Citizens for Prison Reform’s Lois DeMott, a recent Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant recipient, featured on NBC’s Rock Center

The Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation recently awarded a $1,000 grant to Lois DeMott, the founder of Citizens for Prison Reform. I’d interviewed Lois at the time of the award, but I’d decided to hold off posting it for a bit, as she had mentioned to me that she was going to be interviewed by Ted Koppel for a feature on NBC’s news magazine show, Rock Center, about the treatment of the young and mentally ill in our prison system. Well, the feature just aired, and you can watch it by scrolling down to the bottom of this post. First, though, here’s my interview with Lois, which covers everything from her son’s incarceration as an adult, at age 15, to the Resource Guide for Families, Friends and Advocates that our Awesome Foundation grant is helping to distribute in Washtenaw County.

MARK: What can you tell us about Citizens for Prison Reform, the Lansing-based organization which you founded? Why did you feel as though an organization like yours was necessary, and what are the specific reforms that you’re presently working to have implemented?

LOIS: Citizens for Prison Reform is a statewide, family-run organization. We hold our meetings on the third Saturday of each month in Lansing, as it’s a central location. Our main focus is to educate, support, and unify loved ones of prisoners, so that they can better advocate within the system. By doing this, we hope to raise standards within our prisons, and help to keep supports in place for prisoners.

As far as working on reforms within the walls, we are currently working to address the number of mentally ill inmates who are being held in segregation and solitary confinement, and those with mental illness who are at prisons where no therapeutic programming is available to meet their needs. We are also looking at the treatment, or lack of appropriate treatment and care, for juveniles who are within our adult system. The legislature passed legislation for 2013 that states that the mentally ill, and juveniles up to age 19, are not to be housed in segregation, unless it’s “therapeutic”. Michigan Protection and Advocacy, and the Department of Corrections, agreed in a lawsuit settlement less than a year ago that certain punishment (detention/segregation) is not to be utilized if it is found counter-therapeutic. We know these issues have not been fixed or changed.

We are also asking questions around inadequate and untimely medical treatment, particularly the halting of inmates’ medications when they have known illnesses that require it.

We’d also like a policy requiring every facility to have a Release of Information that all inmates are given to sign upon entry, so that their families can know if they have a medical or mental health crisis. This may seem insignificant, but for families, it is imperative that we be able to know about our loved one’s medical issues and mental health. The the Department of Corrections has not made prisoners or families aware that these release forms need to be signed in order for information to be shared concerning a prisoner’s care.

So many areas needing addressed, it’s challenging at times to determine what should take precedence. It’s time that families’ voices are heard, and that our ideas for cost savings and more humane treatment are seriously looked at.

MARK: How did you come to be involved in prison reform?

LOIS: My son (image right), who has had known mental illness since he was very young, was sent into the adult prison system at age 15, with a minimum of five months to serve. I knew nothing about this system. I had never been exposed to it, nor had anyone in our family. Once he was inside, we learned firsthand what happens to children who are sent into the adult system, under adult operating procedures and policies. There is no in-patient mental health care for young prisoners, outside of putting them in with the most mentally ill adults. Then, they are segregated due to their age.

We found other juveniles within the system, who my son would ask me to help because he was concerned about their treatment. We have seen those with severe cognitive impairments, mental illness, and many who simply do not belong in this system. It has been very painful and heart-wrenching to see. They often wind up in segregation, only allowed out of their cell for three ten-minute showers per week. They become more ill, and, as a result, receive more punishment. It becomes a vicious cycle. Furthermore, in some prisons, the officers have no training with regard to mental illness. That’s alarming.

I gathered my family, friends, and prison family networks together for a letter-writing campaign. We sent our letters to Governor Snyder and our legislators. There is little to no rehabilitation occurring currently. There are a lot of tax dollars being wasted, poured down the drain, though. It should matter to all of us how these people are being treated, and what they are receiving to help them while they are inside the system. We must remember that 95-98% of these people will return to our society. There are many things they could be doing, and learning to help our communities out here, our society. Instead, much of their time is spent idle, which leads to more criminal behavior.

