prisons

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.

Reporters were caught off base yesterday when they learned that Governor Rick Snyder was not in Lansing as they thought, but in Afghanistan, visiting the troops. The secrecy was understandably needed for security reasons, and the trip is the sort of morale-boosting thing that governors and other state officials traditionally do.

But it was very telling when the governor reported on what the soldiers wanted to talk about. Besides the surging Detroit Tigers and fading Red Wings, the chief thing on their minds seemed to be jobs.

Michigan Department of Corrections

 The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union is criticizing Michigan’s only women’s prison for conducting invasive strip searches.

The ACLU says the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility uses invasive body cavity searches after family visits, whether or not they believe a woman is hiding contraband.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled law enforcement officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense before admitting them to jails.

user whatimeantosay / morgueFile

The city of Jackson is capitalizing on its long history as the site of a state prison.

In addition to guided prison tours, visitors can now buy prison-related items at the city’s new prison gift shop.

When the Jackson State Prison closed in 2007, it was turned into a live-work space for artists known as the Armory Arts Village. One of the women who lives there, Judy Gail Krasnow, gives guided tours of the historic prison.

She says lots of tourists asked about a gift shop, which didn’t exist. So she created one in the Art 634 building across from the old prison, and built it to look like an old prison cell. Krasnow says the Old Prison Gift Shop was "modeled after the cells at the first prison, which had brick walls, and the doors were those thick, iron bars."

Krasnow plans to sell art made by current and former prisoners through the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).

Andrew Bardwell / wikimedia commons

Michigan has one of the country's highest numbers of "juvenile lifers"---prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as minors---359 total.

That includes six who were only 14 when they committed their crimes.

These numbers come from an in-depth report from John Barnes at MLive.com.

Barnes profiled those six, including TJ Tremble, who has spent half his life, 14 years, in a state prison following a murder conviction. Tremble has no hope of release because of a mandatory life sentence.

Now, for the youngest of young offenders at least, there could be a path toward release. That's because of a pair of upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases involving young offenders.

Gov. Rick Snyder delivered a special address on public safety this week. His plan calls for fighting crime in some of the state’s most violent cities.

The 34 point plan includes hiring 180 additional state troopers, increasing staffing at crime labs, decreasing urban blight, and linking welfare benefits to school attendance.

Prison Blues

Feb 8, 2012

Michigan is one of only a handful of states that spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. This is a disgrace, and isn’t doing very much for either our budget or our future.

The reasons for this are both complex and simple. The societal reasons are complex, of course, and have been addressed at length by people more knowledgeable than I.

The technical reasons are far simpler.  Thirty years ago, there were only about 13,000 inmates in Michigan prisons. Five years ago, the figure had ballooned to more than 51,000.

missmillions / flickr

You might remember the "Three Things" series we aired in 2010… we asked people from all walks of life what we could all do to help the state.  We wanted to air some positive stories in a time when many in the state were facing economic hardship. In 2011, the series morphed into “What’s Working.”  We highlighted various initiatives and projects that were trying to have a positive effect on the state...

Well, for 2012, we’re going to talk with people who are standing apart from the crowd, being and making the kind of change they want to see in the state.  Throughout the year you’ll hear from people making waves and going against the grain.  We’ll ask them why they’re working so hard on their projects, and try to see things from their perspective. This morning we speak with Reverend Sokuzan Robert Brown. He teaches meditation in Michigan prisons.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here.

Iran's state radio says a court has convicted a Michigan man of working for the CIA and sentenced him to death.

Monday's report said Amir Mirzaei Hekmati was also convicted of trying to accuse Iran of involvement in terrorism.

The report didn't say when the verdict was issued. Under Iranian law, he has 20 days to appeal.

Iran charges that as a former U.S. Marine, Hekmati received special training and served at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading to Iran for his alleged intelligence mission.

His father, a professor at a community college in Flint, Mich., has said his son is not a CIA spy and was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested.

The 28-year-old was born in Arizona and graduated from high school in Michigan. His family is of Iranian origin.

The Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming is considering changes that would limit where people paroled from jail or prison could live.

Most parolees go home when they’re released from jail. Those who don’t have a safe place to reintegrate into society are housed through reentry programs. People are usually on parole for two years or less(depending on violations).

Police Chief James Carmody said he supports efforts to house and rehabilitate parolees from Wyoming. But he’s concerned too many state and federal parolees are being concentrated in a couple of motels in his city.

