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.


You Might Be A Prisoner If:

An homage to Jeff Foxworthy

  1. You try to buy things with Ramen Noodles.
  2. You call out in a restaurant “Cookie for a burger!”
  3. You send a written request to your doctor for an appointment.
  4. Three times a day you stop what you’re doing and go sit on your bed.
  5. You never make phone calls that last more than 15 minutes.
  6. All the outfits in your closet are identical.
  7. You can tell military time but you don’t salute officers.
  8. You get signatures in your day planner for every appointment.
  9. You get your hair cut with children’s safety scissors.
  10. Instead of being chased by a posse, the posse travels with you.
  11. You wish your gin had been brewed in a bathtub.
  12. You sleep with the lights on for safety.
  13. You gossip worse than women about other men.
  14. You expect and accept “No” for an answer.
  15. You are willing to stand in line at the worst restaurant in town.
  16. You work for only pennies an hour.
  17. You have to pay your roommate to get him to take a shower.
  18. You paid for your tattoos with coffee.
  19. Convictions are something on your rap sheet, not something you believe.
  20. Earning a GED is considered a significant achievement.
  21. You answer when people call you by a number instead of your name.
  22. Instead of working 9 to 5 you have hard labor from 5 to 9.
  23. You use a Bible as a doorstop or a wedge for your bunk.
  24. You think HOPE is a four-letter word.
  25. You think that instant coffee is the elixir of the gods.
  26. You think that life and death is just fun and games.
  27. You watch free cable but are not staying in a hotel.
  28. The way you say ‘Thank you’ is “Good lookin’ out” and mean it literally.
  29. All your worldly possessions fit into a duffle bag but you don’t deploy overseas.
  30. The majority of the furniture in your room is bolted to the floor or walls.

Everything Is Backwards In Prison


  1. We lock our closets but we can’t lock the bathroom door. In fact, in many prisons there isn’t a bathroom door.
  2. The best food you get to eat is vending machine food in the visiting room or gas station food from the commissary. The chow hall food is practically inedible.
  3. The windows don’t have any curtains but still fail to let much light in.
  4. It is dark in the housing units, yet people complain when you turn on the lights.
  5. When you do turn on the lights they are still not bright enough to read by.
  6. Bath soap and shampoo are used to wash your personal dishes.
  7. The day room is most crowded at night.
  8. We use chairs as a ladder to climb unto the top bunk instead of sitting on them.
  9. Emergency count is never an emergency and always takes longer than regular count.
  10. In the chow hall they feed grown men kid’s meal portions.
  11. Disposable plastic silverware is used over and over forever.
  12. Guys talk about the ugliest women as if they are beauty queens when they would never give them a second thought out in the world.
  13. We refill the ink barrel of our favorite disposable pen.
  14. We recharge disposable batteries.
  15. Laundry comes out of the wash looking dirtier than before it was washed.
  16. Headphones are used to block out sound.
  17. The family we were tired of listening to can’t talk long enough on the phone.
  18. We sometimes have to lock-up to get free of a bad situation.
  19. New flat screen TVs have smaller screens than the old CRTs and cost 50% more.
  20. Some work only to steal.
  21. The MDOC pays students to go to school.
  22. Some inmates have their people put money in other prisoner’s trust accounts because they can’t have any in their own.
  23. We brush our teeth before meals.
  24. No good deed goes unpunished.
  25. Bad behavior is expected.
  26. We learned that the truth will not set you free.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is the opening of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776.  The nation born from the struggle to achieve better treatment for its people by casting off its oppressors commemorates its freedom from July 4th rather than from September 3, 1783 when Great Britain signed the peace treaty ending the revolution and acknowledging the sovereignty of the United States of America.  Freedom was not granted by the oppressors, rather it was taken by force by the oppressed.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the country can celebrate freedom today.  Millions of men and women are incarcerated in jails and prisons all across the country.  When you don’t have the ability to participate in life, liberty, or pursue happiness there really isn’t much to celebrate on a national holiday that you can’t experience.