MARK: Is there any reason to be optimistic? From what I read, I’m inclined to think that things aren’t moving in the right direction. If I’m not mistaken, for instance, Michigan has the distinction of being a leader among states that spend more on incarceration than on higher education. And the push for more prison privatization, it would seem, continues to build, in spite of the problems we’ve seen across the country, like in Pennsylvania, where we’ve seen judges taking bribes to hand down lengthy sentences to juvenile defendants. With that said, though, I believe I’ve read somewhere that Michigan’s prison population is beginning to decrease. So, is there some cause to be optimistic?

LOIS: We are cautiously optimistic. We certainly have great concerns about many of the cuts the Department has made under the new Director, with little regard to humane treatment, such as the cutting of psychotropic medications and medications for other illnesses in order to save money, the cutting of food portions and nutrition, the inadequate phone service, which they’re now charging more for, and many other things. The good news is the Department has now agreed to begin a dialogue with leaders and families from our organization around some of these issues and concerns, and allow us to share our ideas. This is currently underway. We see many areas where there could be cost savings, and more humane treatment. Director Heyns has made some positive statements, and enacted a few things that have been a positive shift, such as having college courses available for Levels I or II only, talk of shifting the culture, of officers beginning to be mentors and teachers, rather than just being officers for custody. While the treatment of visitors overall has improved recently, we would like to know that prisoners be treated better as well. We are concerned about the Legislature passing a bill that would allow any privatized company to operate a privatized facility if they can save 10% beyond what the Department is spending. GeoGroup has had three opportunities in Michigan, and they have not proven that they can provide quality, humane treatment, or cost savings. We have seen this from many other states, and private prison companies as well.

MARK: What’s your role within the organization?

LOIS: I am the Co-Founder, and President. We had around six individuals who researched, proofread, and helped with the initial letter writing campaign January 2011 (MLK weekend). I consider all of them Co-Founders. Without their help, it wouldn’t have happened. The organization was not planned… it was born out of this letter campaign. We turned our pain into passion and purpose.

MARK: Tell us about the project that will be funded by the $1,000 Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant.

LOIS: We will begin with Washtenaw County, and obtain public records on inmates who have just been sentenced into prison. They will receive a postcard with information about our Resource Guide for Families, Friends and Advocates, and information on our meetings and our organization, as well as other resources to help them as they enter the prison system. Our goal is to get this information to them so they can share it with their support systems prior to being transported into the system, so families and prisoners can know how to navigate up front. We will be working with the Washtenaw County Jail to provide hard copies of the guide that inmates can review while they are waiting to be moved. We are hoping they will work collaboratively with us to provide inmates and their families what they should have up front prior to entering the system. If families do not have computer access, we will mail them a hard copy of the guide. As we set up this project and it is running smoothly, we will then use funds to move the project out to other counties.

As of January 13, there were 43,442 inmates in the system, and approximately 9,000 people are sentenced to prison each year. So we know that we’ll need manpower and significant funding to reach out to all counties in doing this work.

Now, here’s the piece with Ted Koppel, which aired yesterday on Rock Center.

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[note: The photo above is of Lois DeMott’s son, Kevin, who was arrested at 13 for armed robbery and imprisoned at 15 as an adult. The image, acquired by way of Freedom of Information Act, was taken at the Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility, where Kevin, who was 19 at the time, had been restrained to prevent injury. The complete story can be found at the Detroit Free Press.]

[note: Video of Lois presenting to the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation board can be found here.]

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  1. Edward
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    One more instance of how being “tough on crime” doesn’t work.

  2. Elliott
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    How incredibly tragic. I had no idea that so many young offenders sent into adult facilities were kept in isolation. My heart goes out to the DeMott family, and all the others dealing with this.

  3. Meta
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Let’s not forget Davontae Sanford.

  4. Knox
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I cannot imagine what it must be like for a parent to have a child, regardless of the age, inside the “justice” system. What I’ve read on this site alone is enough to break my heart. And it makes it all the more incomprehensible to me that we’re talking about privatizing our prisons. If it’s cost-savings we want, let’s release the non-violent drug offenders, and let’s restructure the whole system to help those young offenders who might still have an opportunity to turn their lives around.

