Cheapskates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educated Guess

Time well spent or wasted

I worked as a tutor in the GED program for nearly 5 years, under three different teachers at two different prisons.  There isn’t much that was more rewarding than when one of my students would point me out to his family in the visiting room and say, “That man is helping me get my GED.”  And there wasn’t much that was more frustrating than seeing a student who could get his GED fail to apply himself and leave prison with nothing to show for his time.  Unfortunately, the later occurs far more frequently than the former.  A significant percentage of the inmates in prison failed to graduate from high school and most tuned out long before they dropped out.  They put no value on gaining a formal education, the streets were their school.  Many are functionally illiterate, barely able to write their own name or complete simple arithmetic calculations.

While a few of these men may truly have a learning disability, more however have damaged themselves through drug abuse.  Some of my students had received Social Security Disability payments before the came to prison because at some point in time they had been diagnosed with a learning disability when they were in school out in the world.  Now they refuse to make any attempt at completing their GED because they would lose their SSD and have to go to work.  As adults they are clearly intelligent enough but lack the motivation.

Conditions such as ADHD go untreated in prison and these students are disruptive to those around them in the classroom.  Unable to focus they are constantly engaging others in conversation, sometimes even from across the room.  They don’t have an indoor voice or even the awareness of how loud they are.  More interested in what is going on around them than the assignments they are supposed to be working on, they are like bees buzzing around whatever attracts their attention for a moment before moving on to the next thing.  It only frustrates the teacher, the tutors, and the other students who are trying to learn to have them in the classroom.  However, only under extraordinary circumstances will these students receive an exemption from the requirement to attend school.  It is more likely that the teacher will write a ticket regarding their disruptive behavior and eventually expel them from the classroom.  This will almost guarantee that the parole board will flop them.  They will be put back on the waiting list to attend school, be assigned to another classroom where they once again be disruptive and repeat the cycle of expulsion and flop again.

There are critical shortages of text books and other teaching materials.  The result is that in most prisons the books must stay in the classroom making it difficult for students who do try to apply themselves to do homework and complete their GED quickly.  Textbooks are generally in poor condition.  One of my tasks was to periodically clean textbooks of graffiti and answers that had been penciled in.  I also made repairs to damaged covers and bindings in order to keep the textbooks in circulation for as long as possible.  Even after the new GED standard came out the decision was made to continue to use the old textbooks even though they did not contain the new concepts added to the curriculum.  The question formats and language changed significantly with the new standard and the result was that students taking the new test were not adequately prepared.

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

To address the issues of test preparation for the new computerized testing format the MDOC did invest a significant amount of money into new computers and servers capable of running educational software.  After several false starts additional resources were allocated to fix the problems, and new programs were just beginning to be introduced around the time I left prison.  I don’t know for certain whether this made any improvement in graduation rates, but I suspect not.  We only had four computers in a classroom with an average of 18-20 students so relatively few had any significant opportunities to practice.  For some that had never used a computer this could actually influence how well they performed on the test.

At the prisons where I was a tutor the classes each ran one hour and thirty minutes a day, Monday through Friday.  There were four periods, two before lunch and two afterwards.  When I was at a multi-level facility the level IV students were able to mix with those from Level II or I in school.  This and in medical were the only places that inmates of the higher security level were able to.  The rest of the time whether in the gym, library, or yard separation was strictly maintained.  At level IV-only facilities I would have been able to serve as a tutor however, in the multi-level facility I had to wait until my security level was down-graded to Level II.

The qualifications for being a tutor were that you had to have attained at least a GED and achieved a grade level of at least 11.5 on a standardized test of Reading, Math, and Language skills administered to potential tutor candidates.  Most of the tutors that I knew held college degrees.  At one facility where I was, a certain well-known, disgraced former mayor of a major Michigan city was working as a tutor.  There were usually 3-4 tutors in a classroom.  The pay for tutors was one of the highest paying jobs for inmates.  With a college degree I made around $3.60 per day for 6 hours of work.  Duties and responsibilities varied depending on the teacher.  At times I had students waiting in line for help or we worked in small groups.  At other times I read all the books, newspapers, and magazines I could get my hands on to keep from being bored.

Some teachers tried to maintain a classroom environment that would be conducive to learning with library-like silence where students worked independently on assignments. It was in these classrooms that the disruptive students tended to be the biggest problem.  Other teachers ran their classes more like a daycare were students engaged in non-academic discussions and little if any learning occurred on a daily basis.  While I’m sure the statistics such as graduation rates or student progress on the quarterly standardized tests could be generated on an individual teacher basis, to the best of my knowledge teacher performance in terms of academic success is not a factor in their job performance evaluations.

