Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

State lawmakers this week will discuss outside oversight for prison food facilities.

State Representative John Kivela, D-Marquette, wants local health departments to inspect prison kitchens.

The facilities have been self-inspecting for decades.

Shayan Sanyal / Flickr

The Michigan appeals court has ruled in favor of the state and dismissed a major class-action lawsuit by young prisoners who said guards failed to stop sexual assaults behind bars.

The court says Michigan's civil rights law doesn't apply to lawsuits by prisoners. It also dismissed the case on other technical grounds in a decision released Wednesday.

Jackson State Prison

Michigan AFSCME Council 25 says it will challenge the state's new prison food contract with Trinity Services Group.

The state announced the deal with the private Florida-based company Monday after ending ties with Aramark over months of complaints. 

Nick Ciaramitaro, legislative director for AFSCME Council 25, said handing the contract over without first opening it up to other bidders is unlawful.

"We're simply exchanging one private vendor for another with no evidence that things are going to improve," Ciaramitaro said.

401(k) 2013 / Flickr

This week in Michigan Politics, political analyst Jack Lessenberry talks about a new law affecting school districts in trouble, college tuition hikes, a former inmate healthcare snafu, and Michigan veterans.  

barbed wire fence
FLickr user H. Michael Karshis / Creative Commons

How much does crime really cost? Millions of dollars per day and billions per year. The high cost has jail and prison administrators seeking ways to ease this burden on taxpayers.

One way to do that is charging the inmates fees.

In Michigan, inmates are required to pay for necessities. It's called "pay to stay." Backers say it teaches the prisoners a lesson and keeps them from making frivolous and wasteful requests. But what happens when a prisoner's small paycheck doesn't cover the expenses?

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

There's no denying that state spending and budgets are stretched tight, and it's forcing a fresh look at the soaring costs of our prisons.

What are we really getting for the $2 billion we spend per year on corrections? And how can we trim that corrections bill?

Shayan Sanyal / Flickr

Legislation to compensate people who are wrongly imprisoned in Michigan is moving forward at the state Capitol.

A state House committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to give people $60,000 for every year they are imprisoned plus damages.

Public Domain

A Michigan House bill would give judges more discretion when it comes to sentencing first-time felons who carried a gun during their crime.

Right now, first-time offenders face a mandatory two-year sentence for a felony firearm charge, on top of any other charges they're facing.

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that will allow a private corrections company to accept inmates who've been security risks at other prisons at a facility in northern Michigan.

The Baldwin private prison – closed since 2005 – is owned by the GEO Group. The new law allows GEO's currently dormant North Lake Correctional Facility to house “level five” inmates who've been convicted of fighting and attempting to escape. 

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, the popular law and order slogans were “get tough on crime,” and “lock ‘em up and throw the key away.”

Well, we tried that.

What it got us was an increase in the state prison population from 18,000 to more than 50,000.

Gov. Rick Snyder outlined a public safety agenda on Monday that includes parole and sentencing reforms, job training for inmates, and more help finding a job once they’re released from prison.

Snyder says there are data-driven ways to reduce the state’s prison population without compromising public safety.

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

A private prison near Baldwin, Michigan could re-open, adding 150 jobs to the economy, under a bill sponsored by state Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo. The prison operated from 1998 through 2005 as a private youth facility, and was open again briefly later housing inmates from California. It closed again in 2011. 

Joe Gratz / Flickr Creative Commons

The Michigan attorney general’s office has decided to withdraw subpoenas sent to reporters investigating prison conditions for teenaged inmates.The attorney general’s office asked for all notes and records dealing with interviews connected to a lawsuit alleging sexual assaults against teenaged state prison inmates.   

flickr user FatMandy /

DETROIT - The Michigan Supreme Court has put the brakes on a lawsuit that accuses state prison officials of failing to prevent the sexual assault of male teen inmates.

The court ordered a stay Friday and told the appeals court to consider whether it can be a class-action case, possibly affecting hundreds of people. 

flickr user Thomas Hawk /

If you are a 17-year-old and you break a law here in Michigan, you’re going to be tried as an adult.

