International debut of unique UK and US prison art exhibit at Ann Arbor Art Fair.
In the depths of the Covid pandemic lockdown, 31 people isolated in prisons in the UK and US produced extraordinary artworks exploring personal experiences of incarceration.
Artist Faye Claridge sent each participant a letter inviting creative responses to the Warwickshire symbol of the chained bear. She paired two folk art paintings from the two countries1, showing different treatment of captive bears. These, as metaphors, provided inspiration for the remarkable artworks presented in We Bear.
“Incredible artwork – so beautiful, emotional and in depth. The atmosphere is incredible. So much talent.” ~ Exhibit visitor
Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair, Main Street & Liberty
Thurs – Fri, July 21 & 22 – 10am – 9pm
Saturday, July 23rd – 10am – 8pm
The We Bear artworks were made in the most difficult of circumstances, in the middle of a global pandemic, and communicate sincerely a range of experiences of being incarcerated.
They were created for a one-off exhibition in the UK, with Coventry Biennial, and attracted a staggering 52,068 visitors. Engagement from audiences and everyone involved has been astonishing, participants said they grew from the professional feedback and personal development in the opportunity and the results they produced are breath-taking.
In response, Arts Council England has extended project support, allowing We Bearto travel to the US and be showcased at the hugely popular Ann Arbor Art Fair.
The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), based at the University of Michigan, has partnered in the project from conception and is now collaborating as co-curator for the art fair exhibit. Join them, Thursday – Saturday, to experience the entire collection and leave your mark in the ongoing collaborative public art installation at the exhibit’s activity tent. And don’t miss their engaging live events just down the street, thanks to support from The Guild of Artists and Artisans.
The Stage on Main, William & Main Street
Thurs, July 21st – 2pm – 4pm
Friday, July 22nd – 2:30pm – 4:30pm
At the Stage on Main, located at the corner of Main & William in the parking lot next to Palio Restaurant, hear first hand the captivating stories of artists who have created art inside prison, celebrate the spoken words of writers who are currently/formerly incarcerated, and be swept away by musical performances from the U of M Men’s Glee Club.
To engage a global audience, an online event and StoryMap are being created so audiences near and far can experience the project in depth, with behind-the-scenes documentation, correspondence with participants, and additional insights into each of the participants’ artworks.
We Bear is a Coventry Biennial Commission made possible thanks to UK City of Culture 2021, Arts Council England and Art Fund, and Prison Creative Arts Project
1 The two folk art paintings inspiring participants’ responses are Man Feeding A Bear An Ear of Corn (1840, American Folk Art Museum, New York) and Bear Baiting (1830s, Compton Verney Art gallery & Park, Warwickshire).
As a past participant in the Prison Creative Writing Project I have a very high opinion of the work being done by The University of Michigan PCAP to bring attention to the reality of prison as seen through the eyes of the incarcerated. When I was approached about posting an advertisement for the art exhibit on my blog site I did not hesitate. When I got the chance to read my poem at a PCAP event I had the opportunity to view the art exhibition from 2016. The old adage is true that a picture is worth a 1000 words. It may be fair to say that these art works created by incarcerated individuals are worth a lot more. To experience the raw emotion and deep seated pain that is so apparent in the paintings says more than all my blog posts combined about the conditions of confinement. If you live in the Detroit Metropolitan area or in Southeast Michigan I would encourage you to check out this art exhibit. These artists truly belong at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.
I have previously written about celebrating holidays in prison. Now I would like to focus on birthdays. Unlike holidays in an average prison of 1000 people there is probably at least one being celebrated or ignored by at least one inmate every day. Then you add in the birthdays for wives, children, parents, and siblings there are literally hundreds of birthdays being remembered. The separation caused by incarceration is most acutely and painfully felt on these most important days. Missing these milestones in the life of the family cuts deeply into the psyche of those who prided themselves on their ability to provide for their families. Even those that did acknowledge their failings in this area often took pride in the accomplishments of their children. While I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, I believe that many men in prison would rather celebrate their family’s birthdays and completely ignore their own. I came to this conclusion by listening to how men would talk about their families, even in some divorced or separated situations. The number of photographs pinned to their head board showing wives and children backing up their talk.
The difference between holidays and birthdays in prison is simple: Government holidays mean a break from the normal routine with programming cancelled and special meals served. On your birthday if you are fortunate to have a visit you can eat vending machine food. For those that choose to celebrate their birthdays in prison the occasion will be a low key event that might mean a cook-up of some sort with an associate or two. For those who don’t value their liver, there is spud juice available in just about every prison housing unit. The daily routine is pretty much the same as any other day. Work and school assignments continue as usual. Some luck few will receive a birthday card in the mail from family or friends. I would get books from places like Barnes and Nobles delivered to me from my parents. No surprise parties. No birthday cake and ice cream. No packages wrapped with festive paper, ribbons, and bows. Many might call home if they have money on their phone account or people who would accept collect calls for the 15 minutes just to hear a familiar voice.
Birthdays are a personal event that are celebrated from our first to our last year except for some religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses. In the western world they mark the passage of time and our developmental progress. Some have special significance such as turning 16 and getting a driver’s license or 21 and getting to drink legally. When I turned 18 it meant that I was eligible for the military draft. Middle age is generally considered to be 45. The standard retirement age is 65. We often judge our success or failure in life by evaluating our progress on achieving goals by certain ages. Getting married in our 20s. Having children by our early 30s. Having the kids out of the house by our 50s. Having the mid-life crisis in mid-life. If we achieve our goals by some certain age, we feel a measure of accomplishment and peace of mind.
But being sentenced to serve time in prison changes the math for many. When the judge pronounces the sentence, the first thing you do is figure out how old you will be if/when you get out of prison. All of the normal milestones are tossed out the window. Now it is simply a matter of whether or not you will live long enough to see freedom. The calculations are can be radically different, for example: Person A is 17 and sentenced to 5 years and simply shrugs their shoulders, accepting that a few life goals will need to be postponed. Person B is 17 and receives a life sentence and stands in stunned silence, knowing that life is over before it is truly begun. Person C is 45 years old, receives a sentence of 25 years to life and realizes that by the time they are eligible for parole their parents will most likely be deceased. Person D is 72 and receives 5 to 15 years and knows that it could be a death sentence.
I have met all of those people in prison. About 95% of people who are sentenced to prison will be released at some point. There is a revolving door of individuals serving 2 to 5 years for various mostly non-violent offenses. If you are sentenced to serve less than seven years most likely you will do your time in a level I facility. These short sentences for most people, especially those under the age of 30, are just a slap on the wrist which doesn’t do much to change their perspective on life. For some coming to prison for these short periods of time was simply a vacation. Level I facilities have the most freedom and access to the largest number of activities, education, and programing for inmates. Time flies quickly when there is plenty to distract you from counting the years, months, and days until you will be free again. Your life may be on hold for now but when you get home everyone will be there to greet you.
I suspect that those over the age of 30 tend to count even these shorter sentences as lost time. While in the prime of life the disruption to earning power can be catastrophic. It can mean separation from the wife and kids. It can mean the lose of careers, homes, cars, and other items of value to the individual. These losses could be due to having to pay court costs, fines, and restitution. It could be the result of a prison divorce. It hurts and for some they may never recover. When you lose so much of what you identify as part of your self-identity, gaining your freedom again comes at such a high cost that you wonder if it is really worth it to be free. These thoughts can take a person into some very dark places. It is not just the ones who are serving a life sentence that consider or commit suicide in prison.
