Above Photo: Kevin Flesch/Flickr
Like many states across the country, Michigan has reached a critical point in the status of its Corrections Department and citizens are fed up. The Department’s failures expand across the spectrum of corrections from financially and operatively to their regularly inadequate programming and continually degrading prison conditions. These mounting issues incite the need for deep reforms along with increasingly long average sentence lengths, from 2-4yrs, contributing to massive overcrowding. Recognizing that citizens are desperate for a meaningful solution, decision makers and elected officials came together earlier this month for a Criminal Justice Reform Town Hall at Washtenaw Community College to discuss the needs in our state. Panelists included Attorney General Dana Nessel, Director Heidi Washington, Chief Justice Bridget McCormick, Senator Jeff Irwin and Representative Yousef Rabhi.
Washington began the conversation outlining Michigan’s recent improvements in its prison system which include a reduction in the amount of people incarcerated from 51,000 in 2007 to 38,000. This is a reduction in the number of people behind bars that’s greater than the state of Idaho and Alaska’s entire state prison populations over a twelve year period. According to report by the Senate Fiscal Agency, reduction in 13,000 prison beds would result in a $494,000,000 savings. Even with this decrease Michigan still has an incredible amount of work to in order to lower the prison population to a manageable size. Sadly, even with that cut in the prison population Michigan spends over a third of its annual budget, over $2 Billion on corrections alone.
Decreasing the number of people languishing in prison will have a positive impact, but this critical situation requires more of decision makers and elected officials than just a reduced population. Significant changes need to be made to the prison population number as well as to its operating structure. We need to develop and implement policies that will reduce not only the number of people in prison but that will also restore people to optimal productivity, help them develop healthy habits and heal them from trauma while encouraging educational and professional achievement that is established while one is incarcerated and can continue to progress with their release from prison.
At this point there is a general consensus on how we ended up in this situation of mass incarceration in Michigan. Irwin explains that our, “failed mental healthcare system puts pressure on DOC”. The DOC is not equipped to treat mental illness which results in people suffering from mental illness only getting sicker in prison. With insufficient medical care and normalized medical neglect, the prison environment is disabling. In order to address this, Beaumont plans to open up a new $45 million mental health care facility in Dearborn to better serve Southeastern Michigan.
Rather than prison being a time of disabling idle mischief, Washington shared her vision of, “making prison time productive time by providing meaningful opportunities” to men and women during the time of their incarceration. Washington made multiple references to the vocational villages that Michigan has located at Handlon and Parnall Correctional Facility. Unfortunately these facilities are currently serving no more than 204 students at Handlon and 272 students at Parnell on any given day that the program is operating at full capacity. That is a minuscule fraction of the tens of thousands of prisoners who deserve so much more productivity out of their time incarcerated, whose families and communities deserve more out of the time that their loved one is forced to spend away. Vocational Villages are a step in the right direction but after years of seemingly positive operation at these campuses, the state should be doing more to equip and transform the lives of the many prisoners who are housed at one of the 28 other facilities under Director Washington’s jurisdiction.
In the past, reforms were said to have been impeded by a lack of data to support reform policies. Washington explained that as a data driven department, the numbers had to be logical in order for the necessary changes to be made. Rep. Rabhi added to this, “criminal justice system failures are fueled by economic injustice and racial injustice”. Numbers often fail to give an accurate portrayal of the needs of marginalized populations. The most ‘cost effective’ route may not necessarily be the best solution. In many cases, especially in relation to prison, social consequences are often the result of decisions that are monetarily driven. MDOC must shift from being data driven to people driven in order to effectively transform the lives of those, offenders and victims alike, who are shuffled through its system.
During the event panelists took questions from the audience at which attendees asked about progress on specific reforms that they wanted to see in the state. These included questions about the restoration of Good Time, a system that was repealed by Truth-in-Sentencing in 1998. Today tens of thousands of men and women don’t have access to earned time off of their sentences simply because of the date on which they were sentenced. These ineligible prisoners are the family members and loved ones of millions of desperate Michiganians, many of which were present at the town hall and were holding panelists accountable. While the panelists didn’t have answers as to when or how Good Time would be restored they did express their desire to see a change in sentencing guidelines that restrict earned credits. Elected officials, Rep. Rabhi and Sen. Irwin encouraged attendees to reach out to their offices to voice their support of Good Time legislation as they we were both willing to sponsor or cosponsor such a bill.
Michigan can no longer continue to ignore the critical state of its failing criminal legal system anymore. In an attempt to address mounting concerns the parole board is releasing prisoners at a record high rate, but more is required in order to provide transformative solutions to our criminal legal system. Senator Irwin identified two main issues as it relates to advancing these types of reforms: first “expanding compassion” and second, “make sure that people can see and understand other people in Michigan”. Irwin became emotional as he explained how citizens are failing to see how desperate the criminal legal system is solely because they feel like they couldn’t relate. It should not take your loved on being incarcerated in order for you to care about the conditions of incarceration, the time to care for everyone is today.
Over the past two years citizens on both sides of the wall have been working together as apart of the Good Time Campaign to Repeal TIS in order to establish an earned credit systems for those prisoners who are currently intelligible. Our Coalition is proud to have developed the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act (MPRCA) in order to serve all people imprisoned in the state of Michigan. Every person has the right to demonstrate their growth and development regardless of their age or the date that they were sentenced.
The establishment of the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act (MPRCA) is our opportunity to transform the conditions of incarceration through a petition initiated by the people. MPRCA puts those who are in the process of change into the primary role of their own rehabilitation process by giving them ownership over their path of change. With tens of thousands of adults imprisoned in the state of Michigan, it’s unacceptable that there are less than 1000 people participating in the Pell Grant program to fund prisoners education. MPRCA helps to ‘make prison time productive time’ by incentivizing education, providing earned credits for not only good behavior but also for academic and professional achievement. To learn more about MPRCA please come to our Campaign kickoff event, the Bring them Home Ball on January 25, 2020 at the Black Dragon Motorcycle Club from 5:30p – 9:00p.