What it’s really like in Michigan’s prisons

    Last night, I reprinted a letter sent by a Michigan school Superintendent to our Governor, asking that his school be converted over to a prison. Given that we fund corrections better than we do education in this state, he argued that it would be in the best interests of his students. He was clearly attempting to employ satire, but it led to a real discussion in the comments section as to what Michigan’s prisons are truly like, and whether we, as tax payers, pay for prisoners to have cable television, attend college, etc. Fortunately, our friend Natalie Holbrook, who works as a prisoner advocate, stepped in to dispel some common myths. Here’s what she had to say.

    We might be spending more annually per prisoner than other nearby states, but this money is not being spent to provide extra special amenities to people in prison in MI. I know men with severe and persistent mental illness who have languished in 23 to 24 hour solitary confinement due to either being undiagnosed or lack of appropriate care. I know the families of people who have died in solitary due to inappropriate health care services and/or mental health services and custody staff who were unwilling to intervene and do what was right.

    Prison is not a cake walk. Prison is harsh. I do not consider the superintendent’s letter to be satirical; it is ill-informed and factually inaccurate.

    In Michigan cable is paid for by the prisoner benefit fund; it is not paid for by the state. There is no internet. There are no high tech computer labs. People go to prison illiterate and come out the same way. You can only earn a degree if you have a family that can help you pay for correspondence courses. And correspondence courses cost a lot of cash. There is no access to “free” college. There are few programs (though some very good volunteer run programming does happen) other than the psychological programs that must be completed for a person to get paroled.

    The small privileges people in prison have are not what costs the state so much to keep them locked up.

    However, personnel costs a crap load. Many communities in this state rely on the prison in their midst for jobs…this is a problem.

    Right now the state is spending between 1.20 and 1.80 per prisoner for all three meals a day. Tell me what kind of food you get for that kind of money? I would hope that students would never be fed the soy based, filler-filled food people in prison are fed.

    If you really want to go after prison spending, then we have to go after the public’s perception of people in prison and crime. Recently, some CA prisoners were transferred to the private prison in Baldwin, MI. The people of Baldwin rejoiced at the incoming prisoners cause it meant jobs for a struggling community. We have to challenge this perspective and come up with viable job options that do not rely on the mass caging of human beings.

    Some of the most costly prisons in MI are in the upper peninsula, but those are not the prisons that are ever on the chopping block for closure, and guess why? Jobs.

    Furthermore, if we are ever going to effectively de-populate prisons we have to talk frankly about institutional racism and the failed war on drugs. Our legislators never talk about race and class as they create policies that directly impact prison growth. This shit is huge, people, and we, the pubic, are responsible for some of the conditions that lead to the over-reliance on prisons.

    If you believe in locking people up for being addicted to crack, or peddling crack, or stealing to feed their addictions (rather than treatment, education, community treatment for mental illness, etc) then prisons will continue to be over-utilized and the go-to for job creation in rural communities.

    I want to see prison used as a scarce resource that stops sucking out the cash of the general fund. I want to see more spent on education. This does not mean taking away the scarce resources prisoners have access to. However, it does mean reducing the population drastically and ultimately many hundreds of jobs would be lost or transformed into community, reintegration jobs.

    And, just so you know, the prison libraries are not all that. They are required by law to have legal libraries… this is useful to many, but it is not the kind of educational paradise inferred in the super’s letter.

    This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Michigan, Other, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

      39 Comments

      1. Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        And, while we’re on the subject of Michigan prisons, if you aren’t yet acquainted with the case of Davontae Sanford, I’d appreciate it if you took a moment to get involved.

      2. Dirtgrain
        Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        It would be nice to have some more sources to figure out what is true about prisoner amenities–I’ve heard many conflicting ideas. I don’t know where one would look to verify Natalie’s claims. Does anybody know of other good sources?

      3. Real Deal McSeal
        Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        Dirtgrain all you need to know about what prison is really like can be found right here. Ain’t no school cafeteria line, is if?