“We’re just saying the concentration is really beyond our ability to control and maintain,” Carmody said. “We can only handle so many and so much. Maybe it’s time to look at spreading that out a little bit and letting the rest of the community engage in (the discussion) as well.”

The state corrections department plans to test the use of tasers in four state prisons.   

The pilot program is intended to see if the electro-shock devices can be effective when dealing with unruly and uncooperative prison inmates. 

Andy Potter is the vice president of the state prison guards union. He says the  union has wanted to arm guards with tasers for years.  

Potter says "being able to utilize them when an inmate is being disruptive just makes sense.”     

The American Civil Liberties Union is raising some concerns about the plan. The ACLU says the corrections department should implement clear guidelines for the use of tasers so that they are not misused.  

Tasers are used by many law enforcement agencies, but their use has been criticized by groups who point to incidents of abuse and even death.

Debtor's Prison

When you step into a Michigan courtroom, crime is supposed to be crime, regardless of social class. But whether you go home or go to jail  sometimes depends on whether you have money.

Let’s say you’re one of the many thousands of people in Michigan who’s unemployed. Or, you’re working in a job that doesn’t cover your bills. Like your rent or mortgage. Or, like child support.

And if you don’t have the money to pay those bills,  you might end up in court. Selesa Likine did. Her husband divorced her. He got custody of the kids.  She lost her home. Likine, who had worked as a realtor, was ordered to pay $1,100 a month in child support. She couldn’t pay it  and the court was not allowed to hear why. So she spent 43 days in the Oakland County Jail.

“The jury in the case never heard that during the period when she wasn’t paying the child support, she was institutionalized with schizo-affective disorder, was declared totally disabled by the Social Security Administration, lost her realtors’ license, was unable to work, and was subsisting on disability income,” says David Moran, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Moran took over Likine’s Case. In October, Moran and the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Michigan Supreme Court for a new trial. They say what happened to Likine is no different than a debtor’s prison – sort of like Dickensian days, when poor people who owed money were thrown into jail.

Likine, who’s in her 40s, lives with her mother now. She takes medicine for her mental illness and says she's stable. But she’s not optimistic about her future. She doesn’t think anyone will want to hire her because she’s a felon.

State prison officials say Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit will close in January as part of a broader effort to cut costs by more than $60 million a year.

Mound will be the 15th correctional facility to close in about five years. The state’s prison population is down about 8,300 inmates since March of 2007.

One of the reasons Mound was chosen for closure is because there are other facilities that are relatively close by, says Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan:

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Mail policies at several county jails across the state are becoming more restrictive, mainly to save money. It’s causing an outcry from inmates’ family and friends, and people who advocate for prisoners’ rights.

About a quarter of Michigan's 43,000 state prisoners are mentally ill, and new Michigan Corrections Director Dan Heyns says he wants to shift responsibility for their treatment from his department to other agencies.
    

Heyns says in an interview with The Detroit News that his department "has had a kind of mission creep over the years." He says the department needs to return to its original mission.
    

How many of the forty-four thousand prisoners sitting in our state’s prisons do you think are actually innocent of the charges which put them there? None? A handful? Maybe … one percent?

I talked recently with a man who is an expert on this, and what he told me was absolutely shocking. Jim Petro was Ohio’s Attorney General for four years, until he left office to make an unsuccessful run for governor in 2006.

Jackson State Prison
STEVE CARMODY

Michigan Senate Republicans say the Department of Corrections could save tens of millions of dollars by making sure all prisoners are parole-eligible as soon as they have served their minimum sentences.  

Republican state Senator John Proos says that means making sure prisoners have taken their necessary prisoner reentry programs in time for their parole hearings. 

 “Are they getting the proper education so they can be eligible for parole at their earliest release date? The longer we keep somebody past earliest release date, the most costly it is to us."

Proos says additional savings can be found in the department by privatizing food services and mental health services for prisoners. Proos chairs the Senate panel that oversees the Department of Corrections budget. The panel approved a spending plan that is well below Governor Rick Snyder’s proposal.

Simon Brass / Flickr

A coalition of mental health advocates is calling on the state Department of Corrections to alter its policy of moving as many prisoners as possible from brand-name prescriptions to generic drugs.

The Department says the new policy will save taxpayers’ money without endangering prisoners’ health.

