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.
[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.]