    Thank you for your work, Lois.

  5. EOS
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Juveniles are segregated for their protection. Otherwise, a short prison term is a life sentence because they become HIV positive.

  6. anonymous
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    That’s bullshit. If we cared about their protection, we wouldn’t put them in adult facilities.

  7. EOS
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    When they commit adult level crimes, it is also important to keep them away from juveniles who are in the system for minor infractions such as truancy or running away.

  8. anonymous
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    “Adult level crimes” like a coerced, mentally ill 13 year old taking a BB gun into a Little Ceasars and then running away before he could rob them?

  9. Posted March 28, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    No matter your feelings about the Catholic Church today Pope Francis says Holy Thurs mass at a juvenile prison in Rome. (Yes there are juvenile prisons in Italy!!!) During that mass, the “priest” washes the feet of some attendants as Jesus is written to have done at the Last Supper.
    The Pope chose to wash the feet of the kids in prison, instead of priests and servers.

    I have been one of the biggest critics of the church in the past decade.
    But this is an example to me of what a church should be teaching…..and prison wardens should be listening.

  10. Meta
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Video of Ted Koppel being interviewed about his investigation into juvenile incarceration.

  11. Posted May 29, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I Lost My Appetite
    I once said that if I had been a slave back in the days of the antebellum South, I would have ended my bondage the moment I realized what it was. Now, held in prison beyond my out-date, I am faced with servitude that borders on slavery. (It is a fair analogy, if for no other reason than each institution practices a systemic degrading and dehumanizing of its captives, and does it with such disdain for them as to treat them thus for as long as they wish.)
    This effect is achieved by the State of Michigan under Governor Snyder, with the support of this United States government under President Obama. Here, in their state prisons, they hold people—and by extension, their immediate families—in continuous servitude, often for no other reason than they have the power to do so. Such arrogance amounts to an abuse of power, which is always a poor excuse. Once a man has done all that is asked of him, and he continues to be held in bondage, then that man becomes the victim, and the State becomes the perpetrator.
    In August, 1996, I was charged with open murder. Subsequently convicted of second-degree murder, I was sentenced to (parolable) life in prison. At the time of my offense, I was 44 years of age, had no criminal record as a juvenile or an adult, and was working three jobs—as a laborer in a Kalamazoo plastics factory, a substitute teacher in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, and a graduate assistant at Western Michigan University where I was pursuing a master’s degree in Fine Arts.
    Let’s take a step back: On February 2, 1996, I was inducted into the Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society. Later that spring, I purchased a home on a land contract in Woodland Park, a resort community in Newaygo County. There, and in Kalamazoo, I was active working with children and the elderly in my communities. I was also busy raising my own children and grandchildren.
    Upon my conviction, I was refused re-enrollment into WMU’s graduate program. After much persistence, and with the help of Arnie Johnston, then chairman of WMU’s English Department, I was accepted back into the graduate program in 1999. A year later, I achieved a master’s degree from Western Michigan University.
    In 2001, I wrote a book of poetry, “Episodes.” I followed up with three full-length plays and four one-acts. In 2003, I was accepted as a certified braillist by the Library of Congress. In 2005, I published my first novel, “The Pooka and the Paranormal.” Three years later, I published a second novel, “The King of Pearl.” In 2010, I wrote a song for my home town, “Marching As One,” which participants sang at the dedication ceremony honoring Woodland Park as a Michigan historical site.
    In 2013, I wrote my first screenplay, “The King of Pearl,” adapted from my novel of the same name. Add to that: I still own my home in Newaygo County and have kept the taxes paid on that property (house and five lots) these past 17 years. Every spring, since my incarceration, my mother, who lives two blocks from my home, has planted petunia in the flowerbed beneath my front window.
    (We are born innocent. From birth, we chip away at that innocence—with our lies and profanities, drinking, sex, etc. In our assaults upon it, innocence will hide from us, but it will never abandon us. It is in the last breath we breathe.
    We are all at the centers of our own worlds, and each of us is spinning. On August 6, 1996, I spun out of control. When I committed my crime—I killed Lillie Blue—I descended to the lowest place a man can go. There was no innocence in sight, only shame. And lo these past 17 years, I have slowly walked back my days. I searched for my innocence, found it, uncovered it, and nurtured it with prayers and good deeds. I reached out to people in my family, my community, and around the world. I wrote songs to uplift them, articles to enlighten them, and novels to entertain and inspire them. In my prison community, where there are many hungry men, I tutored, and listened, and encouraged. And with money I earned, I cooked meals and fed over a thousand prisoners. In my prayers, I have vowed that I would rather die than ever harm another human being.)
    The sentencing judge advised me that I would be eligible for parole in 2013. Mine is a sentence that is supposed to end. Yet, It goes on and on, sustained by custodial parties who are uncompelled to act out of reason, preferring rather to submit themselves to a punishment regime that is out of touch with modern societies—even out of touch with more progressive American states.