At age 44 I was sentenced to prison for 8 to 12 years. My career and 20-year marriage ended. I was separated from my life, my family, my friends. I found myself in a very scary place for which I had no prior experience to prepare me for. When I was served with divorce papers while I was in the country jail, the first question they asked me was whether I felt like harming myself. I said, “No Sir” and went back to my cell clutching the divorce papers from my soon to be ex-wife’s lawyer. I cried myself to sleep many nights, all the while hiding any emotion behind a blank facade. I had no interest is spending time in the “Bam-Bam Room” where they took away your clothes and gave you a garment made out of carpet-like material and Velcro that looked like it was designed for the Flintstones, and kept you under 24-hour observation.
After Quarantine I was sent to Level IV. I was locked down, restricted from having many necessities or very many luxuries including privacy, and time just seemed to stop. I had to serve nearly 2900 days to reach my earliest release date. The thought of not being free until I was 52 and then still on parole and not really free was mind boggling. From that perspective it was all up hill, like climbing Mt. Everest by starting your trek from the shore of the Indian Ocean. You can’t even see the mountains, let alone the summit. I had spent 6 years attending college and graduate school but there was no comparison for what I had to endure in prison.
Jails and prisons are specifically designed to break a person’s spirit, their will, their stiff-necked stubbornness. The goal is to control you in such a way that you will be unable to fight back and thereby be more easily managed. While I can’t put an exact number on the percentage, it is certainly in double digits the ones that resist, fight, and struggle against the system defying the officers and rules. They are ones that find themselves serving time in isolation and if/when they leave prison, they are far worse off than when they went in. It leaves me wondering if instead of breaking their spirit’s, it simply broke the person.
The thought of missing X number of Christmas’, Independence Days, or birthdays never factors into the equation when a person thinks about committing a crime and is therefor not a deterrent. There may be however some truth to the idea that it might cause a person to hesitate when thinking about committing another crime. There is also a quality factor to consider in addition to the quantity of time when looking at prison time. Serving time in college to get a degree, while living in dormitories, going to class, the library, the gym or track, and working on campus just isn’t in the same league with doing time in prison. In prison there are only two options: Either you do your time, or Your time does you.
Some of the most well-adjusted inmates I knew were the natural lifers in Level II. When sentenced to life without the possibility of parole you are sent to Level V maximum security and you must work your way down to Level II. They won’t take shit from anyone that would interfere with their ability to enjoy their little bit of freedom and access to luxury goods. They won’t hesitate to put someone in their place, even if it means going up to level IV or V again. They’ve got nothing but time. My level II Bunkie was a lifer. A little old man who had been down since the 1970s. He didn’t care who you were or how much time you were serving, the odds were it wasn’t anything compared to what he had already done. Life was simple for him: Detroit Tigers baseball and coffee. It used to include cigarettes until they took them out of the penal system in Michigan in 2008.
For those whose sentence looks more like a basketball score, prison can be a life sentence by another name. When serving a sentence of 50 to 75 years the odds are against you seeing your freedom again. If you are sentenced as a young adult, it is theoretically possible that you will be paroled but the world and people that you knew will be long gone. I served time with guys who had never used a computer or a cellphone. They only saw these technological marvels on the TV and it scared them. The already knew that they would be lost and unable to adjust to the alien world that awaited them. Prison doesn’t prepare you for life in the free world. There are no classes on how to use the internet to find a job, get services and goods, or look up information. Being paroled at an age that automatically qualifies you for Social Security when you’ve never paid into the system means that you will get the lowest amount possible. An amount that it will be impossible to live on when you have no one left to live with. Once you have lived your adult life as a ward of the state it is impossible to live any other way. I’ve seen grown men purposefully get a misconduct in order to keep from being paroled.
For me, the time I spent in prison was more of a marathon than a sprint. I kept close track of the mile markers. Four months for time served in the country jail; One month in Quarantine; Seven months in level IV- One year down and 7 to go. I worked, I read books, I walked the track and worked out as I could. I immersed myself in religious studies and the church. I set up schedules to ensure that I occupied my time. I counted the missed holidays and birthdays by writing letters home and cherishing the visits and phone calls. I learned what it was like to be lonely even when you are never alone.
I was promoted to level II having served more than six months ticket free in level IV. I might have served longer than seven months but for a chance meeting with the Resident Director who was filling in for the Unit Councilor. Level IV housing is at a premium and when he found out I had been there 7 months ticket free; I was moved the very day that the councilor got back from vacation. I packed all my worldly possessions into a duffle bag, slung it over my shoulder and carried my TV in my arms, clutching my transfer pass to level II.
I spent 2½ years in level II, with the same Bunkie, in the same cell. I was fortunate that we got along so well. From being locked down 22 hours a day or more for the last year to only being confined to my room for count time was a major change. I was able to acquire things like gym shoes and art supplies. I could spend hours outside in the fresh air. After being on the waiting list for a year I got a job as a tutor in the GED program. Time really started to speed up. I still didn’t feel like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I felt like I was moving forward. I wouldn’t describe myself as artistic but rather as creative. I began to make my own greeting cards to send home for holidays and birthdays. Each one uniquely crafted for the recipient. The only gift that I could give to my family was to share with them my life, as strange and limited as it was. My prayers and dreams were filled with the past and the longing they expressed to have it back. From my reflections I learned how ungrateful I had been for what I had and vowed that if given the chance I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
One rainy afternoon I was called to the officer’s podium and told to pack up. My bed was needed for someone coming back from the hospital and since I had a bottom bunk detail, they couldn’t move me to a top bunk, so I was being moved to level I. I had hoped to spend at least another year in level II since everyone told me that it was far better than level I. I went from a 2-man room with my own room key to an 8-man cubical in a pole barn. I went from bright lights and a window to a dark dungeon lit but the glow of television screens. I had 4½ years left to my ERD and I found myself in gangland. Where level II was controlled by the lifers who managed to keep a lid on the violence and theft that threatened their way of life, level I was like the wild west.
I still had my job as a tutor, my library and church call outs, but the quality of life decreased significantly. It was like going back to elementary school complete with playground bullies. I found that I didn’t have as much time to reflect on my past because I was too busy watching my back. Some guys couldn’t hack it and would get misconducts just so they could get sent back to level II or rode out to some other prison hoping for greener pastures. When I reached the halfway point of my minimum sentence it wasn’t like a roller coaster reaching the peak of the first hill where the ride would get interesting real fast. I could tell you at any giving time how many months I had left. However, from the trench warfare perspective that I had at the time it didn’t fill me with hope. I still couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I turned 50 in level I. Notice I didn’t say celebrate. Turning 50 is one of those milestones that people like to celebrate. For my 40th birthday we had a party at the Toledo Mudhens stadium with my family and closest friends. I don’t think I even bothered to tell the guys that I associated with that it was my 50th birthday. I don’t remember if I had a visit on my birthday or some other day that week, my parents were very faithful about visiting me so I’m sure they came to see me then. My life goals were no longer attainable, and I had no idea what the future would hold for me. I trusted God had a plan for me. I knew that my parents were there for me and would help in any way that they could. I just had far more questions than answers.
When I reached 2 years left to my ERD I began to think about parole and what would be required of me. I had to take programming that unless it was waved could result in an automatic flop by the parole board. I took all of the self-help programming I could in the absence of the required programming. I even had the help of a consultant who worked with me to prepare for the parole interview. I put together a parole plan which listed my goals for housing, work, and successful reentry into society. That is about the time that I started paying attention to what was happening to others as they went to the parole board and received their decisions. You know what they say about plans, that they never survive contact with the enemy. What seemed like good solid plans with family support, waiting jobs and completed programming would crash and burn in an instant based on the oftentimes seemingly capricious whims of the parole board. They only provide canned language to categorize their decision that wouldn’t explain or justify why you did or didn’t get a parole. Appeals seldom if ever work to get a reconsideration.