      4. Knox
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        That was great, Real Deal McSeal. Thanks.

      5. JSam
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        Natalie and Mark, thank you. I get so tired of the know-nothings babbling on about prisons being easy and believing what they see in movies in the other extreme. Prison is HELL.
        Although the superintendent in the previous article was making his point about costs and priorities, he too perpetuates the stereotype of prison being easy.
        Costs rise for lot of reasons but one is the the whole PR issue.
        It’s my opinion that they should actually GIVE inmates more tv. From inmates I’ve hard if they had something to do, violence would decrease.
        And if violence decreases, we don’t need so many COs.

        Technology? Prisons use NONE. Paying a CO to check IDs instead of using technology is stupid.
        And how do you get a job if you don’t know how to use a computer? You don’t.

        The reality is that the prison industry WANTS their inmates to return. If not, there are no jobs for them. This is a industry that is fighting for failure. When an inmate fails, it’s a sure job for another CO.

      6. JSam
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

        Natalie, I should mention that the person I know in prison sent me the label from oatmeal in the kitchen. “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” is clearly printed on the label.

      7. Posted May 27, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        Dirtgrain, go out and ask around for people who’ve been to prison. They’re not hard to find.

      8. Jules
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Thank you so much, Natalie. I, too, was pretty disheartened and pissed off when I read this piece that’s been going around. How do we help our kids get the education they deserve by pitting them against people in prison? It’s just another flavor of class warfare amongst the most vunerable of us.

      9. fleursmaintenant
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        i was thrown by the super’s letter. thanks for expanding the conversation, natalie.

      10. JSam
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Natalie, I wish you would send this to the Detroit Free Press.
        This is a valuable piece.
        Thanks.

      11. Natalie Holbrook
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        Hey, Mark. Thanks for putting my comment out on a post. I am glad for the positive feedback. I do stand corrected on one point I raised; the DOC actually spends just over $2.00 a day per prisoner on meals…
        A good editorial by Jeff Gerritt of the Detroit Free Press on realistic prison cuts can be found at http://www.capps-mi.org/Base%20prison%20cuts%20on%20reality.htm

        Dirtgrain, the MDOC functions under its own set of policy directives. You can read about the Prisoner Benefit Fund in PD 04.02.110. Go to the DOC’s Policy Directive link at http://www.michigan.gov/corrections/0,1607,7-119-1441_44369—,00.html
        You can also read about the law libraries, hobby crafts, prisoner property, etc in their unique PDs; you can find those PDs by going to the link above.

        For those who don’t go to the policies, here’s the PD’s sentence about cable TV, “The PBF shall be used to fund cable/satellite television services; however, premium movie channels (e.g., HBO, Showtime, Cinemax) are prohibited and shall not be funded.” And here’s the sentence from the PBF PD explaining that state funds are not used for it, “State appropriated funds shall not be used to fund the PBF.”

        The following description is taken directly from the MDOC’s website; it explains the academic programming the state offers:

        “Prisoner Education includes Adult Basic Education (ABE) and General Education Development (GED) programs. Students complete learning activities to improve reading comprehension in order to take and pass the GED test.

        English as a Second Language programming is offered to prisoners whose primary language is other than English. Title I programming is also offered for prisoners from 17 to 21 years of age.

        Special Education

        Special education programs and services are offered to prisoners 21 years of age or younger who have been diagnosed with a disability.

        Distance Learning

        Prisoners are encouraged to take correspondence courses through post-secondary schools, at their own expense.”

        Check out the fees for Ohio University’s College Program for the Incarcerated at http://www.outreach.ohio.edu/cpi/fees.htm

        I also encourage folks to talk to your neighbors, some will have spent time inside, about what prison life is really like. Or, come out to an Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative Advisory Council Meeting in Washtenaw county (you can email me for details nholbrook@afsc.org) in order to meet some re-entering citizens and learn about the obstacles they face as they try to reintegrate.

      12. Mr. X
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        How in the world can they feed a grown adult on $1.80 a day? I’d love to hear how that’s accomplished. Does anyone know where one could find specifics.

      13. Jsam
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Mr X,
        You will NEVER find specifics on a prison. Never. It their dirty little secret and they keep it that way.

        But FYI…thinned out starches primarily. Much unidentifiable. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Very small portion on their tray. They cannot scoop their own food of course. It is limited. Kool aid with a meal was stopped-too costly.

