the community, sometimes with severe limits on where you can go and what you can do.  This varies from person to person and is based on the crime committed and other factors.

A typical parole can last up to 24 months.  The stipulations of the parole generally require that the parolee maintain regular employment.  You must also pay a supervision fee and any outstanding debts incurred during incarceration in addition to any unpaid court costs, fines and restitution associated with the felony conviction.  Frequently programming such as AA or NA may be required for those with a history of alcohol or drug abuse.  Additionally, some receive their paroles with program requirements waved while they were in prison because they were classified as “low risk” to re-offend during a psychiatric examination but must now take programming from an approved vendor as a condition of parole.  Failure to successfully complete programming will result in a revocation of parole.

After the conditions of sever deprivation, loss of personal control and decision making in prison some are so focused on redressing the privations that they quickly violate the terms of their parole.  For some it is satisfying the urge to indulge in their addiction for alcohol or drugs.  For others it is about hustling to get the money together to resume their lifestyle.  However most of these hustles are illegal.  Once a person has been in prison the odds of them returning are greater that they will return to prison than the odds for a person who has never been going for the first time.

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To address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.”  All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance.  Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating.  At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison.  With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.

Housing itself is a problem.  Transitional housing is in sort supply and in many communities is non-existent.  Those coming out of prison may only have a matter of weeks to find employment and permanent housing before being forced to leave the Parole halfway house.  Then there is the problem of finding affordable housing for those with a felony conviction, especially sex offenders.  Many apartment complexes and landlords will not rent to felons.  In some places such as Oakland Co there are a few rental companies that will but not in every community and not in sufficient numbers to address the current level of demand.

Employment is not as much of a problem as it used to be given the present economic environment.  However more needs to be done to train felons for jobs that pay a living wage.  Many are forced to take minimum wage jobs without benefits or career potential.  The MDOC has made changes to its Employment Readiness initiative over the last few years by revamping their vocational programing but much more needs to be done to ensure that people coming out of prison are employable.  Movements to “Ban the Box” have gained traction in the last few years to at least give felons an opportunity to interview for a job before they are eliminated from consideration for a position in some places like the city of Detroit.

While commendable movements like this are just the tip of the iceberg.  So many are coming out unprepared to hold steady employment due a lack of a basic education or even basic literacy skills.  As a tutor I saw it every day first hand, the lack of interest or desire to join mainstream society.  The smug satisfaction on many of my students faces knowing that they could simply wait out any requirement to earn a GED let alone make satisfactory progress toward earning one and still get a parole.  No thought toward a living a life as a productive member of society.

For many who have served long prison sentences returning to society has significant challenges.  Technology has changed everything: smart phones, the internet, shopping, the workplace, even cars.  Nothing looks familiar to someone who last saw the free world in the 1980s or 1990s.  Life is far more complex than it was, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived a very simple and highly controlled life.  The ability to learn and adopt technology can have a very steep learning curve for someone who isn’t familiar with it.  Then to make it more complicated parole stipulations may prevent the parolee from accessing technology.  Sex offenders are prohibited from having smart phones or computers with internet access.  Some convicted of financial crimes are prevented from having bank accounts.  A convicted murderer on parole has fewer restrictions than many other felonies.

One thing that is certain is that no one really wants to go back to prison but for some it is easier than reintegrating back into society.  What is needed are advocates and mentors; either family, friends or strangers willing to help parolees make the transition.  There are faith-based organizations, church and para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations out there that have programs to help.  The problem is that there are not enough organizations, people and resources available in all the places that they are needed.  Secondly, the information available to prisoners preparing for parole is often out of date and incomplete.  Inmates aren’t able to communicate with these organizations easily or effectively to make the necessary arrangements.  Since many don’t have someone on the outside to make arrangements for housing or employment in advance when they are paroled it becomes an immediate crisis.  The last thing a parolee needs is more stress.

Many inmates when preparing for their parole hearing make a Parole Plan in which they lay out what support is waiting for them upon release.  Unfortunately for many it is ‘pie in the sky.’  What looks good on paper in order to impress the parole board may not be worth the paper it is written on.  For example, the employment opportunity that I listed in my Parole Plan was voided by one of the stipulations of my parole.  For some, they are forced to parole back to the county in which they were convicted rather than being allowed to choose a location with more access to resources because they don’t have family there.