Principles and school psychologists are generally overseeing schools at several facilities.  This meant that the principle was generally in the school office at each facility one day a week.  There was a school secretary and they generally over saw an inmate clerk to manage the day-to-day activities.  Inmates seeking to contact the principle unfortunately rarely got a response to kites submitted for a range of inquires from requesting a change of classroom into one that was more conducive to learning to requests to get into or out of school for whatever reason.  The psychologist was the one that could make an evaluation of whether a student was sufficiently impaired to qualify for an exemption do a true learning disability or whether students with learning disabilities qualified for more time or helps while taking exams.  The criteria they used was clearly different from the criteria used by schools out in the world because so many students had been previously diagnosed with a learning disability but were neither exempt from school or given extra time or helps on exams.

The school secretary and clerks were vitally important.  They maintained records on every inmate on the compound.  When inmates were transferred to another facility their school records also had to be transferred.  The Classification office would need to verify inmate records like whether they had a GED, high school diploma, or college degree to determine whether inmates met the qualifications for positions like tutors or clerks, and the pay grade associated with each level of education attained.  By records I am of course referring to paper files.  The MDOC is archaic in its systems.  I once had to fill out a paper form to request a college transcript to confirm my college education.  This form was then faxed to a phone number that was looked up in a large book listing the contact information of every school and university in the state.  It took three tries to get my transcript and it only happened because the teacher I was tutoring for was a fellow alumnus, who took it upon himself to follow-up on the request with the university.  An original certified copy of the transcript submitted by my family was unacceptable because it had not come directly from the school or university to the principle’s attention at the school office.  Since the certified copy of my college transcript had been accepted by the MDOC when compiling information for the Pre-Sentence Investigation report and placed in my permanent record this really made no sense.

While the classroom was supposed to be maintained as an environment where students could study, the same could not be said for the housing units.  The typical Level I housing unit is crowded, noisy and dark.  In the typical cubical setting what started out as one bed, locker, and desk per inmate in a four-man cubical has been changed to eight men.  To make room for the extra bunk beds some of the desks were removed leaving little space for someone to study even if it wasn’t noisy and dark.  In Level II the two-man cells provided each inmate with a desk and light.  By closing the door, you could get some quiet in order to study.  The problem being that in the higher security levels inmates were there for only one of two reasons, either they were serving long sentences with many years until their ERD or they were unmanageable in the lower levels.  In either case they were more likely to be at the bottom of the waiting list to get into school.  The number or inmates waiting to get into the GED program is greater than the number of students enrolled.  The waiting list is based on prioritizing those who are closest to their ERD.

Once an inmate is in school, he will remain there until he completes his GED, paroles or is kicked out due to behavioral problems.  I have known students who were fortunate to get into the GED program with many years to go before their ERD.  They got into school because the facility had a short waiting list at some point.  Once in the program they remained there because they couldn’t or wouldn’t put in the effort to study and pass the GED exams.  There is no time limit in which to complete the program except for parole.  I have known men who spent over ten years in school without making any progress towards or completing any of the GED test subjects.  Students take quarterly standardized tests to measure their progress or the lack of progress.  The teachers are supposed to write regular progress reports and generate educational plans for each student to monitor their progress and set goals to help them achieve.  Unfortunately, like so many other things in the MDOC it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.  The students most motivated and capable of earning their GED will do so in six months to a year.  The rest will be stuck in a form of purgatory, either hoping to win the lottery and pass the GED exams by luck or they are simply waiting out their time until they parole.

Students in the GED or Vocational education programs are paid $0.56 per school day to attend class.  Students aren’t eligible to hold other jobs except in cases of institutional need, which I never saw.  On average a student makes $12 a month.  Just enough to keep them above indigent status, but unable to afford even the basic necessary hygiene items in the commissary.  If a student gets expelled from school, he is not eligible to work.  So, unless the student has some form of family support he must survive by hustling, theft or simply try to survive on nothing but chow hall food and state soap.

Some men that were required to attend school had worked for many years without an education maintaining steady employment or even a career prior to incarceration.  I have also known older men who were over the age of 65 that would be eligible to Social Security retirement benefits out in the world that were forced to attend class.  Policy clearly stated that both of these circumstances made the men eligible for exemption, but as with so many other situations in the MDOC policy and procedure were not the same.