      14. Kim
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I know that things aren’t lavish in prison by any means. It’s my understanding, however, that most have weights. And I don’t bring this up because I think that inmates should be stripped of that right, as I think exercise is extremely can play an extremely important roll in the recover process. I’m just having a hard time reconciling the images I’ve seen of large, muscular men leaving prison with this idea that they’re only fed $1.50 or so a day of thinned-out starches. If it were true that we only spending 50-cents per meal, wouldn’t inmates be coming out emaciated? And I don’t mean this as a challenge to Natalie. I’m just trying to understand.

      15. Natalie Holbrook
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        I have a longer comment awaiting moderation. In that comment I corrected myself on the cost per prisoner per day for food; it is actually a little over $2.00 per person. Prisoners can buy food from the store.

        While some folks work out a lot and get all strong and buff, not all do. Kim, I’m wondering where you’ve seen the image of these strong men? I’ve seen a few come out really buff, but for the most part, many men and women I’ve met coming out of prison are average all around.

        At AFSC we work to encourage balanced exercise (cardio and weight training) and healthy eating even with limited options. I also want to stress the Prisoner Benefit Fund pays for all sports and weight equipment; it is not paid for with state funds.

      16. JSam
        Posted May 27, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        A young man I know has lost a lot of weight in prison.
        And we send money to several young men so that they can buy something to eat at commissary. However, the commissary stuff is junk, off brand and outdated.

        On a visit we bought a young man a baloney sandwich from the vending machine in the visting room.
        It had mold in it when he took a bite.

      17. Posted May 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        Kim, you don’t know anyone that’s been in prison?

        No offense, but they are everywhere, and no, they usually don’t come out buff, unless they went in buff. Usually they come out a complete psychological wreck.

      18. Del
        Posted May 28, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

        A friend of mine went to prison for selling cocaine. He was a biker. He got together with the other bikers in prison, shot a lot of steroids and now his biceps are as big as my waist. He got out and he is doing OK last I heard.
        It happens.
        I also know a parole officer show says prisoners basically do whatever they want as long as they are not too showy about it.
        There are drugs all over. In prison too.

      19. Del
        Posted May 28, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        Oh I also worked with a guy just out of prison. He said he hated it on the outside. He was a cook in prison. He said he liked the routine of it.
        So he got on some drugs and for parole violation, he got himself put back in the joint.
        Maybe MarkMaynard.com could sponsor a program for us. “Meet a Prisoner Day” in Ypsilanti.
        Also know a guy who was a baritone and sang at the Met who got in prison somehow. Wrong place at the wrong time.
        Oh boy. I’ve got some stories. If you want to meet prisoners folks, I could introduce you. They don’t mind talking about it.
        Then there was the Mexican guy who bought the cocaine for his “vieja” and got caught. Went to jail for love, you know. I’ve got stories.
        I know cons.

      20. Brainless
        Posted May 28, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Google “prison loaf” or “nutraloaf”. All will be revealed.

      21. Posted May 28, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        For additional flavor: My understanding is that in the corrections budget just passed by your legislature, the prison stores and the food service in the MDOC will be privitized. We’ll have to see how this actually changes the quality of the food.

        I’m expecting this change to be another blunder. Given that most of the labor is from prisoners, it’s hard to see where the bidders are going to squeeze out their profit – except the obvious. Of course, the total health and safety costs of these types of decisions are very difficult to quantify; but, I’d be surprised if this change doesn’t simply cost more within a few years.

        I voted against the budget (HB 4326), but there were all sorts of little gems like this rolled up into an omnibus budget in order to obscure the details ($30B+ in one bill). Usually, the legislature would take up a corrections budget on its own and allow for debate and amendments on just these sorts of specific issues. As it turned out, Democrats were limited to a few speakers and this decision to privatize was only briefly highlighted by Rep. Lindberg (D- Marquette).

        Single-party rule is quite efficient, injustice and ignorance notwithstanding.

