Michigan prisons

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

DETROIT - A lawmaker from western Michigan is leading an effort to possibly save millions of dollars in the criminal justice system.

  Rep. Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, hopes to bring a pack of the bills to the House floor this week that would make changes in the parole process and create a commission to study sentences.

  Haveman wants to try to get more people out of prison if they're eligible for parole and not a risk to the public. He's been working with prosecutors, judges, sheriffs and defense lawyers on a compromise.

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Bills that seek to reduce prison spending in Michigan seem to have momentum going into the last weeks of the Legislature’s 2014 session.

Michigan spends about $2 billion every year on prisons. The legislation seeks to reduce the length of some prison stays and provide more supervision for people after they are released from prison.

The most widely supported proposal would create a commission to oversee sentencing guidelines and discuss other corrections policies.

“It creates a forum for exploring all this. And it’s something Michigan badly needs,” said Barbara Levine with the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.

user memories_by_mike / Flickr

This Week in Review, Jack 
Lessenberry and Rina Miller discuss the latest polls for Michigan’s governor and U.S.Senate races, Detroit’s decision to keep emergency manager Kevyn Orr on board for now, and the latest scandal with Aramark, the state’s food services provider.

Outside the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.
Michigan Department of Corrections

PITTSFIELD TOWNSHIP – The Michigan Court of Appeals  has cleared the way for a class-action lawsuit by dozens of male guards who say they've been denied overtime and job assignments at the state's only prison for women.

In a 3-0 opinion released Wednesday, the court affirmed the decision of a Washtenaw County judge.

The lawsuit centers on employment rules at the Huron Valley prison for women. In response to allegations of sexual abuse at the prison, the Civil Service Commission approved job qualifications that put only women in certain jobs.

The lawsuit claims the Michigan Department of Corrections is violating the civil rights of male officers at the prison.

The appeals court says officers have cleared the threshold for a class-action lawsuit, based on the number of plaintiffs, common issues and other factors.

Prison bars
Ken Mayer / Flickr

A new audit shows problems in Michigan’s prisoner education program.

The state auditor general’s office says the Michigan Department of Corrections failed to identify prisoners who qualify for federal assistance to take classes. It also shows the department failed to make sure the programs were effective.

Russ Marlan is a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says the department agrees with the report’s findings and is working to fix those problems.

“Having a third party come in and look at your operations and give you recommendations about how to improve I think is a good thing. And so, we’re going to take these recommendations and move forward and hopefully improve our prison education and vocational education,” says Marlan.

Marlan says the department has already taken steps to improve the programs over the last three years. 

Wikimedia Commons

In 1980, Michigan’s corrections budget was 3% of the state’s general fund. Now it is 20% of the general fund. What caused this increase?

Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants, joined Stateside to answer this question.

He said it is a result of the "tough-on-crime" approach that started in the 1980s.

“Just throwing people into prison and keeping them there for ever-longer periods of time just isn’t really working,” Sikkema said. “It’s not driving down crime rates, it’s taking a lot of taxpayer money, and there are voices now saying 'let’s take a look at this.'"

Sikkema said a lot of the voices raising concerns and calling for review of corrections are conservative voices. Michigan has a higher cost per prisoner than the average around the country, and those prisoners serve longer sentences. Both contribute greatly to the high corrections budget.

*Listen to the full story above. 

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Sex with inmates - maggots in the food - smuggling drugs to inmates - undercooked or spoiled food.

When is enough "enough" with Aramark, the food service company hired seven months ago to feed inmates in Michigan prisons?

The privatization was supposed to save the state more than $12 million a year. But it's been a Pandora's box of troubles for state prison officials ever since Aramark took over last December.

Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau joined us today. He has reported on all the problems associated with the Aramark contract. Egan said that so far, things are not getting any better.

Thetoad / Flickr

Every week, we take a look at what’s happening in Michigan politics with Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Aramark, the company that provides food services for Michigan prisons, which has come under a lot of criticism.

Prisons have complained of food shortages and maggots have been found in prison kitchens. There have also been a number of issues with Aramark employees smuggling contraband into prisons and just this week, four Aramark staffers were fired for having inappropriate contact with prisoners.