Christmas is a religious and cultural holiday.  Thanksgiving remembers the difficulties of establishing a home in the “new world.”  Memorial Day acknowledges the sacrifice of our soldiers to defend us.  Labor Day acknowledges the efforts of the people to make the engines of commerce run.  Those in prison can find connection to some or all these holidays, but Independence Day in my experience was different.

Prisoners have had their freedom taken away because they violated societies code of conduct.  Why take away freedom?  Because after life, liberty is the most valuable thing a person can possess.  It is like the punishment we received as children when our parents took away our favorite toy.  We didn’t like that but when that didn’t work, what did they do?  They put us in time out, which escalated to grounding when behavior fails to conform to expectation.

Parents do this because it works, sort of.  When we were little it didn’t take much to pursued us to behave.  But over time the punishment increased in severity as the effectiveness diminished.  The same thing happens with adults.  Harsher punishments for more heinous crimes and 3 strike laws to increase penalties for repeat offenders.  But just like children over time with repeated offense the effectiveness diminishes.

Nonetheless when you are in prison you are not free, but you remember what freedom was like.  You miss it terribly because all around you are reminders of what you have lost and what it takes to deny it from you.  On one hand you watch the officers and staff go home every night, cars driving by on the streets beyond the fences and the TV brings images of what’s passing you by.  On the other hand, you can’t get away from razor wire, monotonous routine, and loneliness day after day.  All of these are enough to drive you crazy and the last thing you want is something like a holiday dedicated to freedom to rub salt in the wound.

Holidays are times when people in the world get together with family and friends, take road trips, and gorge at feasts.  Prison can only offer pale facsimiles that leave little to be desired.  Once upon a time there were picnic holiday meals served on the big yard with burgers and hotdogs cooked on the grill, as the old timers tell it.  But any pretense of holiday celebration is long gone.  Holiday meals are only slightly distinguishable from any other meals.  Like putting fixings on a burger and ice cream on pie.  At my last prison the local community fireworks display was visible over the tree tops for those that had a view from their housing unit windows facing that direction.  While they drew the attention of a few guys, most simply complained about the noise.

Holidays meant that non-custodial staff would have the day off, so things like the library or gym callouts would be cancelled.  This always caused complaints, since these callouts would not be rescheduled for another day.  The visiting room was always crowded on the holidays.  Holidays meant limited hours compared to the normal visiting room hours of operation.  Vending machines run low and there is no one to refill them.  Lots of irregulars working means that chaos rules.  All this takes away from the enjoyment of having contact with family or friends.

The phones are always busy on holidays as guys call home hoping to make contact with family and friends visiting the house that they wouldn’t normally get to speak with.  Providing that you can get through.

After the Independence Day holiday is over there is an almost audible sigh of relief when things go back to “normal” at least until the next holiday in September.  The only independence day that a prisoner wants to celebrate is the day that they are released from incarceration.

Brush Strokes

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!

Care Less

The old adage is that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is never truer than in prison.  I have encountered very few employees of the MDOC that I could honestly say cared about anything more than their jobs.  Not doing their jobs well, just keeping them.  Actions speak louder than words and the way some of the COs yell that’s saying something.

An example of a CO that is not treating inmates with respect is when they get on the PA and call for you by saying, “Hay get up here!”  They use profanity and humiliation to publicly denigrate inmates.  Using strong arm tactics, such as tearing up a person’s property when doing a shake down and taking property such as TVs as contraband in retaliation for a perceived slight.

Food service workers that would rather throw food away then feed a little extra to the inmates that work in the chow hall.  Supervisors that refuse to write work reports with a perfect score, on the principle that we’re convicts.  Medical staff that put company profits ahead of providing life-saving health care service. Vendors that make huge profits off of those who can least afford it.