The prison GED classes are not like traditional primary or secondary school classes.  There is a mishmash of individuals at different places in their educational journey randomly placed into classrooms.  Teachers don’t actually teach but rather take attendance, process paperwork, and try to keep the peace while trying not to be stolen blind.  The GED program is a learn at your own pace, self-taught program where teachers and tutors work with students to develop a course of study, however it is solely up to the student whether or not they will do any work.  The tutors are available to help one-on-one for those who would avail themselves of the service.  Many students choose to attempt to go it alone and never seek assistance even though they have only elementary school grade levels in reading and math skills and are completely unable to be self-taught.  I think that in some cases it was pride.  Men who wouldn’t ask for help because they thought of themselves as “grown assed men” and not kids who could take care of themselves preferring to fail on their own than ask for help from anyone.

Only a small percentage of the students who come into the classroom with an early elementary grade level education will complete the GED.  Most students who complete the GED already score in the Middle/High school level on standardized TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education) tests which are administered quarterly to all students in school.  These students may only be in school for 1-2 years and graduate.  The result is a very limited turnover rate and the accumulation of poor students clogging up the limited number of available slots in the GED program.

Just as a school must maintain a proper learning environment to encourage students to excel the MDOC needs to create a proper learning environment if they expect to have success with its educational program.  This goes beyond the school environment, if the home environment does not support and encourage education then no amount of school effort will be sufficient.  Likewise unless the MDOC addresses the environment in the housing units, no amount of programming effort will succeed.  Desks, lighting, noise, access to educational resources, distraction from non-students all are issues in the housing units.  At some facilities the MDOC has begun a program of placing vocational education students into designated housing units.  The intent is to create a better living environment that will compliment the learning environment.  The same should be done for ABE/GED students because they need to study outside of the classroom to be successful.  One and a half hours a day in class is not enough time dedicated to academics.  They need mandatory study halls equal to class time or at the least a housing unit environment in which they can study.  Classes need to be taught, not self-taught for Adult Basic Education (ABE) students with reading levels below the 6th grade.  Separate ABE and GED into separate classrooms.  Place more emphasis on reading.  Inmates can’t get anything out of the parole board mandated programing if they can’t read and write.  Do not disrupt class time with other call-outs to medical or other programs by blocking out times in the morning/afternoon for class/study.

While this may sound harsh coming from a former inmate, I believe the MDOC must stop playing games when it comes to inmate compliance with programming requirements.  Good faith effort must be demonstrated by inmates in required programming to achieve parole.  Flop a few guys for trying to skate on their education and more of them will get the message.  Anyone who resists cooperating with required programming is not fit to be released back into society.  While having a zero-tolerance policy for slackers, this must be balanced with the MDOC doing a better job of identifying the truly learning disabled and providing resources for their required programs.


(Update to this post on April 25, 2019)

The 2019 National Teacher of the Year was awarded to a Social Studies teacher who works at a juvenile detention center in Virginia.  He has been studying the school to prison pipeline problem for several years and has published a number of articles and educational curriculum through Yale University.  Among his discoveries he found that empathy not sympathy was an effective way to reach his students.  He encouraged the other teachers and corrections staff to help him create a positive learning environment.   He utilizes materials that include curriculum on race, culture and punishment to help his students understand the system and circumstances that led to their incarceration, and better understand how to avoid future incarceration.  For the next year he will be traveling the country advocating for students and teachers and is looking forward to share the story of his students.  The MDOC needs thinking outside of the box like this to address the deficiencies in its educational programming.

Nothing New Under the Sun

(cartoon by J.D. Crowe/Press Register) SC 1 ST Berkeley News – UC Berkeley

King Solomon famously stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that “there was nothing new under the sun.”  Three thousand years ago man’s folly was already tending to repeat itself.  Patterns of behavior and the propensity to do evil were well documented back then.  Man’s inhumanity to man is the same old sad tale repeated over and over, unfortunately it is not limited to those who choose to do evil.  While researching for the writing of this blog I have read a number of prison memoirs and research papers and it is apparent that the observations that I make about prison and prison life cross both space and time.  From a World War II German Military prison to 1970s Great Britain; from California to Texas to Michigan and prisons in between; from the 1930s until today, written by theologians and PhDs to the uneducated, unifying themes regarding prison life and treatment of prisoners demonstrate that my observations of life inside the MDOC in many ways are both honest and disturbing.