      22. JSam
        Posted May 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Del,
        Your friends have a different story than the experience that those we help in the sytem have.
        If you are found with drugs you get a LONG sentence and sent to the closed prison….23 hr solitary.
        Drugs come in through COs. Yet they continuously harrass the inmates about it. They never look at the obvious.
        I have NEVER known an inmate who could “do whatever they wanted” in prison. If you are not where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there….you go to the hole. Simple as that.

      23. Del
        Posted May 29, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        Yeah. I used to work with an ex prison guard. Probably the strangest guy I ever met. I asked him what the prisoners did all day. He said they throw feces everywhere and screamed a lot. Maybe that is why he quit.
        It seems like for a while there everybody I knew was in prison. Mostly for rape and drugs. I haven’t seen them since, so I suspect they never got out or got our momentarily and got thrown right back in. It must be an unpleasant place, but they go right back to it over and over.

      24. JSam
        Posted May 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        Del, Not every inmate returns to prison.
        Certainly the odds are agaisnt them…don’t hire a felon, blah, blah……
        so let’s see if they cannot be hired how do they survive?
        Regardless many do stay out. What certainly helps is family support.

        I knew a young man 18 years old who was in for drugs and when he got out one year later, NO one picked him up. He waited and waited. No one came. Can you imagine how you dream of getting out and going home and then NO one even shows up to take you home? In the afternoon, if no one ever shows up, the prison takes them to the bus station and gives them a small amount of money for a ticket somewhere. Put yourself in that position and see how well YOU would do.

      25. EOS
        Posted May 31, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        You can easily survive on less than $2 a day for food. Ramen noodles, tuna casserole, spaghetti, hot dogs… Millions of people eat less than $2 a day and they haven’t committed any felonies.

      26. Posted May 31, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        Wow, you truly are an asshole.

      27. Interrobang
        Posted May 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        You can easily survive on less than $2 a day for food. Ramen noodles, tuna casserole, spaghetti, hot dogs…

        You can’t make a day’s worth of tuna casserole for $2; a can of tuna is about $1 unless you hit the specials.

        You also can’t live on ramen and hotdogs indefinitely, unless you want to be malnourished, unhealthy, and probably fat to boot. I notice there are also no vegetables whatsover on your “I’ve never had to do it, how hard can it be?” menu. The things you’ve specified so far are basically non-nutritious empty calories and grease, and you’d be lucky if you didn’t wind up with scurvy, rickets, and ten other deficiency diseases from eating like that.

        I’ve been that broke. Eating that kind of “poverty food” makes you fat and causes all your muscle mass to shrivel away, is hell on your teeth, your hair, and your nails, and will make you so sick you can’t work by the time you’re forty, unless you’re lucky enough to have gone into it at age 18 or older, healthy, robust, and well-nourished.

        And by the time you’ve gone through a couple years of looking like that, nobody will want to hire you because you look like shit. You know what is a major obstacle to poor and/or formerly homeless people getting jobs? Their teeth. Just try getting any sort of a living-wage job when you’ve got obviously missing or rotten teeth…which is exactly what you get if you live for years on a diet of mostly sugars, starches, and fats.

      28. Posted May 31, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        It’s Unthinkable that anyone should live on $2 a day, prisoner or not, but I guess since poor people are lazy, it’s what they deserve. Too bad such a shitty diet leads to so many health problems. Without insurance poor people will just have to die. It’s what they deserve, right, bigot EOS?

      29. EOS
        Posted June 1, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Prisons buy in bulk and make meals in mass quantities. It is not difficult to provide adequate nutrition for less than $2 a day, including protein, fruit, vegetables, and starches. I ate on less than $2 a day when I was an undergrad with no health insurance. It never occurred to me to commit a felony to upgrade my living conditions.

      30. Pete Martel
        Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        hahaha. eos, you should go commit a non-violent felony and upgrade your conditions then. good employment rates, three meals a day, and only a $5 co-pay for health care. what’s keeping you from joining such a great life? think of the rewards! idiot.

      31. JSam
        Posted June 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

        EOS, and you went to school in 1950.

