prisons

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan's prison system is crediting the introduction of Tasers for a drop in attacks on its employees.

The Michigan Department of Corrections issued the electronic stunning devices in five prisons in December 2011 and expanded the deployment system-wide last year.

The Lansing State Journal says a Michigan prison employee uses a Taser on a prisoner about twice a day. It says there have been 576 Taserings since Oct. 1, 2012.

Flickr user Still Burning / Creative Commons

It was 1998 when Michigan's lawmakers voted to approve tougher "lock 'em up policies."

Some may argue whether that made Michigan any safer, but one thing cannot be argued: Michigan leads the nation in average time served by inmates: 4.3 years. That's 48% higher than the national average of 2.9 years. That's according to a 2012 national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And these tough sentencing guidelines are exacting a cost from the state's collective "wallet." Michigan's corrections budget currently exceeds $2 billion.

The state sentencing guidelines have not been reviewed for 15 years.

In response, the Michigan Law Review Commission has launched a bipartisan review to figure out just where Michigan stands when compared to the rest of the nation, and where reform might be needed.

According to new data, prisoners in Michigan serve longer sentences than in any other state. That's on top of the fact that Michigan has not reviewed its sentencing guidelines for 15 years. On today’s show, we dug deeper into what's behind prison sentences.

And, as Detroit faces bankruptcy, a deal has been struck to build a new sports arena in the city's downtown. We found out if that's really what Detroit needs right now.

Also, there’s a softball team in West Michigan with some members that have been playing together for four decades. We spoke with two women from the team.

First on the show, where were you ten years ago when the power died?

That's what many of us in the Midwest are asking each other today.

It was ten years ago this day when the largest blackout in North America left 55 million people in 8 states and Canada in the dark.

The cost of the Blackout of 2003? Anywhere from $4-10 billion.

What changes have been made to the grid in that decade? Could a blackout like that happen again?

Maggie Koerth-Bakeris a science columnist for the New York Times Magazine, the science editor at BoingBoing.net, and the author of Before the Lights Go Out.

She joined us today Minneapolis.

Flick user Still Burning / Creative Commons

Prisoners in Michigan serve longer sentences than in any other state. That's according to a recent Pew study, which finds lengthy sentences have bloated the state's corrections budget. Michigan spends more than two billion dollars a year on prisons.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

A federal judge says 363 inmates in Michigan prisons sentenced to life without parole as juveniles should get parole hearings.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that laws like Michigan’s that automatically send some juveniles to prison for life with no chance of parole are “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette has been trying to limit the scope of the ruling to five inmates who challenged their sentences and to all future cases. He says families of murder victims deserved the certainty of knowing those sentences would stand.

user aMichiganMom / Flickr

This "week in review," Rina Miller and Jack Lessenberry discuss the Detroit primary results, the future of the DIA collection, and prison sentencing reform in Michigan.

Mike Duggan sweeps the primary vote

Mike Duggan's write-in campaign ended this week with surprising success. 85 percent of voters who wrote in his name spelled it correctly resulting in a huge lead for the Detroit mayoral contender.

Jack Lessenberry says, "It'll remain to be seen what happens in November.  One thing we know is that a lot more people will vote."

DIA collection appraised by Christie's Auction House

The Detroit Institute of Arts collection has been put at risk by Detroit's bankruptcy. The city invited Christie's Auction House to appraise the collection, perhaps simply to take inventory of its assets.

Lessenberry thinks that people are panicked about the possible sale of the art.  He says "the Attorney General thinks it's not constitutional, although if a federal bankruptcy judge says it is, federal law trumps state law."

Michigan considers parole and sentencing reform

Conservative lawmakers are considering overhauling prison sentences.  State Representative Joe Haveman is leading the cause, citing that harsher sentences are not keeping us any safer.

Lessenberry says, "Michigan locks up more people, locks them up for longer, and it costs us more.  It costs $34,000 per prisoner and we have 44,000 prisoners."