From the inmates’ perspective it is really easy to be cynical about attitudes when those who have been entrusted with the care and feeding of inmates treat them worse than dogs at the pound.  People who are always looking for an angle are jaded about the motives of others.  Respect and the lack there of is a central premise of the prison culture.  Inmates can spot a fake a mile away. Sincerity, truth, and information are of great value and in short supply.  The few MDOC staff members that have these elusive qualities are respected.  For the rest animosity, antagonism, a never-ending game of cat and mouse, with scores to settle and vendettas that result in guys going to the hole and COs getting hurt.

What is needed most by people who have received so little of it in their lives is having someone care about them as a person.  To see them as more than a number and a pay check.  To see them succeed, to go home and never come back.  Once that happens, then maybe inmates will listen a little more carefully to what they are being taught in school and programming.  Maybe they’ll be more cooperative with the system instead of being hell bent on destroying it from the inside.

I am not naive to think it will cure all the problems and that the hostility of people being held against their will, will go away. But would it really hurt those who work for the MDOC to start treating inmates as people?  To do their jobs conscientiously with the goal of treating inmates as customers or patients instead of merchandise that is simply warehoused and shipped from place to place.  We may be damaged goods, but we need help to put us back together, not to be thrown on the junk pile and discarded.

As human beings we are composed of bodies, souls, and spirits that require a lot of nurturing.  The resources required to this are not cheap, but the fact is that prison as it currently exists causes more harm than good.  It is failing to do the one job it is entrusted to do- that is to protect society by rehabilitating those who have been deemed unfit for a civil society.  It is unfortunate that people end up in prison.  An ounce of prevention is worth more and certainly costs less than a pound of cure.

But until the legislature and the general public are willing to pay the true cost of meeting the goal of reducing crime by addressing the root causes they are stuck instead paying for the cure.  Don’t let it be money just flushed down the toilet, but rather well spent by corrections professionals who act the part and take their jobs seriously and care about making a difference.

A Bird In The Hand

Deseases of Cannaries Looking Outwards

 Books by Robert Stroud are still in print today.

The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud raised and studied birds while he was incarcerated at Leavenworth.  A convicted murderer, he published Diseases of Canaries in 1933, which was smuggled out of prison and sold.  He even ran a successful business from inside prison.  While not allowed to keep birds at Alcatraz he instead wrote a history of the penal system.  He was incarcerated for the last 54 years of his life and spent 42 of those years in solitary confinement.  A dangerous, violent man who eventually became one of the best-known examples of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the federal prison system.

While no one is raising birds in their cells for sale in the MDOC, I’ve seen a few that had the birds feeding out of their hands in the big yard.  Prisons are generally not located in heavily populated areas and are surrounded by farms, fields and forests.  The result is that there is a fair amount of wild life present.  Deer, wild turkeys, muskrats, foxes, opossum, raccoon, skunk, chipmunks, and dozens of species of birds.  It is the small animals and birds that can come and go as they please through the perimeter, obviously the larger critters will only be visible outside of the fence, but a deer did get inside the fence one time.

I’ve watched guys hold out their hand and feed birds with crumbs of bread taken from the chow hall.  Standing still with their arm outstretched near a bird perched on a fence or bench.  The bird will hop onto the hand and feed for seconds at a time.  Red Winged Black Birds, Chickadees, and other song birds that to some extent have become accustomed to humans can be coaxed from feeding nearby to feeding out of hand.  No sudden movements, no noise, just patience.

Birds perch on fences, however in prison that can be dangerous since there is usually razor wire involved. I’ve seen countless one-legged birds hopping about. That’s a high price to pay for hanging out in prison just for the sake of a free meal.

Chipmunks are another species that benefits from inmate’s willingness to feed the animals, which is of course against the rules.  Chipmunks hide in holes and are nervous by nature but can be coaxed out with a few peanuts.  I’ve never seen one feed from a hand, but there was a game to see how close you could get to one.

Prison being prison, not every story is cute and cuddly. While I was at my first level I facility, several inmates got into trouble for catching, killing and trying to cook a duckling in the microwave.