After doing all that I could I entrusted my future into God’s hands. And with six months left to my ERD I met with the member of the parole board assigned to conduct my video conference parole hearing. Hearings generally last no longer than 30 minutes but you have to spend hours in the waiting room before it’s your turn. The suspense and anxiety were palpable in that little room crowded with others that also have no idea if today meant freedom or failure. The best you could hope for was when a guy would come back to the waiting room before being sent back to his housing unit and let you know if they thought their hearing went well or not. Parole board members are appointed by the governor to serve a specific term. While I had been in prison there had been two different governors that had made changes to the parole board. Decisions that were made during my plea bargain had been based on the recent history of the parole board at that time, but what I was facing was very different from back then. My representative was herself a prior parole board member from a decade previous and while she felt confident that the hearing had gone well, all we could do was wait. So, I waited on pins and needles to hear the decision that would tell me if the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train.
It takes about a month for three members of the parole committee to issue their decision. It comes to you either from the hand of your housing unit counselor or “under the door”. If it comes from the counselor then it is good news. If the unit officer passes it out with the mail, then it is bad news. Mine was good news and it was like I returned to my bunk by floating on a cloud. After 7½ years my nightmare was coming to an end. There was light and life at the end of the tunnel. But as they say, “it was all over except for the shooting.” Having learned that I had received my parole I wanted to shout out for joy, but I knew better. The day I got my parole somebody else got a flop, and in their anger might try to get you to lose yours. There were also guys that had a long way to go to see the parole board and might figure that getting a misconduct wouldn’t hurt them 3-5 years down the road, so they wouldn’t hesitate to harass someone who now couldn’t afford to fight back. Prison is a twisted place where a lot of inmates would rather rain on your parade than wish you well.
The advice I had gotten from an associate was to not tell anyone there that I got a parole and definitely don’t let them know your release date. So even while the burden has been lifted, I had to keep it inside. While I eagerly made plans with my family and waited for them to be approved by my parole officer, I had to continue living the same life I had been. The only difference was that the time was really flying now. Nearly 8 years of patience, perseverance, pain, and prayer came down to just a matter of weeks, then days, then hours. Believe me, I did the math and kept it current in my head. What started as out as journey that was up hill all the way was finally coming to an end. I had made it. I had reached the door. No turning back, I was going to be free at last. Well, almost, sort of free. I had to serve 2 years on parole, which is the standard in Michigan. I just figured that anywhere was better than being in prison.
I never did understand why guys would rather max out than take a parole. I think they were just afraid that they couldn’t trust themselves to follow the rules and would come back to prison due to a parole violation or catching a new case. Some guys are like that. Given their freedom that they don’t know what to do with they waste it on stupid things and go back like the 10 Israelite spies and give a negative report of the promised land. Serving a flop is tough but serving a parole violation is tougher. Michigan has an indeterminate sentencing system. Most felonies are given a minimum and maximum release date. When you get a flop, it is generally for 12-24 months. Sometimes you will get called back early for another hearing, generally because you’ve completed required programming. When you are returned to prison for a parole violation you will see the parole board and they will make a decision about how long the additional sentence will last, but no longer than the max date. If you are PV-New Bit, then you have committed a crime for which you will have to serve time for that case plus additional time for the parole violation.
Coming back to prison may either serve as a wake-up call to say, “Hay Stupid, what were you thinking?” or self-condemnation, “You are a fuck up and you got what you deserved!” How a person deals with adversity says a lot about their character. When you get knocked down do you get up or give up? Do you re-evaluate your plan and make the necessary changes or do you keep going thinking that it will somehow be different this time? Admitting mistakes is hard for a proud man and prison is full of them. Truly pride does come before a fall.
My 55th birthday was a celebration. I had completed my parole and was discharged from my sentence with the MDOC. After 10 years I could bask in the sun. My life will never be what it was before I went to prison and I don’t want it to be. I’ve moved on; I’ve grown; I’ve healed; and I’ve learned to be content. I’ve got my ministry; a new job, which might become a career; a new relationship; and my God who is faithful. That is truly a milestone.
I recently learned of the passing of an old friend. His name was “Pops” to those of us who knew him in prison. Pops and I lived in the same housing unit for the last year and a half I was incarcerated. When we met he was in his late 70s. He had been an upstanding member of his community, an active church goer, and after retirement he made one poor decision that resulted in him being sent to prison for the first time in his life.
In prison he was active in the Protestant All-faith service, chaplain programs, Keryx, and led a Bible study almost every day in the housing unit dayroom. He was not shy about sharing his faith with those he came in contract with. He was a mentor to me in my own Christian walk. It was Pops who gave me the title “Warehouse of Lost Souls” from the poem on the front page of my blog as a way of describing prison.
Prison was not easy for him. Being a senior citizen meant that he was a frequent target by those looking for an easy victim. He regularly showed the Christian characteristics of turning the other cheek, forgiveness, and loving his enemies. He sought to live in peace with all men, including the young kids who showed no respect for their elders.
Pops wasn’t in bad health for a person his age, but he did have the usual aches and pains. Prison medical being what it is didn’t do much for him. He was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, so after years of waiting the MDOC gave him one hearing aide. Then he found out he could have had hearing aids sent to him from an outside source. His greatest fear was of dying while in prison. Fortunately, he did make parole. He was received into the home of a friend where he lived until the time of his untimely death.
When I started my ministry of writing letters of encouragement to prisoners, Pops was on the top of my list. Even though he said he wasn’t much of writer we did correspond back and forth. After he paroled, I continued to write to him. I was able to talk with him on the phone a number of times and even managed to spend a day with him. It was good to see someone who came out of prison with a thankful heart instead of bitterness. He fully intended to live his remaining years as a free man walking by faith.
He was not one to minimize his crime, but fully accepted responsibility for it. In his testimony he spoke of how God worked through his situation to not just save him but transform him into a new creation. In prison his life was a light shinning in the darkness. Pops was well educated and well spoken, and he could talk to anyone. He boldly proclaimed the Gospel of Christ in both words and deeds.
Pops truly enjoyed mentoring young believers by opening up Scriptures using an inductive bible study style that encouraged them to read the Word for themselves in order to grow in their faith. He prayed boldly but spoke gently. He modeled Christian character and lived a lifestyle that was beyond reproach. He did his time by helping others use theirs wisely.
He touched many lives including mine and we are all the better for it. He is gone but not forgotten. I know that Pops is in heaven singing with the heavenly choir. While I grieve for the loss of my friend, I know that some day I will see him again and will rejoice in that meeting.
(Presented at the Protestant All-Faith worship service)
They say that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I tutor for the GED program and on several occasions my students have introduced me to their people in the visiting room as “the guy who’s helping them get their GED.” Now I’m proud of that because they recognize that I want them to succeed, but that is nothing compared to what happened to me recently.
I’ve been walking the yard with a guy who introduces me to his home boys as “the guy who helped him get through the death of his mother.” We used to lock together in the same cube over on the east side of the prison and he knows that I’m a Christian. Not because I preach at him but because I lived my Christianity in front of him. And when his mother died I made myself available to him immediately. I didn’t have to say much, but rather walked the yard in silence with him and listened, like Job’s friends who were of the most comfort when they sat and mourned with him in silence.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16 that we are to be salt and light. We are going to have an impact on those around us when we make ourselves available and show others that same love of God that we ourselves have experienced. Francis of Assisi said that “we are to preach the gospel and if necessary use words.” Our actions really do speak louder than words. My friend is not a Christian yet, but I’ve sown seeds into his life that one day may bear fruit. I take every opportunity I can to encourage him, watering the seed and trusting in the Lord of the harvest.
