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.

Sabotage

self sabotage

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.

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.

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.