We spend far more money on prisons than on higher education in this state, and the old saying is true. You really do reap what you sow. Michigan lags behind our neighboring states when it comes to percentage of highly educated young adults.

But we lead the nation in keeping people locked up. The average Michigan inmate serves 4.3 years, almost a year and a half longer than the national average. We are locking them up, and going broke doing so. We’re spending an average of $34,000 a year to keep each of our forty-three thousand inmates behind bars. 

To be fair to the Department of Corrections, it could be worse. Six years ago, there were fifty-one thousand inmates. If that were still the case, and if the department had not privatized food service and adopted other cost savings, the figure would be close to three billion.

But what we are spending is too much, and one courageous and conservative state representative is trying to do something about it. Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, is one of a number of lawmakers interested in possibly shortening sentences.

Flickr user Still Burning / Creative Commons

Michigan’s inmates stay in prison longer than those in any of the 35 states Pew Research Center studied in 2012.

For Monica Jahner, that meant spending 28 years of her life behind bars. She was sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder in 1978. No one died in her case.

But Jahner doesn’t see herself as a victim. She says she spent those 28 years in prison trying to improve her life and the lives of fellow inmates.

“I got my degree and, you know, I did a lot while I was there. I didn’t just sit around. I fought and helped to get education for the women,” Jahner said. “My journey was a good one because I made a lot of impact on the system, I think.”

Jahner got her first chance at parole ten years into her sentence. But right around that same time, a Michigan convict on parole confessed to killing four teenage girls. Jahner says that made it nearly impossible for people like her to get in front of the parole board.

It was another 18 years before she walked out the front door of Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth after a string of parole battles.

She now works with former inmates and parolees to get their lives on track, and advocates for prisoners who are still inside.

“I go door to door to go out there and let people see you can give people a second chance,” Jahner. “When they find out I go to prison, I mean, literally heads spin around.”

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder are considering changes to prison sentencing guidelines that were last updated about 15 years ago.

The Detroit News reports the idea is driven in part by a desire to reduce the state Department of Corrections budget, which exceeds $2 billion.

A state sentencing guidelines study was launched last month by the bipartisan Michigan Law Review Commission.

One of the biggest challenges we face as a state and as a nation is how do we keep paroled prisoners from becoming repeat offenders and winding up back behind bars?

Solid evidence points to postsecondary education as one of the major keys to helping former inmates build productive lives after parole.

After many years without any funding for prisoners to be able to access higher education, the Michigan Department of Corrections has gotten a one million dollar grant to launch postsecondary educational programs and vocational training to a small number of inmates who are near parole.

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Legislation in Michigan House could cap FOIA fees

There is new legislation up for initial hearing this week in Lansing. It is a response to local governments and state agencies charging hefty fees for people to see government records.

"One of the bills would limit most charges for requests filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act to no more than 10 cents a page. Another would create a Michigan Open Government Commission to hear challenges to government denials of information requests," Michigan Radio's Rick Pluta reports.

Lansing City Council vs. Mayor Virg Bernero

The Lansing city council will vote tonight on a budget for next year. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports that "the vote will likely put the council at odds with Mayor Virg Bernero." 

The mayor wants to add annual fees for city water and electricity customers. Conversely, the council wants to make several spending cuts including eliminating several new positions the mayor wants to add to the city's payroll. Mayor Virg Bernero will have until Thursday to veto parts of the city budget he doesn’t like. The Lansing city council has until early June to try to override the mayor’s expected vetoes.

Higher education opportunities piloted in Michigan prisons

"After years without funding for prisoners to access higher education, the Michigan Department of Corrections is immersed in several efforts to teach community college courses and vocational training in-house to a small number of inmates who are near parole. Michigan will join a pilot project that hopes to gather enough evidence to possibly resurrect publicly supported postsecondary education in prisons nationally," reports The Detroit News.

Simon Brass / Flickr

About 400 food service state employees may soon be out of work at Michigan’s prisons.

That’s after Michigan reversed its previous decision NOT to privatize the contract.

The original company bids did not meet the state benchmark of at least 5 percent savings.