Update November 2019: I’m still in contact with my friend. We are both trying to put our prison experience behind us and move on with our lives. We are both off parole now and have successfully transitioned back into society. We are both working and have family obligations. The first time we met in the free world we hugged, drank coffee and spoke for several hours. He shared with me that during our time in prison I was responsible for helping him keep his cool on several occasions when his emotions were running high which kept him from busting several guys heads who were getting under his skin. He’s a big guy who can hold his own but a fighting ticket would have cost him his parole, elevated his detention level and would have sent his life in a totally different direction. He told me about his experience going to his mother’s grave site the first time after he got out, eight months after her passing. His mother was a believer and he is convinced that she is looking down from heaven and watching over him. At the end of our get together I gave him my pastor’s business card and told him that if he ever needed to talk to a clergyman, I highly recommended this guy. (I’ve quoted his opening sermon stories several times in my news letters.)
Before I went to prison I had difficulty expressing empathy, situations involving death made me uncomfortable and I was always at a loss for words. In a place where men purposefully toughen their hearts and shedding tears is a sign of weakness God worked in me to soften my heart, gave me peace in the midst of the storm, and loosened my tongue and my pen.
The pastor shared this funny story to open his sermon the other week:
A group of church members got together at the old country church they attend to paint the exterior. The sky was gray and overcast, so they rushed to get the paint on. As they were in a hurry to finish when they ran low on paint, they decided to add water to complete the job. Just when they completed the project the clouds opened up and a downpour caused the fresh paint to run. There was lightening and thunder and as quick as the rain started it stopped. There was a beam of light shinning from a break in the clouds and a voice from heaven said, “Repaint ye thinners!”
Pastor Bob E.
The moral of the story is that we should always do our best and not cut corners. We don’t always get explicit feedback as these church members did, but we know deep down inside when we aren’t giving our all to the task. This includes situations where peer presure is brought to bear on you from others who have choosen to not give it their best effort. Instead these situations are a time where you can shine out and rise above and even it no one applaudes you, you will know you did your best and can live with a clear conscience.
In I Peter 4:10 and 11 it says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength that God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” As Christians how we act reflects on God. When we do good God is praised and when we do poorly we are called hypocrites. I know from first hand experience how hard this is in prison. Expectations are low, morale is low, competency is low, productivity is low, pay is low and there are a number of forces at work to keep it this way.
It really boils down for a Christian to realize who it is we really work for: God or man? Man may set the task, the hours, the pay, the work rules but we answer to a higher authority. Doing the right thing in the right way is never wrong. In a dark place you will shine bright when you exceed expectation, do the job without grumbling and complaining, giving your all to the task without counting the cost.
I was a unit porter for two years and I got noticed by the old timers who appreaciated that I actually cleaned the bathrooms. I met people who befriended me and respected me because I wasn’t like all the other porters. I was shown appreaciation and when I left the job to become a tutor so many guys came up to me and told me how much they missed me doing the job. Remember we don’t live for the accolades of man, but on that final day we long to hear the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
Remember you are not forgotten. I’m praying for you. Your Brother in Christ.
Prisoner Benefit Fund, or PBF for short, plays an important role in the daily
life of prisoners in the MDOC. The PBF
pays for things like:
supplies and materials for approved prisoner organizations;
self-help programs such as hobby craft, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and
compensation for verified property losses where the prisoner was not negligent;
costs for prisoner funeral or sick bed visits;
equipment and supplies (e.g., athletic equipment);
maintenance and capital outlay projects;
practical terms the PBF is responsible for prisoners having any luxury items like
weightlifting and exercise equipment; baseball, basketball, soccer equipment
including the fields; musical instruments and sound equipment; coffee for AA
meetings; basic cable television
programming and selected DVD movies.
money to fund these programs mostly comes from the prisoners themselves. Profits from the prisoner store and vending
machines; pop can deposit refunds; photo tickets; confiscated prisoner funds; donations
from outside organizations; interest from invested funds; and fund raising are
the sources available to the PBF.
to Policy Directive 04.02.110 FUND RAISING ACTIVITIES Section D states:
“A PBF may be permitted to conduct fundraising activities through which funds may be solicited and collected from other prisoners at that institution. To do so, the PBF must submit a written fundraising proposal to the Warden for review. The proposal must include the proposed use of the funds, a detailed description of the fundraising activity, and supporting documentation if the funds are to be used for a charitable donation. If the Warden supports the fundraising activity, s/he shall forward the proposal to the CFA Deputy Director or designee for final approval. The Warden shall be notified of the final decision and shall ensure the PBF is notified. If approved, the Warden shall designate a staff person to supervise the fundraising activity.”
raising is a very popular idea while I was incarcerated. The minutes from the Warden’s Forum were full
of proposals by inmates to raise money. Most
of these had noble causes like donations to various charities as the basis for
the request, while others were a bit more self-centered. Most fundraising revolved around the sale of food. Pizza, burgers, donuts, and the like were the
typical items. Since fundraisers are
specific to a prison the sources for goods was generally local as well. Venders like the one that supplied food for
the visiting room vending machines were easier to work with because they
already have contracts and financial systems for payment already in place. It was much more difficult to try to arrange
for other businesses such as a local pizza or sub shop to navigate the bureaucracy
for what might be a one-time event.
was routine for these fund raiser proposals to be shot down by warden. It could be simply that the proposal lacked enough
details or that recent behavior by inmates did not merit the privilege. Whatever the reason fund raisers were not a common
event. When one was approved it big news.
The news would travel through the
housing units like wildfire. Gossip
always travels faster than facts so it would often be that misinformation would
take days to be corrected, as the block reps are besieged by an endless line of
inmates seeking clarification. When the official
posting went up and the details were finally made known it was never as good as
the promise, such as the selection might be less or the prices higher. Inmates can always manage to find something
to complain about. But without fail
inmates by the hundreds would scrape together enough money in their trust account
to fill out the order form and the disbursement.
would be like having an extra holiday when the big day finally arrived. Like the
anticipation of Christmas morning the thoughts of treats that haven’t been
tasted in years dance in their dreams.
Some see an opportunity to make a little profit by selling these rare items
at a premium to those who didn’t have funds in their trust accounts at the
order time. A similar phenomenon happens on Super Bowl
Sunday when sack lunches are served for dinner with a sub sandwich, chips, carrots
& celery, cookies, fruit, and juice.
in prison is controlled. The higher the
level the more restricted, so it isn’t as simple as setting up a table in the
gym and letting everyone line up. There
needs to be order and security. Whenever
there are goods involved, they will be targets for theft. The delivery was handled several different
ways that I recall. At the multi-level facility,
the individuals who had placed orders were called by the housing unit to go
pick up their purchase. And if memory
serves me correct, at the level 1 facility it was on the daily itinerary call-out
sheet. Either way there would be extra
officers posted to oversee the distribution.
It seemed that every time some little old man who ordered goods would be
robbed before he managed to make it back to his bunk. You needed to travel in packs and with bodyguards
at times to ensure your safety the same way you would pickup a Secure Pack.
all-time best idea for a fund raiser that I thought of would be to sell Girl Scout
cookies. You might as well back up the
semi-truck to the sally port. I can guarantee
you that they would break records for fund raising for both the inmates and the
Girl Scouts. If there was a downside, I
really couldn’t see it. I’m not advocating
to send the girls into prison to sell cookies, parents sell cookies for their
girls all the time in the workplace. All
that would be needed is a very big stack of order forms. The cookies sell themselves; they would remind
many in prison of a taste of freedom. The
idea for this fund raiser would be that all the prisons would participate with
the proceeds distributed to the local Girl Scout organizations. Nothing beats Girl Scout cookies and it would
be a great opportunity for those in prison to give back.
like a lot of great ideas I’m pretty sure the wardens would never go along with
it. Luxury items or comfort foods for
prisoners aren’t very high on their priority list. They don’t have to give a reason all they have
to say is “NO” and dismiss it like yesterday’s trash. While I’m sure that there are a few reform
minded wardens in the system who would approve of such a fund raiser most would
rather not be bothered since they follow the “all stick and no carrot” philosophy
of prisoner management.