    I have served my minimum sentence as prescribed by the courts; I have paid my debt to society. I am 61 years of age. I completed all R&GC recommendations. I followed all of the rules.
    I am not a danger to society. I am a father, a brother, a son. I have the skills set necessary to be a successful parolee—family, home, job prospects, good health, and a strong community spirit. Yet, parole board representative, Jayne Price, opened my April 22, 2013 hearing—before I had uttered a word—by flatly stating, “There is not much chance of you getting a parole because you have not served enough time.” It was the equivalent of a judge telling a defendant before his trial begins, “You’re guilty, and headed for the gallows.” This is what the Michigan Parole Board offered up as a “fair hearing.” It was something out of the Dark Ages.
    (Even if Ms. Price had no intention of being fair, in a “democratic society,” where a man’s life and the life of his family is at stake, she might have offered up the pretense of fairness.)
    The State of Michigan invests the power of life and death in people who fail to understand a simple concept about second-degree life: It is not meant to be a life sentence unless the defendant/prisoner makes it so. A first-degree life means mandatory life. A second-degree life does not. The tail of a second-degree lifer’s sentence is life—similar to how 30 is the far end of a 15-30. On a 15-30, if a prisoner acts a fool, he might have to do 20. If he acts a complete fool, he might have to do 30. I did not act a fool at all. Unless they have something else against me, the law clearly states—despite Ms. Price’s pronouncement –that 17 years is enough to grant me a parole.
    Judge Schma, who sentenced me to life, said I have a chance to serve 15 years, plus two for the gun. It is implied in his sentence that if the State wants to keep me longer, it can, but it does not have to. What is not implied is whether the State has to have a good reason to keep me longer. “More time” is not a reason. “More time” should be the consequences once you’ve found a good reason. Jayne Price and her cohorts could not find a good reason to keep me imprisoned, so they simply hit me with the consequence.
    Throughout my hearing, Ms. Price continued to tell me how well I was doing—with my programs, my block reports, my work, my behavior, etc. She even acknowledged that the law provides for my release after 15 years. “But,” she adds in so many words, “you have not served enough time for me.” That sounds like a personal matter. It has nothing to do with justice, or the law. It is apparent that the Michigan Parole Board has embraced this fallacy: They can turn parolable life into mandatory life simply by ignoring the difference.
    On April 24, 2013, two days after that strange interview with Ms. Price, the Michigan Parole Board denied my parole. They informed me that my next interview is scheduled for August 18, 2018. Nothing more can be expected by 2018, except that I will be five years older and five years less able to support myself and my family.
    (I had hoped that Ms. Price and the Michigan Parole Board would free my children. But they appear as unconscious of my babies and their needs as they are or the notion that “mercy seasons justice.”)
    Perhaps the parole board—the prison system, itself—looks at me, a convicted felon, and only sees someone with ready-made grips. No matter what I accomplish—no matter if I win a Pulitzer Prize—they will point to my grips and smile at how easily they can continue to hold onto me, though I have given them no reason to hold me, and every reason to let me go.
    Those grips be damned. They are not meant to be there, anyway. They are plastered on by a system that has become accustomed to taking harsh liberties with its prisoner population—liberties against its own citizens that, if committed in other countries, would be called “human rights abuses.”
    America, you call yourself “The Land of the Free,” yet you imprison more people—and for longer periods of time—than any other nation on Earth. You big phony. You should be ashamed. It is time you opened your gulags and let deserving man and women go home to their families. Your prison system has become an embarrassment to democracies worldwide, and a source of comfort to despots.
    Today, I cease my participation in this State’s prastorian incarceration of me. I end my bondage to the State of Michigan on behalf of myself, my family, and all of the other state prisoners and their families—men and women who have dutifully served their time as prescribed by the courts, and are now being held beyond their out-dates by what has become a bloated enterprise, operated out of cruelty and greed, dismissive of Americans’ much-touted belief in second chances. I would rather die and feed this Earth than willingly give another drop of blood to such a despotic regime.
    (The slave of the antebellum South was not just a slave to this master’s voice, he was a slave to life no matter how depraved that life had become. That is why slavery lasted in this country for over 250 years.
    I am not a slave. Life means nothing without freedom. I had a debt to pay. I paid it. Now, do the right thing and free me, or you can let me die.)
    I want to live as much as the next man. But I cannot, with a clear conscience, continue to live in bondage once I have dutifully earned my freedom. I have earned my freedom. I will not let the remainder of me become fodder to sustain this corrupt prison industry. Today, death does not scare me nearly so much as does the prospect of being complicity in a State’s terror against its own poor, and its poorly-represented.
    From this day forward, I shall not eat another morsel of food lest that food, itself, exist in a state of liberation. Patrick Henry said to this nation during its bondage to the British Empire, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I concur.