Large open grassy areas tend to attract geese and ducks, especially if there are even small temporary bodies of standing water nearby.  The big yard may look like a tempting location to raise a family.  Inmates will step aside and allow the mother duck to lead her ducklings from one location to another across the yard.  Ducklings grow fat from all the bread crumbs tossed their way.  Free from predators 1ike foxes, hawks become the greatest threat.  The ducks are closely watched and any loss to the family group is noted.  Some guys find great joy in in watching the ducklings mature and are saddened when they fly away at the end of the summer.  I think a part of these inmates who have invested their time and emotions into these ducklings flies away with them when they leave.  You can see it in their eyes as they watch the ducks experience freedom that the inmates can only dream about.

Unlike Hogan’s Heroes or Shawshank Redemption the MDOC doesn’t use guard dogs.  I’ve heard of dogs being brought in from the state police to search for drugs but that is about it. There are however several facilities that have begun raising puppies for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. Writeups in the newspapers speak highly of these programs and the success rate that these dog programs have. They were going to set one up at my last level I facility but the new warden changed his mind.  The inmates had already been selected and moved into a housing unit and the kennels had been built in the housing unit, but no dogs. There was one dog that came to live in the prison however.  An officer had passed away after an extended illness and her dog was brought in in anticipation of the dog program.  While not actually part of the program the dog was to be looked after and cared for by the inmates.  It became the most popular individual on the compound. I would see it sometimes being taken for walks around the track during yard time.  In the winter someone even made it a winter coat by cutting up a prisoner coat to make one with little sleeves for the front legs and an orange stripe across the shoulders just like the rest of the prisoners had.  Doted on and spoiled rotten with lavish attention the dog was the center of attention everywhere it went.  It became a sort of therapy dog for everyone at that prison. No one would dare to abuse or in any way hurt the dog or they would suffer the wrath of several hundred dog lovers.

Mich Dog
Photo: Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press

They say that dogs are man’s best friend and that they don’t judge us but give unconditional affection.  For many in prison that type of attention is exactly what prisoners need.  In a place where there is so much negativity to find something as relentlessly positive as a wagging tail.  To have something to care for and about when it feels like you’re forgotten and alone.  To have a reason to do something for someone besides yourself.  To be responsible for the well-being of another creature when your own is under duress.  If one dog could do that what would 20 dogs do? The fact is that dogs make a positive contribution to the facilities that have them.

Mich Dog Program
Photo: J. Scott Park / AP

There is a tremendous demand for these dogs and it would seem that while having the dogs would make for more work the dividends paid by the positive mood they bring that every warden should be clamoring to get a program at their facility.  Unfortunately, that is not the case and you need to ask why.  Just like Robert Stroud who benefited from a warden who saw the value in his bird research and gave him a second cell to house all his birds only to lose it all when a new warden came and didn’t see the value and thought that he only deserved punishment and harsh treatment.  It all goes back to the question: Is prison only about punishment or should rehabilitation be the focus?

Education Connection

thebroken system

One of the strongest correlations in predicting whether or not a person will end up in prison is the lack of a high school education.  This fact has been known for many years and has been codified into a law that requires inmates without a high school diploma or a GED to attend GED classes.

Even before there was a GED program in the MDOC there were primary and secondary education programs with Jackson Public Schools at the old walled prison in Jackson that allowed inmates to earn a high school diploma.  In fact, until the Pell Grant for prisoners was eliminated under President Bill Clinton there were college classes taught by institutions such as Spring Arbor College, where inmates could earn a B.A. degree.

I worked as a tutor in the GED program for 5 years and had the privilege of working a long side two old timers who had earned their B.A. degrees from Spring Arbor College. They were bright, articulate, knowledgeable, and earnest in communicating their passion for helping men earn their GED.

In the MDOC the inmates who work as tutors are the key to the program.  The reason is both simple and shocking.  First is that peer to peer learning has been shown to be an effective adult learning tool.  Inmates teaching inmates removes the power dynamic from the situation.  Also, there is the ability to establish relationships that would be inappropriate for correction’s staff.