It sucks to be poor. Some who are in prison were accustomed to having the finer things of life when they were out in the world. Some had enough to get by and get a few luxury items too. Some lived hand to mouth, scrambling to keep cash flowing in the absence of a steady paycheck. And some had nothing living on the streets, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating at soup kitchens. This is also a good description of what life in prison is like. In prison there are the “haves” and “have nots.” Everyone comes to prison with nothing but the clothes on their back and then those are taken away, but after that…
Prison starts with quarantine at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center (RGC) which according to the MDOC website, “serves as the facility responsible for intake processing of all male offenders who are adjudicated adults sentenced to a term of incarceration with the Michigan Department of Corrections. Prisoners with new commitments, parole violators, and youthful offenders are received at RGC for assessments, screening, and classification prior to their placement in general population prisons throughout the agency.”
“Prisoners receive a variety of psychological, medical, educational and security classification evaluations upon arrival at RGC. Prisoners are all medically screened by professionally trained correctional health care staff during the intake process. Prisoners are subjected to twelve days of intake processing prior to being classified for transfer to a general population facility capable of meeting their medical, program and security needs. The average length of stay at RGC is 30 to 45 days. Prisoners with significant medical needs or prisoners involved in parole revocation hearings are held at the facility until their medical or due process concerns are resolved.”
While at RGC there is a limited commissary available for those who have money in their trust account. I was fortunate enough to bring a check with funds left over from my county jail stay, so I had funds available to order basic hygiene items, shower shoes and postage stamps. For those that don’t come to prison with financial resources they must reach out to family and friends via collect phone calls to try to secure funds. For first time offenders or those who are PV-new bit there are no job opportunities available in quarantine, so no source of earned income. Most will have to wait until they are transferred to another facility to get funds to acquire the basics, let alone creature comforts.
Money cannot be sent directly to prisoners since they are not allowed to have access to currency while in prison. While I was incarcerated the MDOC changed the procedure by which those in the public could put funds into a prisoner’s trust account. Instead of sending the money to an MDOC address, the funds must be sent to a third-party company called JPay which managed the process by accepting credit cards through their website or by money orders to their PO Box. JPay works with most state corrections departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to offer a variety of services some of which have been adopted by the MDOC.
Not everyone who wants to send money has a credit card. For those who need a credit card because a traditional debit card won’t work there are companies like Green Dot. Green Dot offers a prepaid pinless debt card that functions like a credit card that is widely used especially in urban communities. The practice is so common among prisoner’s family and friends that Green Dot is not just a noun, but it is also used as a verb referring to the process of transferring money.
Green Dot is used to go beyond transferring money into an inmate’s trust account but is also used as a way of transferring money on behalf of one inmate to a party designated by another inmate. Usually this is done to get around having funds garnished to pay restitution, fines, and outstanding court costs when sent to an inmate with outstanding court debts. An inmate will find someone who doesn’t have their funds garnished and have money placed in their account to so that they can use that inmate as a straw purchaser for their commissary. Green Dot is also commonly used to pay off gambling debts, drug & alcohol purchases, and store-man tabs. Additionally, it might be used to pay for jailhouse law services, tattoos, and protection/extortion.
This obviously only works for those who have connections to financial resources on the outside. Many in prison simply don’t have connections to family or friends that can or are willing to send money. For instance, drug users may have already burned their bridges to family and friends by previously stealing from them to support their habit. Something I heard of happening was that some guys, even some who were married would develop relationships with several women who they would get to send money to support them in prison. They would call and send JPay emails regularly to all of their women requesting money and then dump them when they didn’t get it. They would even schedule visits so they could get that fine vending machine cuisine. One time a guy was having a visit with his girlfriend when his wife showed up unannounced. From what I heard it was quite the scene in the visiting room. The COs had to separate the women when blows were exchanged. A risky business, but one that continues to be played out in prisons all over.
I read recently that a graduate student published his finding that Raman Noodles are now the primary currency in prison. I got a good laugh about that. It wasn’t a state secret and anyone who has been in prison in the last decade could have told him that. But that covers the small stuff, and there are only so many bags of coffee that you can stick in your locker for the bigger stuff. The more items like that you have the greater a theft target you become. Stacking up cash either in your trust account or somewhere else out in the world is far safer.
Green Dot or its financial equivalent is what many of the “haves” use to maintain their lifestyle while in prison. By purchasing these cards with cash at grocery stores they can be difficult to trace but as good as cash to settle debts. Easy to acquire and use, it serves a purpose that its creator never envisioned. It is true that “money makes the world go ‘round,” and since the world doesn’t stop even though it feels like it for those in prisons, access to money is crucial. Like the old VISA commercial said, “It’s everywhere you want to be.” In this case however it might be more accurate to say, “It’s useful even in places you don’t want to be.”
This is a reasonable representation of what Butt Naked Fish looks like in comparison to a regular breaded fillet.
Not much needs more to be said about food service in the MDOC than to mention “Butt Naked Fish.” This will elicit a visceral response from anyone who has served appreciable time as a prisoner. BFN is an unbreaded fish fillet that has more in common with particle board than Van de Kamp’s. Most prisoners would describe it as a square white hockey puck made from fins and scales. It wasn’t seasoned yet the flavor is indescribable. Generally, it was served on the Diet Line for people with a medically restricted diet like diabetics however, from time to time it would make an appearance on the menu for the regular food service when there was a shortage of the breaded baked fish normally served.
I heard stories from the old timers about getting giant cinnamon rolls and coffee for breakfast. Pork chops, fried chicken, beef liver and other real protein sources were served as a regular part of the menu. At one time the MDOC had its own dairy, slaughter house, and farms that provided the majority of the food stocks for the chow hall. Prison work camps supplied the labor. Then a series of unfortunate events involving prisoners resulted in the closing of the work camps and the elimination of the prison farms back in the early 1980s. This corresponded closely in time with the “tough on crime” movement that more than doubled the number of people behind bars and put a significant strain on the department’s budget. Food service was severely impacted, and the goal was put in place to feed inmates for $1 per day.
There have been a number of changes in food service in the last few years as the department sought to reduce costs further under Governor Snyder. Food service was outsourced to Aramark a national vender that provides meals to a number of state prison systems, in the attempt to reduce cost by leveraging increased buying power. When the contract was put out for bid none of the original bids met the targeted cost savings. On rebid Aramark was awarded the contract. In what I would describe as a rocky relationship, Aramark replaced union food stewards with minimum wage inexperienced personal. The officer’s union lost something like 350 staff positions and was bitter and resentful about that and went out of its way to ensure that privatization of the food service failed. They didn’t care about the impact it would have on the 40,000+ inmates.
After several years of struggling to hire and retain sufficient staffing to provide oversight of the inmates working in the kitchen, contraband smuggling, illicit sexual relationships between staff and inmates, and fines for failing to meet contract obligations, Aramark decided to give back the contract. Trinity was then given the contract at several million dollars above what Aramark had been paid. Trinity basically took the Aramark employees and the problems continued the same as before. Articles appeared in newspapers across the state detailing issues involving the food service and calls by many to return it to department control. In 2017 it was announced that Trinity would be leaving, the food service returned to the department, and jobs returned to the union.