The Mental Health/Justice Coalition says the policy is too sweeping when it comes to inmates with mental illnesses. The Coalition includes inmates’ families, psychiatrists, judges, and attorneys.

Peggy Christian is the mother of an inmate:

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A federal judge will hear the state’s request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging state law that allows juveniles offenders to be sentenced to life without parole this afternoon. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 350 people serving life without parole sentences in Michigan who were convicted for a crime they committed when they were under 18 years old.   Michigan has more juvenile offenders serving life terms than any other state except Pennsylvania. 

Governor Rick Snyder has named Jackson County Sheriff Daniel Heyns as the new director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. He'll start his new duties on June 1st.

From the Governor's Press release:

Heyns earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1973 and a master’s in criminal justice, with a correctional administration focus, from Michigan State University in 1977.  Heyns obtained his State of Michigan Police Officer Certification in 1981, is a graduate of the National FBI Academy and has completed special weapons and tactics training...

Heyns, of Jackson, has served as Jackson County sheriff since 2003.  He is responsible for a $12.5 million budget, a 450-bed jail operation, 911 central dispatch center and multiple specialized units including marine patrol, detective bureau, K-9, narcotics, traffic, firearms, Special Response Team and school liaison.  He previously served as Jackson County undersheriff and was a captain in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.

The Associated Press notes that Heyns was a vocal opponent of Governor Granholm's plan to release more nonviolent prisoners eligible for parole.

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Michigan is one of the nation’s leaders in prisoner rehabilitation according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. The number of Michigan parolees who return to prison has declined 18 percent since 2000. The Pew Center credits the drop to Michigan’s Prisoner Re-Entry Program (MPRP).

John Cordell is with the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says the MPRP reduces crime rates, "which results in less spending on corrections here in Michigan."

Not all parolees are part of the MPRP. Cordell said the programs are based on need:

“The Michigan’s Prisoner Re-Entry Program, we target parolees that are more likely to fail, in the community, with re-entry services.”

Before the program began in 2005, half of Michigan’s parolees returned to prison. Now, only one in three return.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

In February, new rules were adopted that prohibit inmates from sending or receiving letters. Inmates can receive or send postcards only. Legal documents are exempt.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler cites security reasons for changing the policy earlier this year. He says people send drugs, razor blades, and other contraband inside letters to inmates.

“I can’t give you a specific number of times that we’ve dealt with that, but my perspective as sheriff you know in a facility that needs to be as secure as possible, one is too many.”

About 20 protestors gathered in front of the Muskegon Count Jail today to rally against the policy.

Faith Groesback was among them.

“What do you have to do to ensure that contraband doesn’t come in through a letter? You run it through a metal detector, you have a dog sniff it, you have somebody open it and shake it; it’s not that complicated.”

She argues the policy violates inmates and their loved ones’ privacy and freedom of speech.

“If you’ve ever been, had a relationship of any kind with somebody in that situation, you’d understand how vitally important those letters are and what they mean to them.”

Mal Williams, also of Muskegon, found out about the policy from a friend of his that’s inside the jail just yards away from him.

“Just think what we would’ve lost if we had not let Dr. King write letter when he was in Birmingham Jail. There’s a lot of issues involved here. Its starts off with a letter and then the next thing you know you’re losing something else.”

Sheriff Roesler says inmates’ speech is not stifled because they can send as many postcards as they want.

“Courts have recognized that certain rights are restricted when you come into jail or prison and in the interest of the security of the institution, sometimes we do have to restrict those rights.”

About a half a dozen other county jails in Michigan have similar post-card-only policies.

A county in Colorado reversed its post-card-only policy late last year after the ACLU threatened legal action.

The ACLU of Michigan says they have been looking into 'post-card-only' policies in the state.

User bgb / Flickr

While controversy over budget cuts lingers, new statistics show that Michigan's prison system may have some system-wide problems that actually increase cost.The Chicago Tribune/A.P. reports:

Michigan often keeps inmates long after other states would have released them for similar crimes, driving up prison costs by millions of dollars a year and eating up a quarter of the state's general fund.

Both former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and current Republican Gov. Rick Snyder have encouraged the parole board to be more lenient when it comes to releasing prisoners who have served their minimum sentences. Yet a bill that would require that inmates serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence but no more than 120 percent failed to make it through the Legislature during the last two-year session.