During my time as a tutor I worked directly for three different teachers at two different facilities.  I knew 10 teachers      well enough by interaction with them and their tutors to know about their classroom environments to say that what I am about to share is not atypical.

The first teacher I worked for knew my former employer from a previous career in medical equipment sales.  All teachers in the MDOC GED program are certified educators and all that I am acquainted with had worked in public schools.  My teacher, who I will not name, was no exception.  He worked in primary education for Detroit Public Schools.  In fact, he had been fired by them.  The old saying is “Those who can’t do, teach.”  In prison it goes a step further, “Those who can’t teach, teach in prison.”  Teachers like many others who work in prison are there because they couldn’t make it in the free world.  Like COs that couldn’t make it as police officers, there are those “teaching” in prison who couldn’t teach.  This isn’t the case for all teachers, just like there are good COs, it is just that there are more than a few bad apples.

The second teacher I worked for was the Felix Unger to my first teacher’s Oscar Madison. They were in appearance the “Odd Couple.”  One was nattily dressed and a stickler for organization, the other unkept and easy going.  But being a snappy dresser didn’t make up for his inability to manage his class.  I got along great with him until I made the mistake of correcting him in front of the class, when he incorrectly described how to solve a math problem.  I went from getting a perfect work evaluation to ‘barely meets expectations.’  I had organized his filling system, written standard operating procedures to ensure that all future tutors would be able to maintain the system.  The tutors took attendance, graded work, assigned student testing, maintained educational files, and worked one-on-one with students, while the teacher chatted with students and wrote more tickets than any other teacher.  He did not have the respect of his students and did not have control of the class room.  The result is that the class room did not provide a learning environment for those who wanted to learn.

My second teacher was the complete opposite.  Wild hair and sloppily dressed, but he had a kind and gentle demeanor that commanded the respect of his students. His class room was a quiet, stress-free learning environment, where men succeeded in earning their GED.  It was in this class that I earned my greatest compliment.  I was on a visit and one of my students pointed me out to his family and said, “That man is helping me get my GED.”  And he did.  Just as the COs set the tone for what goes on in the housing units, the teachers set the tone for the class room and it makes all the difference when it comes to educational success.

The third teacher I worked for was not like either of my previous bosses.  He worked for 20 years as a teacher in the MDOC, he had seen it all.  He held court in his class room.  He told stories in a folksy style.  Nothing got under his skin except students that squandered the opportunities given to them.  He wanted the best for his students and did more to help them succeed.  He also saw to the needs of his tutors who he didn’t treat as inmates so much as co-workers.  The respect was mutual.

Education is supposed to be a priority for the MDOC, yet year after year budget cuts to education have reduced the number of teachers in the class room and the resources available.  When the new GED standard came out in 2014 the MDOC was not prepared to change over until 2016.  Even then they still did not have the text books available in all subject matters in sufficient quantities for all students in all classes.  They had bought new computers that were supposed to run new educational software for the students to prepare them for the computerized GED exams. Unfortunately, the computers sat unused for two years and when the new programs were implemented the servers and other hardware purchased were inadequate.

Language arts Math Science Social Studies

Examples of GED textbooks used by the MDOC.

The old GED standard was said to be about equivalent to an eight-grade education. The new GED based on the new high school graduation requirements significantly raised the bar.  Many students who had passed some but not all subject areas were given several opportunities to complete their GED, but when push came to shove the lack of staff to administer the additional tests resulted in some students losing out and having to start over with a significantly elevated bar. This was a real blow to moral and I watched a number of students give up and throw in the towel, resigning themselves to the reality that the new GED standard was unattainable. The new GED was designed to be high school equivalent, while prisoners are anything but.