What is lost in all this is the effect it had on the inmates. Food quality and quantity decreased meaning that there were many times when inmates went hungry and not by choice. Hungry natives are restless natives. Back in the day it was understood that one of the ways to keep the prison population under control was to make sure that they got fed. Today though prison is all stick and no carrot. In the roughly 30 years that the department tried to limit the food cost to $1 per day for each inmate, food and labor costs have increased significantly. The only choice was to buy cheaper meal alternatives and reduce portion sizes. For instance, instead of fried chicken breasts baked leg quarters were served and over time they shrank in size. I once observed that on days when chicken was being served that there were fewer pigeons to be seen on the yard. Ground meats like hamburgers or meatballs that looked and tasted like there was more filler than beef or turkey caused many inmates to ask, “Where’s the beef?” like the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial. The Hot dogs and Polish sausage had the consistence and taste of a rubber hose.
Pizza was served by the single slice that were the size of a 3×5 index card. For a guy that used to eat a whole medium and sometimes a large pizza all by himself, this just didn’t satisfy me at all. One time the pizza would be so over cooked that it was as stiff as cardboard with burnt cheese on it, and the next time the dough would still be raw in the center of the pan. This sometimes occurred in the same meal service, it was just luck of the draw if you got an eatable piece.
Calories from other sources such as potatoes, which are a starchy carbohydrate, make up a sizable portion of the meal. Mashed potatoes, Garlic mashed potatoes, Oven browned potatoes, Cheesy potatoes, Potato salad, Baked potatoes, Tater tots, and Potato wedges. Potatoes were served on average four days a week and sometimes for both lunch and dinner. I heard that at one facility the food service director owned a potato farm and sold his crop to the MDOC at his facility. There were an unusual number of food substitutions where potatoes replaced the scheduled rice or pasta, go figure. Now I like potatoes, but when they are cooked in such a way that they are uneatable, they provide no nutritional value and simply end up in the trash.
Boiled collard greens, spinach, and cabbage; canned green beans, mixed vegetables, and corn; cooked beets (not the pickled ones); and carrots that looked like they came from a deer hunters bait pile, were cooked until they are flavorless and devoid of nutritional value. When a menu change introduced peas to the rotation a friend of mine exclaimed, “I thought these had gone extinct!”
In recent years meals like Turkey ala King and Turkey Tetrazzini were added alongside old staples like Chili Mac as ways to stretch the budget further. Why is it that on every menu there is always one meal that doesn’t look good on paper let alone in reality? Back in the day it might have been Chipped Beef on Toast, which was affectionately called “S#*t on a Shingle” or a modern dish like Turkey Teriyaki (Turkey Teri-yuk-e) or Salisbury Patty (Salisbury’s Mistake). There were those who didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t eat the main dish with the beef, chicken or turkey included, so at lunch and dinner there would be a meatless alternative offered. It would sometimes be the same dish with soy substituted for the meat, at other times it was beans. Occasionally the alternative was better than the primary offering like when they served Spinach Au Gratin. But like everything else in the chow hall it depended on who cooked it, so some days it was a lose-lose situation with no clearly better choice.
The best part of the meal was the 2 slices of wheat bread and the desert. The bread was store bought, so it was hard for them to ruin it. I would take it back to my bunk to make a peanut butter sandwich. Desert was either a cookie or a piece of sheet cake. They used to serve ice cream before Aramark took over. At one facility we used to get ice cream donated by a local dairy company when they had a manufacturing hiccup and mixed in the wrong type of nuts or something. In fact, a number of Michigan food manufacturers donated or sold off-spec but still eatable food products at significantly reduced prices to the MDOC. The practice of accepting these ended when Aramark took over.
Breakfast was a rotation of oatmeal, grits, or Ralston (Cream of What?) or All Bran as a cold cereal alternative. Older menus offered waffles and sausages once a week. Newer menus mixed in coffee cake, gravy and biscuit or French toast bake (the French don’t take credit for this). Most inmates didn’t even bother getting up for breakfast. Generally, food service started too early and offered little incentive to go, unless they were serving peanut butter, which we would bring back to save for that peanut butter sandwich later. Eggs, even powdered eggs were not served at all during my time in prison. I had a diabetic roommate one time that got hardboiled eggs in his snack bag. He didn’t like them and would trade them to me for what ever I had in my locker that he could eat when his blood sugar got too low.
Coffee wasn’t part of the meal service like it was back in the day. The options were milk or a juice like apple or orange for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner a Kool-Aid like drink, or water. The serving size was listed as 1 cup, but the plastic cups were small, and I don’t think could hold 8 ounces without spilling.
If you look at the published menu included below you will see that it looks a lot like a public-school lunch menu. The menu had a 6-week cycle where the lunch and dinner meals were switched, so the reality was 3 weeks of menu variety. While it looks good on paper, I can assure you that the paper tastes better. As I have described elsewhere theft was a major problem, especially after it was turned over to Aramark and Trinity. This had a significant impact on the meal preparation. For instance, when a recipe called for spices, the required amounts would be issued to the inmate cook. If he decided to steal the spices and sell them on the yard, then the dish he prepared would be bland. Likewise, the Kool-Aid drink mix came in powdered form and if the person preparing it decided to take some of it then the drink would taste watery. Many guys would take the seasoning packs from Raman Noodles that they would purchase in the commissary to season the meals in the chow hall. I did that on a regular basis, but I also noticed that the food served in the chow hall was like a flavor blackhole. No matter how much seasonings or hot sauce I put on some dishes it didn’t seem to make a difference.
On several special occasions when volunteers from a faith-based organization came into the prison and shared a meal with us in the chow hall, I got to observe first-hand the reactions of people who had never tasted prison food before. The experienced volunteers who knew better than to eat the meal would stick to the fruit, but there was always one rookie who would try the meal. Without fail we would hear the next day that the brave volunteer who tried the food ended up sick overnight. To say that prison food is an acquired taste would be an understatement. Conversely, I heard from more than one guy who had returned to prison that there would be a period of adjustment when I went home as my body got used to real food again. The only good thing that I can say about prison food is that it is better than what they serve in the county jails.
A guy with a parole in his pocket gets caught with spud juice. (Happens more often than you would think.) His “friends” tried to talk him into closing his brewery, but he told them that he needed to stack up coffee bags since he was going to Detroit Reentry Center (DRC) for a residential substance abuse program and he needed to be able to buy heroin while he was there. His friend’s comment was I guess he didn’t really want to go home.
Guys on parole are sent back to prison for violating the terms of their parole because of drinking or drugs all the time. Equally as often it is something else like staying out after curfew, missing work or meetings with their PO or having police contact because they got into a fight or were out joy-riding. This happened to a guy I know, and the observation of another parolee was “I guess he didn’t serve enough time.”
Whether in prison or on parole some guys have their eyes on the wrong prize. Instead of focusing on gaining and keeping their freedom they are seeking other things. You’d thing they would know better than to play with fire, but it’s obvious that they didn’t learn their lesson from being burned the first time. For some it takes a long time to figure out what is truly important. There is statistical proof that people age out of crime. People in their forties and fifties are significantly less likely to commit crimes than people in their teens and twenties. Prison has a revolving door for those who continue to commit minor felonies and receive sentences from 2-5 years in length. Three strike laws were enacted to address these habitual offenders by increasing the length of their sentences in the hope that they would learn their lesson.
According to recidivism rates those who committed major crimes such as murder or rape and served long sentences are less likely to reoffend and return to prison than those who committed crimes like domestic abuse or selling small quantities of drugs who received shorter sentences. You never hear of someone who spent two 10 to 20-year sentences in prison going back with a third sentence which is basically a life sentence. So, it is true that with age comes wisdom. Even the most stubborn, hard-headed, strong-willed outlaw learns that if they stay in the game too long there are only two options, either be carried out in a pine box or hauled off in handcuffs. The older they get the better retirement looks.