Frannie Shepherd-Bates is a Shakespeare geek. She is also executive artistic director of the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit.

Twice a week, Shepherd-Bates drives from metro Detroit to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, which is about 10 miles south of Ann Arbor, to share her love of Shakespeare.

PCAP

On March 19, the 18th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan prisoners will open at the Duderstadt Center on the North Campus of the University of Michigan.

The exhibition is a extension of the Prison Creative Arts Project spearheaded by University of Michigan Professor Buzz Alexander and is the largest exhibition of prisoner art in the country, containing some 300 works by over 200 artists.

Founded in 1990, PCAP "facilitates the opportunity to create original works of art in correctional facilities, urban high schools, and communities across the state of Michigan."

The project is affiliated with the Department of English Language and Literature, Alexander's department.

"When we come in (to prisons) we are in awe and we bring respect to the artists," Alexander said. "This year there are 428 works of art in the show that prisoners have been preparing for all year."

Alexander noted that the exhibition is a way for the artists to gain visibility. One artist talked with a PCAP facilitator about how it's a bridge that connects her to the outside world.

Simon Brass / Flickr

Michigan will not privatize nearly $350 million in prisoner health care and food costs, keeping intact nearly 1,700 state workers' jobs.

State Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan told The Associated Press on Friday that none of three contracts out for bid would have achieved the necessary 5 percent savings as required by state rules.

Bidding out more of the prison health system could have been the largest privatization of state government services in Michigan history.

DETROIT (AP) - The Michigan appeals court says it has no authority to intervene in the judgment of then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who agreed to change a prisoner's no-parole sentence but then changed her mind before leaving office in 2010.

The court said Friday it must respect the "clear and exclusive constitutional power" granted to Michigan governors in commutation matters.

isabellacounty.org

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class action lawsuit against Isabella County.

It says the county jail violates the constitutional rights of inmates with cells that are too crowded, and too few opportunities to exercise.

The federal lawsuit also says the jail discriminates against female inmates because they can’t participate in work assignments that could reduce their sentences.   

ACLU attorney Sarah Mehta filed the lawsuit.

ACLU

Michigan jail and prison policies that place teenage offenders in solitary confinement are getting criticized in a new report.

“Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” is based on research in U.S. jails and prisons in Michigan and four other states: Colorado, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania

Ken Mayer / flickr

The Muskegon Correctional Facility has reopened and will employ 240 people.

That is freeing up space for inmates in other parts of the state.

Michigan began closing prisons in 2007 as part of budget cuts. The Muskegon Correctional Facility was shut down in 2009.

Now the 1,300 bed, medium-security facility is open again and the state has begun transferring inmates from other places—mostly from the Ryan Correction Facility in Detroit.

Russ Marlan is a Department of Corrections spokesman.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - More and more Michigan ex-cons are killing people after they leave prison, a problem that the state Department of Corrections and its employees union blame on each other.

The Detroit Free Press says 88 probationers or parolees committed 95 homicides in 2010 through Aug. 31, 2012. Ex-cons under state supervision killed 21 people in 2010, 38 in 2012 and 36 in the first eight months of 2012.

The emergency was declared this week when the number of inmates remained above 700 for seven days in a row. The jail’s capacity is only 580 inmates.

That means state law now requires the jail to release about 175 inmates in the next two weeks. The number needs to get to 555 within 12 days; if the sheriff’s department can’t do that it’ll create a list to hand over to judges to decide.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A public employees’ union says it will offer a counter-proposal if the state goes ahead with plans to privatize prison health care.

Governor Rick Snyder has ruled out privatizing entire prisons. But corrections officials think there may be savings to be had if the state turns to private companies to provide health care services.

Ray Holman is with UAW Local 6000, which represents many of the corrections employees who would be affected. He said the union will offer its own plan to save taxpayers money by reducing the costs of management and outsourcing.

“We believe we can beat any private company. We can do the job better, more effectively, and we want to be given the opportunity to prove it,” said Holman.