The old models of self-teaching by students with assistance from the teachers and tutors didn’t work that well under the old GED.  With the significantly higher educational requirements the MDOC needs to rethink how it operates its classes. Self-learning only really occurs after fifth grade because students up to that point lack the necessary vocabulary and learning skills to effectively study on their own. When all you were asking was about three grades of learning many could get by with their life skills to bridge the gap and earn their GED.  Under the new system it is asking too much for inmates, many of whom are functionally illiterate to self-study.  What is needed is a structured class room environment where teachers actually teach and students are expected to learn.

Participation in the GED program was a parole board requirement, but because there weren’t enough teachers or class room space there were waiting lists based on ERD at each facility.  The result was that inmates serving short sentences would go to the head of the list, but if they didn’t have an interest in learning thought that they could wait out their time.  The result was that those who actually wanted to earn their GED and would write kite after kite asking to get into school would have to wait.  And due to their longer sentences were further down the waiting list were prohibited from working in the interim.

In addition to the GED program the MDOC also offers vocational training programs intended to provide marketable job skills to aid inmates in gaining employment upon release. Programs like Carpentry, Electrical & Plumbing, Masonry & Concrete, Horticulture, and Food Service were popular.  These programs were available to those who had a vocational training requirement from the parole board because they had no prior history of employment before coming to prison.  These programs required a GED or high school diploma as a prerequisite.

I knew a guy who was hired to be a tutor in the Masonry & Concrete program as they were setting up the program.  He was a masonry contractor in the free world and knowledgeable in all aspects of the trade.  He was not impressed with the training curriculum and I would trust his judgement on this.  What he also told me made me sick and it should make you angry.  The facility where we were located was very limited in the available class room space.  In fact, the GED class that I was a tutor for was relocated to a much smaller classroom that had previously been used for other programs such as AA, in order to give the larger classroom to the Plumbing & Electrical class.  The room across the hall from my smaller class room was the technology room where the GED testing was held.  They were displaced to make room for the Masonry class. Before the masonry class could begin a secure tool crib needed to be built along one wall of the room to store the tools to utilized by the class.  When they brought the brand-new tools that had been ordered for the class to put them in the tool crib it was apparent that they would not all fit.  With no other storage options available the teacher had his tutors throw thousands of dollars of brand new tools in the trash compactor rather than deal with the situation.  After the class started one day I watched as they tracked cement dust all over the hallways in the school building. the utility closet was half way down the hall and they made a huge mess making mortar for a brick laying project.

The level of incompetence displayed is hard to grasp but it really happened.  My teacher saw it coming and tried to warn them but like every other good idea proposed in the MDOC it was ignored.  They tried to set up this program quickly and on the cheap and then forced it into a facility that could not accommodate it.

I understand that in recent years new programs have been introduced such as Asbestos Abatement for which I have no first-hand knowledge, just what I’ve seen on the news or read in the paper.  It makes a great sound bite but if it is anything like the vocational education classes I’ve seen first-hand then it will be worse than useless and potentially dangerous to the students.

Many of the inmates participating in these programs selected them based on availability at the facility they were housed at, not on what they saw as a potential career that they would actually be interested in.  They are just checking off a parole board requirement to increase their chances of parole.  Given how these programs are run it is a pretty obvious and safe to say that the inmates aren’t the only ones going through the notions when it comes to educational programs.


I was surprised by how many guys I met in prison paid no attention to what was going on out in the world aside from popular culture.  News programming was never on the in the day room.  The only current events discussed were the rumors regarding issues pertaining to the MDOC.  The only politicians that were talked about was the sitting governor and attorney general, usually in connection to a 4-1etter expletive.  In the classroom I encouraged guys to read newspapers and would cut out articles on various topics.  About the only ones I got them to read were the articles about crime or pop culture.  The reality is that the typical inmate was already disconnected from the greater society and only focused on their subculture.

When you are in prison you don’t get much say into who your cell, cube or bunk mates are.  If you don’t get along your option is to lock up.  In an ideal world people can work through the vast majority of their differences, however prison is not ideal.  The divide between an old white guy who never had a run in with the law before coming to prison and a young black man who started on a life of crime at age 12 when he caught his first juvenile case is vast.