For those in prison eagerly looking forward to their parole there is another form of sabotage that happens. Sometimes other people in prison, who may have years to go before they will even be considered for parole or have already been denied parole will try to get someone else’s parole revoked. You might say that misery loves company. There are those in prison who would go out of their way to do this for any number of reasons. They could be bored, racist, malicious, vindictive, or simply sadistic by getting pleasure from causing pain to another person. For this very reason I know a guy who didn’t tell anyone in prison that he got his parole, let alone his parole date. The morning he paroled, he got up early, dressed in his street clothes, packed his stuff, and went to the officer’s station. He didn’t say a word to anyone.
In prison kite writing is a way of life for some. Kites are notes written to the administration. There is a mailbox in every housing unit, and it is easy to write the warden or unit counselor. Most do this by signing someone else’s name in order to remain anonymous. They make allegations about another individual which may or may not be true, but sufficiently provocative to draw the reaction of staff. This is known as “dry snitching.” It is a passive aggressive tactic that works well enough that it’s not going away any time soon. Claim that someone is threating you, that so-n-so is doing such-n-such, or that your bunkie has a cellphone, shank, drugs, or other serious contraband, then sit back and wait for the show to start. Nothing can ruin your day like being called off the yard to see the Inspector to answer questions about an allegation that you sexually assaulted another inmate.
Getting a Class I Misconduct after receiving your parole and prior to release will result in the loss of your parole and earn you a 12 to 24-month flop. It might even raise your security level or get you rode off the compound. At the very least you will have your property tossed like a fruit salad, be forced to prove your innocence, and lose sleep trying to figure out who wrote the kite. In a place where you are guilty until proven innocent the threat is real, and you need to constantly watch your back.
I had a cubemate that started stealing from me the last month prior to my parole. I had started to sell off my possessions that I wasn’t going to take home. Prison is not like death, you can take your personal property with you, but why would you? I would come back to the cube after work and find something small missing like my earbuds. We both knew that I wouldn’t do anything about it and risk my parole, so every couple of days something else would turn up missing. Then this guy who didn’t have anything was able to get a black market TV. I’m sure my other cubemates knew what was going on, but nobody said anything. On the morning I left prison I slipped under his bed and used my padlock to secure the TV’s power cord to the bed. This would force him to cut the cord in order to move the TV. There were a number of sweeps through the housing unit at that time looking for TV’s that weren’t on the inmate’s property card and securing the TV to his bunk would make it impossible for him to hide it. I hope that there is a special place in hell for prison thieves.
Of course, it is those that sabotage themselves like in my opening example that is the primary problem. Prison isn’t about rehabilitation. Programs like the Phase I and Phase II substance abuse classes that are required for those whose crime involved alcohol or drugs or for individuals who have a history of substance abuse, but from what I’ve seem most people treat the class like a joke. For more serious cases there are residential treatment programs where more in-depth programming and counseling is available. With the demand for bed space in these programs there tends to be a mentality on the part of those running these programs to simply push the inmates through so that many of the participants come out unchanged. Change doesn’t happen unless the individual wants to and for many going to prison wasn’t hitting rock-bottom yet. Intellectual arguments, reciting facts and figures, or telling horror stories about others isn’t enough to persuade many who are happy in their addictions to want to change. They have learned to say the right things to convince the powers that be that they have changed. They get their long-awaited paroles but can’t fly straight long enough to get out or complete their parole. In the end the only person they have fooled is themselves.
I worked as a tutor in the GED program for nearly 5 years, under three different teachers at two different prisons. There isn’t much that was more rewarding than when one of my students would point me out to his family in the visiting room and say, “That man is helping me get my GED.” And there wasn’t much that was more frustrating than seeing a student who could get his GED fail to apply himself and leave prison with nothing to show for his time. Unfortunately, the later occurs far more frequently than the former. A significant percentage of the inmates in prison failed to graduate from high school and most tuned out long before they dropped out. They put no value on gaining a formal education, the streets were their school. Many are functionally illiterate, barely able to write their own name or complete simple arithmetic calculations.
While a few of these men may truly have a learning disability, more however have damaged themselves through drug abuse. Some of my students had received Social Security Disability payments before the came to prison because at some point in time they had been diagnosed with a learning disability when they were in school out in the world. Now they refuse to make any attempt at completing their GED because they would lose their SSD and have to go to work. As adults they are clearly intelligent enough but lack the motivation.
Conditions such as ADHD go untreated in prison and these students are disruptive to those around them in the classroom. Unable to focus they are constantly engaging others in conversation, sometimes even from across the room. They don’t have an indoor voice or even the awareness of how loud they are. More interested in what is going on around them than the assignments they are supposed to be working on, they are like bees buzzing around whatever attracts their attention for a moment before moving on to the next thing. It only frustrates the teacher, the tutors, and the other students who are trying to learn to have them in the classroom. However, only under extraordinary circumstances will these students receive an exemption from the requirement to attend school. It is more likely that the teacher will write a ticket regarding their disruptive behavior and eventually expel them from the classroom. This will almost guarantee that the parole board will flop them. They will be put back on the waiting list to attend school, be assigned to another classroom where they once again be disruptive and repeat the cycle of expulsion and flop again.
There are critical shortages of text books and other teaching materials. The result is that in most prisons the books must stay in the classroom making it difficult for students who do try to apply themselves to do homework and complete their GED quickly. Textbooks are generally in poor condition. One of my tasks was to periodically clean textbooks of graffiti and answers that had been penciled in. I also made repairs to damaged covers and bindings in order to keep the textbooks in circulation for as long as possible. Even after the new GED standard came out the decision was made to continue to use the old textbooks even though they did not contain the new concepts added to the curriculum. The question formats and language changed significantly with the new standard and the result was that students taking the new test were not adequately prepared.
To address the issues of test preparation for the new computerized testing format the MDOC did invest a significant amount of money into new computers and servers capable of running educational software. After several false starts additional resources were allocated to fix the problems, and new programs were just beginning to be introduced around the time I left prison. I don’t know for certain whether this made any improvement in graduation rates, but I suspect not. We only had four computers in a classroom with an average of 18-20 students so relatively few had any significant opportunities to practice. For some that had never used a computer this could actually influence how well they performed on the test.
At the prisons where I was a tutor the classes each ran one hour and thirty minutes a day, Monday through Friday. There were four periods, two before lunch and two afterwards. When I was at a multi-level facility the level IV students were able to mix with those from Level II or I in school. This and in medical were the only places that inmates of the higher security level were able to. The rest of the time whether in the gym, library, or yard separation was strictly maintained. At level IV-only facilities I would have been able to serve as a tutor however, in the multi-level facility I had to wait until my security level was down-graded to Level II.
The qualifications for being a tutor were that you had to have attained at least a GED and achieved a grade level of at least 11.5 on a standardized test of Reading, Math, and Language skills administered to potential tutor candidates. Most of the tutors that I knew held college degrees. At one facility where I was, a certain well-known, disgraced former mayor of a major Michigan city was working as a tutor. There were usually 3-4 tutors in a classroom. The pay for tutors was one of the highest paying jobs for inmates. With a college degree I made around $3.60 per day for 6 hours of work. Duties and responsibilities varied depending on the teacher. At times I had students waiting in line for help or we worked in small groups. At other times I read all the books, newspapers, and magazines I could get my hands on to keep from being bored.
Some teachers tried to maintain a classroom environment that would be conducive to learning with library-like silence where students worked independently on assignments. It was in these classrooms that the disruptive students tended to be the biggest problem. Other teachers ran their classes more like a daycare were students engaged in non-academic discussions and little if any learning occurred on a daily basis. While I’m sure the statistics such as graduation rates or student progress on the quarterly standardized tests could be generated on an individual teacher basis, to the best of my knowledge teacher performance in terms of academic success is not a factor in their job performance evaluations.
