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Michigan has more than 40,000 prisoners. She oversees them.

Jul 21, 2017

You might think of Heidi Washington as the chief of 40,000 people scattered across the state in 30 different camps. Except she has much more power over them than any political leader in this nation has over their constituents.

And her job is not only to take care of her people, but to keep us safe from them. She’s the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which is anything but an easy job.

Michigan’s prison system has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, in part because it costs so much – almost two billion dollars a year.

Prisons were once a relatively modest expense. Michigan had less than 8,000 prisoners in the early 1970s. Then, we had the idea that we could solve the drug problem by locking up everyone caught with them.

That helped push the prison population to a peak of 51,000 ten years ago. “Prisons were a real growth industry for a while,” she said wryly.

Michigan has since modified its sentencing policy, and the prison population has declined to 40,317. Most corrections experts agree that’s still too many.

“I don’t know what that number should be, but I know we aren’t there yet,” she told me when I visited her Lansing office yesterday. She is a big believer in education, and job training, and is especially proud of Vocational Village, a unique skills trades training program in Ionia.

Earlier this week, she showed it off to a major figure in the automotive industry, hoping to interest him in employing her graduates. Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz told me Michigan has made great strides in recent years in reducing its recidivism rate, defined as the percentage of released inmates who return to prison within three years.

Close to half did 20 years ago. Now, it’s under 30%, although county and local officials sometimes complain they land back in their jails instead.

There’s no question that Washington has one of the harder jobs in state government.

There’s great pressure to reduce the prison budget, some of it from the same politicians who fight efforts to reduce sentences, so they can appear tough on crime. Prison officials are trying to do more to prepare inmates to be ready for the outside world; someone who has been behind bars for 30 years is like a time traveler from a world without the internet or smart phones.

Heidi Washington doesn’t seem to take that, or any part of her job lightly. She became director two years ago, in the aftermath of the Aramark food scandal, but has worked for corrections nearly twenty years, and has been a warden in two prisons.

Though she’s an ardent conservative, she believes prisons are a core function of state government. She opposes privatized prisons, was an outspoken critic of Aramark, and gave me the feeling she’d prefer not dealing with a private food services contractor at all. Last week, she visited an Upper Peninsula prison where the inmates raise and train dogs.

Her teenage daughter really wants a dog. Washington probably could have just taken one home. But instead, “I filled out an application,” she said, smiling. If being dedicated to her job is part of the criteria, I have a strong hunch she’ll be judged fit to adopt that German Shepherd.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.