    -Larry R. Carter

    If you feel and understand this letter, share it, and I thank you in advance.

    Larry R. Carter #258499
    G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility
    3510 North Elm Road
    Jackson, Michigan 49201-8877
    Facebook: Larry R. Carter

  12. Jackie
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know Mr. Carter but I do agree with some of what he has said. This isn’t about the crime. This is about the system. Inmates are sentenced the harshest in the nation in Michigan, which they are now going to review the guidelines. My issue is with the parole board as well. There are some inmates who were working, educated, family men, with no prior record, prior to incarceration. These men try to do the right thing by accepting responsibility for their crime, serving their minimum sentence (with good behavior), which doesn’t count, and complete all there RG&C recommendations during prison, only to always be denied parole at their ERD. It’s never enough. The Parole Board will find something else. It is “personal”. I’ve heard they’ve told inmates “Your more concerned with getting out” and deny their parole based on that. Of course they want to get out. They have family, wives , parents, and children, and need to support them. Yet it doesn’t matter to the parole board. Is there anybody that gets out before there ERD? Other prisoners will tell you to expect at least a year past your ERD. The system is like a pit boss at a casino, they don’t want you to leave the table. Well, the prison doesn’t want you to leave the system. They don’t care if a prisoner gets out or receives rehabilitation. The behavior of correction personnel is sadistic as well. There is no doubt an abuse of power. MDOC is currently detaining many parolees at the Detroit Reentry facility who have waited over a year to take a substance abuse program that does not even exist! A facility that quote “enhances parole success.” They are holding them unnecessarily, driving prison costs up, but could that be because they need the numbers to receive funding? Offenders are a statistic now, not a human being. Michigan spends more money on the prisons than education. Residents need to understand the corruption that is going on. These are your dollars and they’re not at work for you. They do hold you in servitude (penal, intellectual and political).

  13. Karen Bateman
    Posted July 24, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Larry,

    I am so sorry about what you’re going through. You sound really discouraged. It seems like you have done a lot to help other people. Even though your life is hard, you’ve given of yourself and made a difference. I’m going to say some prayers for you not only that you will be treated fairly but also that your discouragement will ease. Karen

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