Principles and school psychologists are generally overseeing schools at several facilities. This meant that the principle was generally in the school office at each facility one day a week. There was a school secretary and they generally over saw an inmate clerk to manage the day-to-day activities. Inmates seeking to contact the principle unfortunately rarely got a response to kites submitted for a range of inquires from requesting a change of classroom into one that was more conducive to learning to requests to get into or out of school for whatever reason. The psychologist was the one that could make an evaluation of whether a student was sufficiently impaired to qualify for an exemption do a true learning disability or whether students with learning disabilities qualified for more time or helps while taking exams. The criteria they used was clearly different from the criteria used by schools out in the world because so many students had been previously diagnosed with a learning disability but were neither exempt from school or given extra time or helps on exams.
The school secretary and clerks were vitally important. They maintained records on every inmate on the compound. When inmates were transferred to another facility their school records also had to be transferred. The Classification office would need to verify inmate records like whether they had a GED, high school diploma, or college degree to determine whether inmates met the qualifications for positions like tutors or clerks, and the pay grade associated with each level of education attained. By records I am of course referring to paper files. The MDOC is archaic in its systems. I once had to fill out a paper form to request a college transcript to confirm my college education. This form was then faxed to a phone number that was looked up in a large book listing the contact information of every school and university in the state. It took three tries to get my transcript and it only happened because the teacher I was tutoring for was a fellow alumnus, who took it upon himself to follow-up on the request with the university. An original certified copy of the transcript submitted by my family was unacceptable because it had not come directly from the school or university to the principle’s attention at the school office. Since the certified copy of my college transcript had been accepted by the MDOC when compiling information for the Pre-Sentence Investigation report and placed in my permanent record this really made no sense.
While the classroom was supposed to be maintained as an environment where students could study, the same could not be said for the housing units. The typical Level I housing unit is crowded, noisy and dark. In the typical cubical setting what started out as one bed, locker, and desk per inmate in a four-man cubical has been changed to eight men. To make room for the extra bunk beds some of the desks were removed leaving little space for someone to study even if it wasn’t noisy and dark. In Level II the two-man cells provided each inmate with a desk and light. By closing the door, you could get some quiet in order to study. The problem being that in the higher security levels inmates were there for only one of two reasons, either they were serving long sentences with many years until their ERD or they were unmanageable in the lower levels. In either case they were more likely to be at the bottom of the waiting list to get into school. The number or inmates waiting to get into the GED program is greater than the number of students enrolled. The waiting list is based on prioritizing those who are closest to their ERD.
Once an inmate is in school, he will remain there until he completes his GED, paroles or is kicked out due to behavioral problems. I have known students who were fortunate to get into the GED program with many years to go before their ERD. They got into school because the facility had a short waiting list at some point. Once in the program they remained there because they couldn’t or wouldn’t put in the effort to study and pass the GED exams. There is no time limit in which to complete the program except for parole. I have known men who spent over ten years in school without making any progress towards or completing any of the GED test subjects. Students take quarterly standardized tests to measure their progress or the lack of progress. The teachers are supposed to write regular progress reports and generate educational plans for each student to monitor their progress and set goals to help them achieve. Unfortunately, like so many other things in the MDOC it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The students most motivated and capable of earning their GED will do so in six months to a year. The rest will be stuck in a form of purgatory, either hoping to win the lottery and pass the GED exams by luck or they are simply waiting out their time until they parole.
Students in the GED or Vocational education programs are paid $0.56 per school day to attend class. Students aren’t eligible to hold other jobs except in cases of institutional need, which I never saw. On average a student makes $12 a month. Just enough to keep them above indigent status, but unable to afford even the basic necessary hygiene items in the commissary. If a student gets expelled from school, he is not eligible to work. So, unless the student has some form of family support he must survive by hustling, theft or simply try to survive on nothing but chow hall food and state soap.
Some men that were required to attend school had worked for many years without an education maintaining steady employment or even a career prior to incarceration. I have also known older men who were over the age of 65 that would be eligible to Social Security retirement benefits out in the world that were forced to attend class. Policy clearly stated that both of these circumstances made the men eligible for exemption, but as with so many other situations in the MDOC policy and procedure were not the same.
The prison GED classes are not like traditional primary or secondary school classes. There is a mishmash of individuals at different places in their educational journey randomly placed into classrooms. Teachers don’t actually teach but rather take attendance, process paperwork, and try to keep the peace while trying not to be stolen blind. The GED program is a learn at your own pace, self-taught program where teachers and tutors work with students to develop a course of study, however it is solely up to the student whether or not they will do any work. The tutors are available to help one-on-one for those who would avail themselves of the service. Many students choose to attempt to go it alone and never seek assistance even though they have only elementary school grade levels in reading and math skills and are completely unable to be self-taught. I think that in some cases it was pride. Men who wouldn’t ask for help because they thought of themselves as “grown assed men” and not kids who could take care of themselves preferring to fail on their own than ask for help from anyone.
Only a small percentage of the students who come into the classroom with an early elementary grade level education will complete the GED. Most students who complete the GED already score in the Middle/High school level on standardized TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) tests which are administered quarterly to all students in school. These students may only be in school for 1-2 years and graduate. The result is a very limited turnover rate and the accumulation of poor students clogging up the limited number of available slots in the GED program.
Just as a school must maintain a proper learning environment to encourage students to excel the MDOC needs to create a proper learning environment if they expect to have success with its educational program. This goes beyond the school environment, if the home environment does not support and encourage education then no amount of school effort will be sufficient. Likewise unless the MDOC addresses the environment in the housing units, no amount of programming effort will succeed. Desks, lighting, noise, access to educational resources, distraction from non-students all are issues in the housing units. At some facilities the MDOC has begun a program of placing vocational education students into designated housing units. The intent is to create a better living environment that will compliment the learning environment. The same should be done for ABE/GED students because they need to study outside of the classroom to be successful. One and a half hours a day in class is not enough time dedicated to academics. They need mandatory study halls equal to class time or at the least a housing unit environment in which they can study. Classes need to be taught, not self-taught for Adult Basic Education (ABE) students with reading levels below the 6th grade. Separate ABE and GED into separate classrooms. Place more emphasis on reading. Inmates can’t get anything out of the parole board mandated programing if they can’t read and write. Do not disrupt class time with other call-outs to medical or other programs by blocking out times in the morning/afternoon for class/study.
While this may sound harsh coming from a former inmate, I believe the MDOC must stop playing games when it comes to inmate compliance with programming requirements. Good faith effort must be demonstrated by inmates in required programming to achieve parole. Flop a few guys for trying to skate on their education and more of them will get the message. Anyone who resists cooperating with required programming is not fit to be released back into society. While having a zero-tolerance policy for slackers, this must be balanced with the MDOC doing a better job of identifying the truly learning disabled and providing resources for their required programs.
(Update to this post on April 25, 2019)
The 2019 National Teacher of the Year was awarded to a Social Studies teacher who works at a juvenile detention center in Virginia. He has been studying the school to prison pipeline problem for several years and has published a number of articles and educational curriculum through Yale University. Among his discoveries he found that empathy not sympathy was an effective way to reach his students. He encouraged the other teachers and corrections staff to help him create a positive learning environment. He utilizes materials that include curriculum on race, culture and punishment to help his students understand the system and circumstances that led to their incarceration, and better understand how to avoid future incarceration. For the next year he will be traveling the country advocating for students and teachers and is looking forward to share the story of his students. The MDOC needs thinking outside of the box like this to address the deficiencies in its educational programming.