      32. richj
        Posted November 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        I’ve been to prison several times and believe me, it’s no picnic. I finally became willing to do whatever it took to stay clean. I have a lot of family support, thank God, and I’ve been out of prison for three years now. I’m not willing to give up the life I have now just to get high. I’m grateful to God that I finally came to my senses. As to EOS, he sounds like a pompous asshole who should’nt talk about things he knows nothing about!

      33. Posted October 12, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        I did 15 years in prison, it was no picnic.
        you have a lot of racist officers that cannot stand prisoners but yet they pick a job in this environment. the simple matter is this. to stay out a prisoner need a job, simple as that most will not return if they had work. you have a few that’s fine it’s better to be in prison then they don’t have to make choices on their lives. but you have quite a few like me, if given a job to support myself will not come back I think everyone should spend at least 2 years in prison then give your comment thank you for your time

      34. calvin
        Posted August 24, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

        Look i am 22 years old i suerved 2years 6 months in prison i made it off parole after 2 more years witch im very happy about,as for the condisions in prison well you might as well be in a 3erd world country its horrible i worked in the kitchen an seen prodocts that ehere made by compenys that make dog food an cat food an cat food we the priseners pay for 99 percent of what we get as for the our payments for the work we do is less then 3 doller a month

      35. SamIAm
        Posted October 22, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        It’s true about the prison food being “Not for Human Consumption” and 3 meals equals $1.27. Cost per day came from a prison guard and the “Not for Human Consumption” came from 2 sources- an ex-prisoner who worked in the kitchen and a 2 kitchen workers from the outside. My son is a prisoner and on our last visit he told me that the meals are enough for a 5 year old. He is not a picky eater but says the food is terrible. He is in level 1 which is the lowest offenders/non violent crimes; but in the 11 months he has been incarcerated there have been approximately 120 stabbings. There are gangs who target one person. The stories he tells us are horrific and I pray every day for his safety. It’s really bad and things are allowed that should never happen. Prisoners are definitely set up to fail.

      36. LeeAnnI
        Posted November 19, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        My son just went to prison he just turned 23 and has only been there 2 months (he has a 2 yr sentence)
        But I can tell you if he could turn back time he would give anything to be back working and living in the “real” world. It is very loud all the time and he has already lost 30 lbs and is very depressed……(today he said 3 fights broke out) I understand it isn’t Boy Scout Camp or the Hilton. He is there for something he did that was against (the law)……
        Lucky for him he ready knows GOD and has family support.
        When a loved one goes to prison there are so many people that are effected…..it has been the worse thing I have ever been through (and it wasn’t even my personal journey)……
        We sent my son a “secure pack” it cost $90 and it was a bunch of crappy food that wasn’t that good. (But he will be in heaven just to have a little extra something to eat)……I could have bought the same stuff for $40.
        All I can do from here is pray for my son in hope that when he gets out he hasn’t changed too much by being in such surroundings.
        I dated a correction officer and have friends who are correction officers……
        I don’t think any of them would think prisoners have it easy or the food is great.
        Thanks for letter me put a post (prayers to those who have experienced prison…..wether it be from living there as an inmate, family member or working within the 4 walls.)

      37. SMKEN
        Posted December 5, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

        My husband is in prison for a crime he did not cmmitt. Yes, I know that’s what they are all saying. Well you might look a little closer into our justice system.
        Also inmates have to pay a co pay of $5 for medical visits to the infirmary. They do not have access to all medication, their is no hospice care and the meals are now being serviced by a company called Aramark.
        If you want these prisoners to come out and be productive adults, there has to be changes. You have to empower inmates through education, counseling and earned Family visits, this is especially true for prisoners who have been behind bars for long periods. Re Entry programs are essential.
        If you just open the cell door and push them out, most likely they will re offend.
        Privatezation of Prisons has been a lucrative business and reaches all the way to the Hill.

      38. Dog
        Posted August 26, 2014 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Eat maggots. Get beaten. Work for thirty-five cents an hour.

      39. D3
        Posted October 9, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        I wanted to thank you for this excellent, insightful article. Please continue your coverage of the Michigan prison industry.

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      1. [...] particularly interested in the panel on mental health and incarceration, which features our friend Natalie Holbrook.Oh, and happy Robert E. Lee Day to all the racists in the audience. This entry was posted in Civil [...]

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