According to Demas, when the state of Michigan decided to privatize the food services in prisons, the objective of the governor and the Legislature was to save money and increase efficiency, but so far it has been marred with problems.

Meanwhile, Sikkema explains that when the initial discussions were taking place about the most effective ways to save money, privatization was more of a priority for certain legislators, and not necessarily that of the Department of Corrections. Sikkema elaborates that the operational costs have gone up significantly over the past several decades, and as a result, legislators have called for some form of privatization to scale back the spending.

After issues began to surface with Aramark following the contract, Demas asserts that the response of the state has been keeping tabs and trying to correct the mistakes, but so far, there has been no push to try and eliminate the contract.

“I do think it clearly raises a question, whether the savings, which are estimated to between $12 to $16 million a year in a $2 billion budget, are worth the problems that they’ve encountered: food issues, sanitation issues, high turnover of staff, sexual misconduct, smuggling of contraband like marijuana into the prisons; I don’t see the contract surviving if these problems continue” says Sikkema.

Omar Saadeh - Michigan Radio Newsroom

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All across Michigan, serious questions are being raised about the way our state deals with criminals.

The annual price tag for corrections in Michigan is around $2 billion a year. That’s more than is given for higher education. Michigan also keeps prisoners behind bars longer than the national average.

Is that money giving us a safer state? Are there other approaches?

Christopher Moraff, a writer for Next City, wrote an article titled: "Can Europe offer the U.S. a Model for Prison Reform?"

In his piece, Moraff looked mostly at prisons in Germany and the Netherlands.

In contrast to Europe’s rehabilitation mission, U.S. prisons focus much more on punishing convicted criminals through concepts such as minimum sentences and exclusion from communities.

“In neither of those countries, in Germany or the Netherlands, is the sole purpose of incarceration to protect society that’s written in law,” Moraff said.

Moraff said there is an effort to create a normalized set of circumstances to mimic community life as much as possible to re-socialize offenders for when they are released.

Many European prisoners go home on the weekends to visit their families, have the right to vote, wear their own clothes and make their own meals. Prisoners live in cells that resemble a college dorm. They are allowed to decorate their rooms, and guards knock before entering to instill a sense of privacy and humanity.

“If we make the goal re-socialization, dehumanization is not the right way to go about that,” Moraff said.

Moraff said that the guards who work at the correctional facilities have backgrounds in law, mental health, and counseling. They are trained to help provide a therapeutic environment for the people they oversee. They do not simply do head counts and prevent fights.

“There is a level of professionalism and a level of training that goes with this that is unlike anything we have in America,” Moraff said.

Moraff said there have been some efforts made in Pennsylvania and Colorado to retrain their staff in these methods.

*Listen to full story above

I’d like to start the week with a thought that some will consider heresy: sometimes, privatization just doesn’t work.

There are some functions and responsibilities that government handles better.

American is gung-ho for privatization these days, both to save money, and because government at all levels has become something we love to hate. Thanks to years of being told that government is bad, corrupt, expensive and inefficient, we are happy to reduce its size.

Well, we may not be quite ready to hand the nuclear arsenal over to an assets management firm, but apart from that, anything goes. And frankly, there are some things that probably should be privatized.

Garbage collection, for example.

But Michigan decided last year to privatize food service in our prisons, and so far, it has been a highly embarrassing failure.

The Detroit Free Press used the state Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s happened since the state contracted with a private food services company, Aramark Correctional Services of Pennsylvania.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

It's been known for decades as the world's largest walled prison - the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson.

Now some of the very colorful stories from that prison and from Jackson are told in the new Cell Block 7 Prison Museum. It's a joint venture of the Ella Sharp Museum and the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The museum is renting part of cell block seven, which still houses inmates.

MLive’s Leanne Smith said the museum covers the history of the prison, the inmates, wardens, and guards since 1838.

“It is an actual cell block,” Smith said. “You walk in and there is no doubt as to where you are.”

*Listen to full interview above. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

This Saturday, a unique museum experience will open in Michigan.