Something else to note about parole is that the conditions stipulated by the parole board remain in effect for the duration of the parole.  There is no easing of restrictions based on the completion of certain milestones such as completion of required programing or finding gainful employment.  Parole agents may in some cases have fewer contacts with the parolee but can at anytime show up unannounced to check on you.  For the most part parole is stick and no carrot, there is no reward for cooperation and good behavior.  No graduated easing of restrictions to allow for a true transition back into society.  In some cases, parole officers will make it even more difficult for their parolees by denying requests to approve housing, employment or other activities for reasons that seem mercurial at best.  They may also actively seek to find reasons to revoke a parole or to at least scare the parole with threats of incarceration-the scared straight approach.

While there have been changes to parole in recent years to reduce the number of parole violators being sent back to prison, still more needs to be done.  The MDOC needs to do a better job of preparing the 95% of their inmates that will return to society.  There should be more Reentry programming that focuses on linking those soon to be paroled with agencies and organizations that will be able to provide access to services, programs, resources in the area where they will be paroling.  Access to employment services including in-prison hiring interviews, pre-enrollment for Social Security, Veterans benefits, and Medicaid would go a long way to preparing parolees for success.  Parole should be a transition, not more punishment.  A way to help put the parolee on the right track rather than a revolving door back to prison.


A report published by the PEW Charitable Trust entitled “Policy Reforms Can Strengthen Community Supervision – A Framework to Improve Probation and Parole” was published on April 23, 2020. This report documents many of the issues that I identified in my article and some of the new ideas being incorporated by some agencies to address the problems that lead to re-incarceration. A PDF copy of the report is attached if you would like to learn more about this issue.

Two Sides of a Coin

Two Sides of A coin
photo by Jamie McCaffrey

Think of a coin.  The image that is stamped on the head and tail is just a thin facade on the surface.  Forever bound together yet separated by the vast bulk of the material. Likewise, victims of crime and those accused of committing crime have one thing in common, both take issue with the criminal justice system.

Victims are made to relive their traumatic experience over and over.  They may be made to feel like they are somehow at fault for having something bad happened to them.  From their perspective the system is slow to move, and all too often denies them the justice they seek.

The accused feel that there is a rush to judgment, that facts don’t matter, and their side of the story is irrelevant.  They believe they are being railroaded into taking a plea agreement to avoid extremely long sentences because of the fear that even without physical evidence or multiple eye witnesses that they will be convicted.  Guilty until proven innocent.

In our modern democracy with guaranteed rights one wonders how either perspective could possibly be true, let alone both, yet they are.  It is the system that is the problem. Crime has been part of our society from the dawn of time but the way we deal with it is prehistoric.  Modern society has applied science to evidence collection; psychology to profile criminal behavior; trained investigators evaluate information and identify suspects; and the media spreads the word and enlists the public’s assistance to track down the perpetrator.  Then the lawyers and courts get involved and everything goes sideways.  Truth doesn’t matter only procedures and precedence.  Under the law, black and white have taken on new definitions the only have meaning in that context.

Humans are the ones who makes decisions about the charges; humans weigh the evidence; humans reach a verdict; humans pass judgment; and humans carry out the sentence.  It is the human factor that thwarts, short circuits, circumvents, or stymies the rules and regulations set in place to safeguard the process.

Evidence is planted, missed, or ignored.  Witnesses are coerced, intimidated, or discredited.  Police brutality, corruption, racial profiling, entrapment, illegal interrogation, false confessions.   Political agendas, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel.  Fallibility of witness memory.  Victim statements manufactured and manipulated by leading questions.  The wrong person picked out of a lineup. Innocent people are convicted in sent to prison.  Guilty people get off on technicalities. The real perpetrators get away with murder even.

Humans with their prerogatives and passions; their intelligence and ignorance; their biases and beliefs; their motivations and methodologies; their dedication and dispositions are the cause when the prosecutor brings charges or decides to close the case; the jury gets the verdict right or  gets the verdict wrong; when a person is convicted by a judge or when another judge overturns a conviction; when the parole board grants a parole or when they deny it.

You see it is all connected and yet disconnected at the same time.  Both functional and dysfunctional; both transparent and opaque; both fair and biased.  The one thing it is not is perfect.  It may be the best we have, but we need to see it for the flawed system that it is and take that into account when preparing to cast stones.  In John 8:7 Jesus said, “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone.”  Studies have shown that in the state of Texas more than 5% of those put to death for murder were later found to be innocent.