Ones does not expect in the twenty-first century to encounter ideas and practices discredited long ago to be the standard operating conditions.  That America and all it claims to stand for has been set aside in one area of governing a civil society is both disturbing and alarming.  As I was writing this essay there were images of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man on the news and an advertisement for a new TV drama about a group of criminal investigators whose job was to ensure that the innocent were not wrongly convicted.  The abuses of the criminal justice system are finally making headway against the “tough on crime” agenda of the politicians, police, and corrections agencies in this country.  Grass roots organizations are cropping up in every state of the union calling for reform.  Even the president, whether you agree with his polices in general or not, has gone against the conventional wisdom of his political party and seeks to introduce some reforms into the federal corrections system.

A recent news article put a spotlight on the fact that we are not talking simply about convicted felons, but that a much larger number of people accused of misdemeanors that don’t even carry jail/prison time are serving time simply because they can’t afford bail.  According to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice over 11 million people pass through 3000 jails in the US every year.  People are even dying in jail from lack of urgent medical care and proper oversight in over-crowded and antiquated facilities.  During the recent arctic cold blast, a jail in Brooklyn, New York was plunged into darkness and freezing cold for several days when the electric and heating service to a portion of the facility was interrupted by an electrical fire.  The inmates were apparently tapping S.O.S on the windows of their cells calling for help.  The warden of the facility denied the severity of the problem even while inmates were calling the defenders office and pleading for help.  My own experience in jail was a cell so cold that frost formed on the inside of the window, no extra blankets and only a thin cotton jumpsuit for warmth in a room so cold you could see your breath.  So, I can empathize with the desperation of the situation and believe that it is true contrary to the official statements of the warden.

George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”   I find myself falling into the first category.  Don’t get me wrong, we need dreamers but after living through the nightmare of prison I don’t sleep very well at night.  Change must happen and the longer it is put off the higher the cost both financially and in human terms.  That is the point of prison reform.  Not just the recognition that there is a problem but there needs to be action taken to address the issue.  Not studies to determine the severity of the problem or pilot programs to explore alternatives.  The experts have already done these.  It is up to the people to demand that those in leadership of our government stop denying or minimizing the problem but take the advice of those whose occupation and preoccupation is focused on the problem.  It is like global warming.  People look at the cold winter and ask where is this so-called “global warming?”  The problem is that global warming is a poor term often used out of context when the issue really is “human activity induced climate change.”  A short catchphrase doesn’t properly encapsulate the issue.  The use of the phrase “prison reform” has the same sort of problem.  People look at crimes reported on our 24/7 news cycle and think that our society is less safe than it once was.  FBI crime statistics have shown that crime rates for all major categories have decreased steadily since the 1980s.  They then give credence and credit to the stricter laws and harsher penalties for causing this trend.  Research has shown that other factors have had a greater effect on crime reduction and that the stricter laws and harsher penalties have actually hindered what would have been even larger reductions to crime rates.

Prison reform is about addressing the underlying causes of crime and taking a reasonable approach to punishment.  Broken homes, single parent families, education, addiction, and poverty are at the core of prison reform.  Shutting off the street to prison pipeline that is responsible for the severe overcrowding, and all the problems that come along with that is what we are talking about.  The racial disparities in incarceration rates among the minorities from urban environments.  The aging infrastructure of prisons and jails that our society can’t afford to maintain let alone build more.  The erosion of respect for others different from ourselves that allows us to justify treating them not just poorly but as subhuman.   As somehow not deserving of basic human rights even thought they are enshrined in the Constitution.  This is was prison reform is about.

To know about a crime either before or after it occurs and failing to do anything with that knowledge is to be considered an accessory and makes one guilty by association.  So, wouldn’t it be true then that to ignore the advice of experts regarding the urgent need for prison reform could rise to the level of criminal negligence at the very least, or a gross misconduct in office and breach of trust by politicians who cling to alternate facts or decry reporting on prison problems as fake news?  For once I would like to see Solomon proved wrong that there is something new under the sun.  I pray that the logjam will be broken, and long overdue reforms will be instituted to our criminal justice system.  This will only happen when the people hold their representatives accountable and demand better treatment of our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our friends, neighbors and aliens.

House Arrest

 

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

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

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

tether-e1552099483450.pngTo address this problem the MDOC has tightened the conditions of parole in some instances so that it is in actuality “house arrest.”  All excursions from the residence must be approved in advance.  Many are paroled on GPS tether to prevent cheating.  At this level of control, the parolee is practically helpless and becomes reliant on family and friends to take care of many of the tasks that they would like to do for themselves, thus continuing to experience the conditions they experienced in prison.  With this level of control those without a support network are at a severe disadvantage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brush Strokes

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to Ramen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail to the noodle!

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.

Disconnected

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.

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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?