There is no love lost between these two, the only thing they have in common is that they were convicted in the state of Michigan.  More than likely they look down on the other and their crime with contempt.  Without knowledge, exposure to others different from ourselves, and acceptance of the differences there will be continued strife.  Not a good thing is a place where might makes right, and violence is the first and, in some cases, the only alternative considered.

Inmates are a captive audience.  So what better place to provide diversity and civics training?  Education is the proven solution to bridging the gap that divided us.  More over by proactively front loading the training the inmates could be held responsible for their behavior in relation to the material.  Outbursts and incidents could be used as teachable moments and remedial training to reinforce the importance of applying the material.  The parole board would have more information to evaluate in regards to the expectations set out for inmate behavior. Raising expectations for behavior sets the bar higher.  Well behaved inmates make for better behaved returning citizens.

In Michigan while on parole, parolees have the right to vote, but most don’t.  They didn’t participate in the electoral process before, failing to engage in the basic rights and responsibility of the democratic process as the center of our society.

Programming in prison currently tries to educate inmates why committing crime is wrong.  What is clearly lacking is teaching inmates about doing the right thing. They hold you responsible but don’t teach you responsibility.  They say “ignorance is bliss,” but in this case we should make an exception.

Deaf, Blind and Dumb

humpty dumpty

While I was in Level II I lived in a handicap accessible housing unit.  Seeing wheelchairs, white canes, TTY telephones, special showers and toilet stalls were the telltale signs that people with disabilities were present.  With the aging population in Michigan prisons it’s not unexpected that there would be physically infirm seniors that required walkers or wheelchairs for mobility, but there were also single and double leg amputees.  While not surprising that there are people from all walks of like, I wondered how those who couldn’t walk got there.

Prison is a place full of people seeking to exploit even perceived weaknesses to their advantage, so it doesn’t help to have those weaknesses clearly advertised. There also isn’t much in the way of empathy from the officers and staff, it is prohibited by policy and tends to be lacking by disposition for those who work in a place like this.  This combination of inmates and staff makes a dangerous environment even more difficult for those who struggle with the basic, necessary activities of life.

One of the men I met there had lost both of his eyeballs to a childhood cancer.  It was incredible enough that he was convicted of a heinous crime but to see what a blind man had to contend with in prison was heartbreaking.  He was a person who had overcome his disability by learning to read Braille, college educated, and lived relatively independently.  I watched him navigate from his cell across the yard to the chow hall, the school building, or medical with little or no assistance. The issue wasn’t what he could do for himself but what he wasn’t allowed to.  He was actively fighting his conviction and the conditions of his incarceration.  In the world he had access to technology that would allow him to process information.  In prison he was forced to rely on an inmate to read his mail, including his legal mail that contained sensitive information regarding his criminal case.

The law library could not accommodate him because they would not provide legal text in Braille.  In essence he was denied the ability to fully mount his appeal, which is a denial of his civil rights.  He wasn’t one to take his setbacks lying down, so he fought the librarian and the administration tooth and nail for both the basic tools he needed and his own dignity.  The courts have ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to prisons with considerations of safety and security limitations.  However, in a place where logic and reason don’t apply it shouldn’t be a surprise that federally guaranteed rights like the ADA would be denied.

He contacted the Department of Justice ADA division in Washington D.C. and they tried to send him the relevant statutes in books on tape format.  The mailroom would not deliver the tapes because they didn’t come from an approved vendor. They also claimed that the letter head on the enclosed documents was fake!  Over and over they found any excuse they could to deny this man.  He fought back by filling grievances, escalating to Step 2 and Step 3, as they were denied and dismissed repeatedly, going all the way to the Ombudsman in Lansing.

I have noticed that those who complain about their incarceration the most are singled out for retribution, abuse, and neglect.  Rather than take the complaints seriously it is easier to dismiss the messenger, saying “they” are only inmates.  I don’t know what happened to this blind crusader, but I’m sure that where ever he is he is still fighting the good fight.  Why would anyone want to make life more difficult for someone who already has more to overcome than just being a felon. All he wanted was a fair hearing.