So, what are the odds that someone convicted of a lesser crime might be innocent? Maybe we should save our vitriol for someone who truly deserves it rather than applying a liberal dose to every case.  In a previous century tar and feathering was carried out by a mob of angry citizens. Today it is a virtual tar and feathering that happens in the media and on the Internet.  As a society we have become quick to judge and condemn others while demanding grace and mercy for ourselves.

The problem is that we can’t judge ourselves, we are at the mercy of the court.  Maybe, just maybe if we took a little more time and care in our decision making; looking before we leap; thinking before we act; putting ourselves in the other persons shoes; and “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us,” occasionally we wouldn’t find ourselves in such a messed-up situation. You can’t undo harm and there are no take backs in punishment.  Saying “I’m sorry” or “My bad” can’t put things right. As the nursery rhyme says, “All the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” And this is true whether he was pushed, jumped, or fell.  Regardless of whether you are the victim, or the accused just remember that we’re all in this together for better or worse.  Blaming others, excusing ourselves, or sticking your head in the sand can’t fix the problems in the criminal justice system.  Be part of the solution rather than the problem.  Hold the system accountable.  Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.  Demand better treatment for both victims and the accused, or someday when you find yourself in the system it will be too late.

 

Brush Strokes

vincent_van_gogh_prisoners_walking_the_round
Vincent Van Gogh’s “Prisoners Walking The Round” also called “Prisoners Exercising” painted in 1890.

It is really easy to paint everyone in prison as being the same.  Hardened criminals who are as monochromatic as the walls surrounding them with black hearts and dark thoughts that only know destruction.  But that like most popular perceptions about prison is not just an over-simplification, it is wrong.   Prison is a microcosm of society with people from all walks of life, many of whom I’ve tried to describe in this blog.  There are colorful, creative people who have done some terrible things and are paying the price.  However, rather than letting darkness consume them they are taking the proverbial lemon and making lemonade.  They do this pouring out their creative energy in painting or writing.  The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has for more than two decades hosted an exhibit of art by Michigan prisoners and for ten years have published an annual volume of creative writing.  The annual art exhibit and reading are held in Ann Arbor and Detroit and are open to the general public.

Works of art and writing are submitted to a selection committee at the U of M Humanities School.  Those that are accepted cover a wide range of subject matter from real life to flights of fancy and from poetry to non-fiction.  Many of the works of art are available for sale with the proceeds going to the artist.  The creative writing is published in book form that is available for sale by U of M.  At the reading, mainly family and friends are invited to read on behalf of the incarcerated author.  I was one of the rare authors who had paroled between the submittal and the reading and could present my own poem “Ode to Ramen.”  A humorous but truthful analysis of the importance of Ramen Noodles to prisoners.

It is fascinating to see how others view their life behind bars in color or black and white.  The diversity of perspectives and experience is showcased nicely through this program by U of M.  So much of life behind bars is a mysterious secret that very few get a glimpse of first hand.  There should be more programs like this that provide an outlet for inmates than can be witnessed by the public.

Here is the poem that I wrote regarding one aspect of prison life that was published in “Concertina Maze” The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Vol. 9. 2016

Ode to Ramen

Like many prison inmates I own my very survival to your savory, salty goodness.  The MRE of the penitentiary.  You are always there when the chow hall lets me down to satisfy my hungry longing for sustenance.

Your noodley presence is the only constant in a place where no one knows what tomorrow may bring.  More enduring than a Bunkie, waiting patiently in my locker to be called upon in a time of need.

Honeybuns and bagels may come and go, but your pasta lasts forever.  You never grow old or mold, having a half-life rather than a shelf life.  Meant to be crushed yet you are indestructible.  Immortality incarnate.

Haute cuisine you may not be, yet comfort food you are.  A staple ingredient in every dish, the most versatile of wonder foods.  You inspire me to new heights of cookery as master chef of the microwave.

Flavor is your claim to fame.  Packets of hot spicy intensity or meaty mellowness that travel far and wide beyond the expectations of ordinary condiments, to lift the spirits of diners in desperate need of taste enhancement.

Your value transcends your caloric content to become the currency of the land.  Exchanging hands to pay our debts, you wander far before you spend your last to ensure that I will make it ‘till the dawn.

Hail to the noodle!