“Cell Block 7” at the state prison in Jackson will officially open to the public.  The museum is located in the old Southern Michigan Correctional Facility. The cell block was closed in 2007.  

The museum will chronicle the history of state prisons in Jackson, which dates back to the 1830s.    

Derek Key / Flickr

There's a new effort underway to help the families of Michigan inmates cope with having someone they love in prison. 

It's a pilot program that centers on having someone serve as a liaison between prisoner's families and officials at three Michigan prisons. That someone brings hard-earned insight to what it's like to have a loved one behind bars. 

Lois DeMott's son was a prisoner, so she learned firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate the prison system. 

Now, she hopes to help other families with the new Family Participation Program. She joined us on Stateside. 

*Listen to the full interview above.

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

There's no arguing the fact that more women are being put behind bars. 

The female prison population in this country rose 646% from 1980 to 2010, largely because of drug offenses. That adds up to 112,000 women in state and federal prisons. 

So what happens once these women are paroled?

Jennifer Cobbina is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. She's the lead author of a study on female parolees that was published in the journa Race and Justice. She joined us on Stateside.

*Listen to the full interview above. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

DETROIT (AP) - About 130 Michigan prison inmates will have an opportunity to seek parole in a case that ends an unusual state policy of treating them as mandatory lifers.

The state won't appeal a 2013 court decision that struck down the policy and has agreed to clear the way for a parole process. Judge Deborah Servitto signed an order last week.

It's an odd case. The inmates were sent to prison with life sentences for a variety of crimes but still had a chance at parole. Then they got in trouble for possessing a weapon or committing another offense behind bars.

Tim Pierce, Los Gatos / Creative Commons

Michigan’s rate of people returning to prison continues its steady decline.

The recidivism rate is now at 29%. That’s an all-time low for the state. It’s a pretty good rate compared to other states, too.

“That’s really what every corrections department across the country wants to see,” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said. “You know you’re doing an effective job of transitioning people from prison back to their communities.”

Marlan says the lower rate translates to safer communities.

PCAP / University of Michigan

Just because you've been found guilty of a crime and sentenced to prison, doesn't mean you no longer have a voice, an opinion, something to say.

And that's why each year the Prison Creative Arts Project puts out the call to prisoners all around Michigan: Send us your poetry, your essays, your short stories.

PCAP goes through each submission and selects work to go into its annual Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.  They're about to release their sixth volume. This one is called "The Sky Is On Fire, After All."

Philip Christman edits the Review, and he's an English Department instructor at the University of Michigan. He joined us today.

Listen to the full interview above. 

Michigan Department of Corrections

The Michigan Department of Corrections has released a report on last month’s escape from a state prison in Ionia. The report puts much of the blame on two corrections employees.

Convicted killer Michael Elliot, dressed all in white to match the snow on the ground, slipped through the fences at the Ionia Correctional facility to freedom the night of February 2. He was captured in northern Indiana the next day, after carjacking a woman in Ionia.

Michigan Dept. of Corrections

IONIA, Mich. (AP) - The convicted killer who escaped from a Michigan prison says it "was relatively simple."

Michael Elliot was discovered missing Sunday during an inmate count at the Ionia Correctional Facility, 30 miles east of Grand Rapids. The 40-year-old was arrested Monday in northwestern Indiana, driving a stolen vehicle.

The Detroit Free Press reports Elliot used his one phone call at the Indiana jail where he's being held on $1 million bond to discuss the escape with the newspaper.

Michigan bills aim to help parolees land jobs

Jan 12, 2014
Flickr kenmayer

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - New legislation in Lansing is designed to help inmates find a job when they leave prison.

The bills would let Michigan certify felons' skills and character to help them during the job application process. The "certificate of employability" could go to parolees based on their criminal history, institutional behavioral record, and vocational and educational training.

Donald Harrison / Flickr

Jackson, Michigan was home to one of the largest prisons in the world – the Michigan State Prison, later renamed the State Prison of Southern Michigan.

We went on a tour of the old prison with Jackson Historic Prison Tours. While there we met some former prisoners and prison staff, and decided to follow up with them afterwards.

Listen to their powerful stories above.