Being deaf poses a different set of difficulties.  There were two guys, one who was hearing impaired but could function with hearing aids and was fluent in sign language. The second was deaf and could only communicate through signing. While I was in Level II with them the pair was inseparable for obvious reasons.

The officers and staff communicate verbally and relied on the first inmate to communicate with the second.  For official communication there was a state translator, just as when a Spanish speaking inmate needed someone to translate at hearings.  This person wasn’t on site but had to be brought in special for hearings like parole interviews or disciplinary hearings.  One day after I had been moved to Level I, I ran into the first hearing impaired innate.  I asked him how the second deaf inmate was doing.  He just shook his head.  When they moved him, there wasn’t anybody to take his place looking out for the deaf man and we both understood how difficult his situation was.

When you are deaf you can’t hear the CO calls your name over the PA system to come to the officer’s podium, or at count time to get on your bunk.  Unless the officer was a regular unit officer aware of his situation he might be ignored or mistreated.  In prison you have to look out for yourself since no one else will. But when you have a disability you don’t have that ability.  In a place where you learn not to trust others, they are forced to.  And when by some miracle you find someone you can trust to help you and the system takes that assistance away, it is a cruel and unfair punishment.

Not long ago I read in the news that legislation had been put forward that provide a mechanism for elderly and severely infirm inmates that posed no risk to the community to be transferred to a nursing home facility.  I’ve been saying this for several years and it would seem like a no-brainer.  There is a geriatric facility for these inmates, but I understand the conditions there are really bad and they have a hard time recruiting inmates to go there to serve as care givers to assist the inmates sent there to die.  I really can’t imagine a tougher position to fill.

I was also not surprised to read the negative response this legislation received from the Attorney General and victim advocates who claim that any early release, regardless of the reason was an injustice.  All of this just goes to prove that prison isn’t about handing out punishment to suite the crime, it is about vengeance. Inmates are not seen as individual human beings but as numbered animals that don’t have any civil or human rights.  Whether the sentence is 2 years flat or life without the possibility of parole we are still talking about basic standards of care. The burden of support to maintain that level of basic care is placed upon the state. There are only two valid options: Either the state is committed to bearing that cost burden and fulfilling its obligation to care for those wards placed into its charge. Or let some go and only hold on to those who truly are a danger to society.  Not everyone in prison is, not even those who are convicted of a violent crime are. Inmates must be individually assessed and then treated fairly according to a plan, not just lumped into a faceless mass where it is easy to overlook their humanity. The MDOC has chosen a 3rd way which is unacceptable and outrageous. They cling to discredited and outdated policies and procedures that threaten the wellbeing of those they claim to be rehabilitating.


As an update to this essay, an article published in the February 26, 2017 Detroit Free Press stated that a Federal Judge in Detroit has ruled that the MDOC for years has violated the ADA.  Specifically, a lawsuit brought by Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service representing deaf and hearing imparted prisoners proved that the department routinely violated the prisoner’s rights under ADA.  It only took the incarceration of a blind social worker who wrote letters to legislators and others regarding the situation to gain traction.  Then the MDOC as it always does in a too little too late attempt to avoid the looming lawsuit issued a policy directive and started to institute changes to avoid the inevitable.  While the court has not yet finalized the consent judgement it is likely that the department will have a federally appointed monitor for two years to oversee the necessary changes that must be implemented in order to bring the department into compliance with the ADA.

This was not the first lawsuit brought against the MDOC in relation to violations of the ADA.  It was simply the first successful class action.  The MDOC is no stranger to having a federally appointed monitor, there has been one in place since the 1980’s when a class action lawsuit regarding prison health care showed how poorly prisoner health was being managed by the department.  This really does raise the question, why is it so difficult to get people to believe when prisoners make claims about the abuses that they suffer at the hands of their captors?