Holman said the union believes it can deliver the same services at a lower cost than other bidders. Those services include inmate health clinics, psychiatric services and counseling, psychological evaluations for parole candidates, and record-keeping.

User: Brother O'Mara / flickr

Lower lake levels-- the good and bad news

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard says releasing more than 200 prisoners from the overcrowded  County Jail could have been avoided,  if judges had used alternative sentencing.

He  tells The Detroit News he sent a letter to judges earlier this month, notifying them of the "jail emergency and asking for cooperation to help avoid it."

Michigan law requires sentence reductions if prisoners don't pose a high risk.

Bouchard says beds are being used by inmates who don't need to be in jail, and could have been punished differently, avoiding the problem.

A fascinating story about a last second reversal by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. At the end of her term as governor in 2010, Granholm had signed an order commuting Matthew Makowski's sentence of life without parole. Makowski was convicted of first degree murder for setting up a robbery of a co-worker in 1988. But after she was contacted by the victim's family, Granholm reversed her order. Now lawyers are arguing whether she had the authority to rescind her original order.

user BotMultichill / Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan Court of Appeals says women who were sexually abused in state prisons must pay the victim restitution and child support they owe before collecting settlement money from their class-action suit.

A three-judge appeals court panel ruled today that an order protecting the names of the women who sued should remain in effect.

But the court also says that where there's a conflict between protecting the women's identities and making sure that they pay victim restitution and child support, the courts must make sure the debts get paid.

Detroit Congressman Hansen Clarke has introduced a bill that supporters say would make it easier for ex-felons to get jobs.

The bill would prohibit employers from asking about a job applicants’ criminal record until they’ve made that person a conditional job offer.

So-called “ban the box” ordinances are already on the books in Detroit, other cities and a few states.

Flickr user Miss Lauralee

A new program in Detroit is taking a creative approach to helping former inmates improve their lives. That approach involves pairing two groups of people who often don't trust one another: former inmates and police officers.

Jessica Taylor came up with the idea for the mentorship program called New Beginnings. She’s Executive Director of Chance for Life, a non-profit that helps inmates transition back into the community after they've been released.

As part of the mentorship program, officers drive the men to counseling appointments and recovery programs. They help the men obtain birth certificates and social security cards. The pairs also take part in social activities, like going to ball games.

At first, Taylor says it was a tough sell to both groups. But after a few months of spending time together, she says the men consider each other friends, and some even consider one another family.

Taylor says if you want to make communities safer, you have to engage the people who make them unsafe, and you have to involve the police. She hopes to expand the program in the near future.

The U.S. Supreme Court
User kconnors / MorgueFile.com

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down state laws that allow juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. The ruling says life without parole for crimes that occurred when a felon was younger than 18 is excessive and violates the Eighth Amendment.

Michigan is one of several states that allowed juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. The state has more than 350 people in state prisons serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

The state Department of Corrections plans to close two prisons and convert one of them to a holding facility for alleged parole violators.         

Prison officials say there’s a shortage of housing for felons suspected of violating parole.

“Every day, there are situations with those parolees where we have to put them into custody while we investigate circumstances surrounding alleged parole violations," said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan. "So, right now, we either put them in a van and drive them back to our reception center, or we let them walk out of the parole office.”

 The Ryan Correctional Facility in Detroit and an inmate re-entry facility in Caro will be closed. The department will also re-open a shuttered prison in Muskegon as part of the shakeup.

 The shakeup will close the last remaining prison in Detroit, and it will force inmates in the facility to be moved out of the city. Detroit lawmakers say that's a bad idea.

 “Just because people go to prison doesn’t mean that they should be disconnected from their families and support systems that will help them become rehabilitated and better citizens," said Rep. Fred Durhal (D-Deiroit). "Because that’s what this thing is about – is punish them for the crimes that they’ve done, but not cut them off from family and other relatives.”

Durhal says the two prisons that are closing are two of the state’s newest correctional facilities. Corrections officials say the shakeup will cost another $10 million a year. But they say it’s less expensive than other options for dealing with parole violators.

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