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.