Michigan is one of nine states that tries 17-year-olds as adults.

Prisons are overfilling with an increasingly aging population.
User kIM DARam /

Getting tough on crime. For many, that means putting criminals behind bars, lengthy sentences, and tough parole guidelines.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The state Senate Judiciary committee will consider a bill tomorrow that would make it easier for criminals to have part of their records expunged.

House Bill 4186 would allow people convicted of a single felony or a couple of misdemeanors to apply to have them removed from their record.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The state House has approved bills meant to reduce prison costs in Michigan. But the sponsor of the legislation says the bills have been “gutted.”

State Representative Joe Haveman, R-Holland, says provisions were taken out that would have kept more people out of prison.

As part of its mission to save shelter dogs from being euthanized, Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan came up with an idea: place these rescued or unwanted dogs with trainers - trainers who have the time to work with the dogs, to train them for adoption into a good home - trainers who are behind bars.

The RPSM's Correctional Companion Program places dogs with specially trained prison inmates, and what happens in the time these inmates spend with their dogs is powerful. Martin Daughenbaugh has seen this power in his own life. As an inmate of the state prison in Coldwater, Martin met a blind dog named Quinn.

And it's a story worth sharing.

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.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The company behind Michigan’s troubled prison food service is keeping its contract.  But it’s also paying a price.

Aramark’s problems have ranged from maggots in the food to food service employees having sexual relations with inmates. 

Gov. Rick Snyder today announced Aramark will pay a $200,000 fine. The governor says there will also be changes to the food service contract.     

Wikimedia Commons

In a story we aired yesterday on European prisons, we learned the apparent key to reducing recidivism. In Europe, keeping family ties intact is priceless.

There’s a juvenile justice plan in Berrien County that’s been applying these principles since 2001, strengthening family ties, and keeping young offenders out of jail when possible.

And their approach is paying off.

Elvin Gonzalez is the family Division Administrator for the Berrien County Trial Court.

He said that when looking at the youth who come into to court to look at their family system.

“Many of the factors that contributed to them being logged with delinquency came from two primary domains, their family domain and their school domain,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said that it was important to address both of those domains and provide interventions that target those areas, strengthen the families’ ability to supervise, effectively monitor and discipline, and support their children.

“Our belief is, is that kids live in an ecology. That ecology is their family system, their neighborhood, their community, their school and we needed to impact those areas to help youth be successful in our communities," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez added that while they are trying to fix the source of the youth’s actions, accountability for those actions are not forgotten.

The county has seen a lot of success with their programs. In 2001, more than 125 youths were in out-of-home residential placements throughout Michigan. Today, that number has dropped to about 40 youths.

Recidivism has dropped from more than 58% in 1998 to 17.5% in 2012. 

“It’s important that we help kids learn various skills, be more effective in managing conflict, make better decisions – but ultimately, at the end of the day, we need to move the needle on recidivism,” Gonzalez said.

*Listen to full interview above.

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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

Matt / Flickr

Problems keep piling up at Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson.

Last week, maggots were found on the serving line in the prison's cafeteria.

Over the weekend, inmates started getting sick with a stomach virus.

And the problems have gotten worse. Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan says the number of sick prisoners is now up to 150, and the prison's been put under quarantine.

Larry Farr / Morguefile

Helping prison officials and the families of prisoners communicate better is the goal of a pilot project at three Michigan prisons. So is providing support to the families of prisoners.

The privately funded Family Participation Program will partner with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

MDOC spokesperson Russ Marlan says it's hard for family members to negotiate the unfamiliar world of prisons. 

He said having an independent liaison for each prison will make it easier for family members to get their questions answered.

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.

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.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

IONIA, Mich. (AP) - Two employees have been suspended at a western Michigan prison where a convicted killer escaped for 24 hours.

Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan says one is an officer and the other is a shift commander. He declined to provide their names or any other details but says the suspensions are related to the investigation at the Ionia Correctional Facility.

Michael Elliot escaped last Sunday and left the state in a Jeep that belonged to a Belding woman. She got away later that night. Elliot was captured Monday in northwestern Indiana.

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.