That has left 8,000 inmates still behind bars who have served more than their minimum sentences, a practice that's costing Michigan taxpayers around $280 million annually.

It's likely to take years for the parole board to consider those 8,000 cases, which make up nearly a fifth of the prison population. On April 15, the parole board will shrink from 15 members to 10 under a Snyder executive order estimated to save around $500,000 a year in pay and benefits.

Prisoner art show

Mar 31, 2011

More than three-hundred works of art are on display at the University of Michigan by artists who are incarcerated prisoners. Independent producer and U of M professor of art Stephanie Rowden visited prisons in Michigan and spoke with several incarcerated artists. She has this audio postcard about why the artists make art and what it means to be a part of the show.

The show is called The Sixteenth Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners and it is part of The Prison Creative Arts Project. The artwork is not only on display but it’s also for sale.  The show is at the Duderstadt Center Gallery at The University of Michigan until April 6th.

State to close prison

Mar 25, 2011
(courtesy http://www.mco-seiu.org/)

The state Department of Corrections is closing a state prison in southern Michigan. The move will save the state millions of dollars. The Florence Crane correctional facility in Coldwater costs about $27 million a year to operate.

The facility houses about a thousand mainly older inmates, many with serious health problems. Those inmates will be sent to other prisons around the state. 

John Cordell is the state Corrections Department spokesman. He says the state will be careful when placing these inmates in other facilities. 

“We don’t want to place prisoners in a situation where…they have a pressing health care need, but the health care provider is a hundred miles away, every time  we have to take them back and forth.  It doesn’t make any sense.”  

The Coldwater prison will not be the only state prison closing this summer. The Muskegon Correctional facility is also scheduled to close in June. Cordell says the state doesn’t need the two prisons anymore. 

“We expect that by June first we’ll have well over a thousand beds that are empty within the system. So we can identify this prison.  Close it.  Place those prisoners within the beds in the system and we’ll still have some cushion.”

Michigan’s prison inmate population has declined from a high of 51,000 in 2007  to just under 44,000 today.  

The Daily Reporter in Coldwater notes that Michigan's Corrections Department has been cutting back for some time:

In 2009, to save more than $118 million, Gov. Jennifer Granholm closed three prisons and five camps. They were the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility, along with prisons in Muskegon and Kincheloe. In addition, the state closed camps in Shingleton, Painesdale, Iron River, Grayling and White Lake. The cuts impacted more than 1,000 state employees. Although there was much talk, there were no closures last year.

Tim Pierce, Los Gatos / Creative Commons

This Monday, Morning Edition Host Christina Shockley sits down with Mary King as part of our year-long “What’s Working” series. King is the community coordinator in Washtenaw County for the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative (MPRI). The MPRI aims to increase public safety and reduce crime and recidivism by providing supportive services to citizens recently released from prison. The services provided include assistance with locating housing, employment, substance abuse treatment, transportation, and mental health treatment.

In addition to helping released felons get back on their feet in their communities, Ms. King says the MPRI can produce financial savings for the state by reducing the number of prisons in Michigan. While there are many factors that contribute to fluctuations in the prison population, King says recently there has been a substantial decline in the recidivism rate in Michigan, thanks in part to the MPRI.

“What we do know is that returns to prison for people who have been released – which used to be about one for every two people that were released from prison were back within two years – that number has gone down to one in three.”

Before the MPRI came about, King says different agencies worked in local communities throughout the state to connect returning citizens with services they needed. Unfortunately, these localized efforts often lacked both communication with one another and an understanding of what services were most effective to reduce recidivism, says King.

Simon Brass / Flickr

The state's prison system is in line for some budget cuts like a lot of other parts of the state government.

Now, a recent audit says the prison system could save more in prescription costs.

From the Associated Press:

DETROIT (AP) - State auditors say Michigan could have saved millions of dollars by choosing lower-cost alternatives to a mental-health drug that is widely prescribed in prisons.

The audit released Friday says psychotropic drugs are dominating the cost of prescriptions in the prison system. They added up to more than $8 million from January through July last year - 41 percent of all pharmaceuticals.

Seroquel is the most prescribed antipsychotic drug. Auditors say the Corrections Department could have saved $350,000 a month by switching just half of those prescriptions to a drug called Risperdal.

The Corrections Department says it's taking steps to control costs. The audit also found that prisoners are not being charged for over-the-counter medicine even if they can afford it.

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