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PLN cited in article on Michigan prison and parole reforms

Voice of Detroit, Jan. 9, 2013.
PLN cited in article on Michigan prison and parole reforms - Voice of Detroit 2013


Posted on 01/09/2013 by Diane Bukowski

© 2012 Timothy Murphy, MDOC #183248, Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, Ionia, Michigan

(VOD: this article was forwarded to VOD by writer Mitch McKay in December, 2012.)

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has wasted no time in brandishing his broad budget battle-axe in an effort to chop away at the state’s excessive deficit by, among other things, closing several State Police Posts and cutting public funding for universities by 15 percent, but with little or no positive reform effect on the out-of-control prison spending that has plagued the state for decades.

Snyder’s prison budget for 2011 comes in at just over $2 billion and appears to be the same ol’ story for Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) funding; retaining otherwise ill-conceived, inadequate or grossly underfunded prison programs and services implemented under former MDOC Director Patricia Caruso & Company, while making minor and largely symbolic changes aimed at diminishing the quality of life for prisoners.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, former Governor Jennifer Granholm, who in her tenure as the state’s Governor implemented numerous prison cost cutting measures including closing a total of fourteen (14) of the State’s 47 prisons from 2003 to 2009 (See Prison Legal News [PLN], Dec. 2009, page 46). Snyder’s efforts to solve the prison budget problems appear slightly, if not completely, misguided, perhaps even downright dangerous.

His official budget plan calls for closing one prison for an estimated annual savings of $18.9 million, statewide privatization of the prison food service and prisoner store operations, and reducing additional administrative costs to save another estimated $32 million. However, if Governor Snyder thinks that privatization is the panacea for effective service and savings he obviously hasn’t been paying attention to the countless problems experienced by other prison systems that have privatized prison food service operations (See PLN, April 2010, pgs. 1-7).

This is a potentially dangerous move for staff and prisoners alike in an already volatile, overcrowded prison system, with fewer work opportunities for already hungry prisoners to supplement their daily diets from the overpriced prison canteen.

In August 2010, under pressure from State Rep. John Proos –R, the MDOC implemented a statewide standardized prison food service menu and dramatically reduced the portion size of prisoner meals in an effort to save an estimated $6 million a year (See PLN, Dec. 2010, pg. 46).

Early rumors indicate that under the new privatization of the MDOC food service operations prisoners will receive only one hot meal per day while being provided cold bag meals or meals-ready-to-eat for the other two meals. And for prisoners serving relatively short sentences, up to a few years, this might be acceptable.

However, for prisoners serving Life or long, indeterminate sentences, one must question the wisdom of such an imprudent contract. The more the system squeezes these long-term or Lifer prisoners, the less incentive there is for them to conform and go with the flow. They become embittered and angry at the system that continues to take and take from them. The result is increased violence against staff and other prisoners borne of utter frustration, anger and desperation. This in turn results in increased prison spending to house these now assaultive prisoners in higher custody levels, medical expenses and perhaps even prosecution costs resulting from these otherwise avoidable violent acts of discontent.

In another unwise move touted to save money, Governor Snyder has done away with the Granholm-appointed 7-member Executive Clemency Advisory Council which reviewed some 20 cases a month and made recommendations for or against commutations. Since its inception, to justify the former Governor’s reforms, there have been no commutations for prisoners whose victims have been law enforcement officers or minors; for prisoners who are healthy and have committed armed robbery or criminal sexual conduct; for prisoners who committed first degree murder; or for drug offenders who were responsible for operating a drug ring.

In her November 6, 2010 address to the attendees of the annual Michigan CURE meeting Ms. Barbara Sampson, then Chairwoman of the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board (MPCB), reported that “very few individuals whose sentences were commuted…have been returned to prison. And each of those returned had been serving a sentence for a property crime or [minor] drug offense when his or her sentence was commuted.”

By Executive Order 2011-3, which took effect April 15, 2011, Governor Snyder also abolished the Granholm-appointed 15-member MPCB and replaced it with a new 10-member Michigan Parole Board appointed, not by Governor Snyder but, by the new MDOC Acting Director Richard M. McKeon. (Effective June I, 2011 Jackson County Sheriff Daniel Heyns became the new MDOC Director). Five members of the new 10-member board, are former MPCB members including former MPCB Chairwoman Barbara Sampson, and of the remaining five members four are longtime MDOC staff and the other a former prosecutor.

In the statement accompanying his Executive Order Snyder cites a declining Michigan prison population that has too few parole prospects left among its 44,000 prisoners to justify a 15-member Parole Board, and that the changes he has ordered would “remove an unneeded layer of bureaucracy and save taxpayers money”. Though taking care not to openly criticize Granholm’s Commutation and Parole Reform policies , Snyder’s decision to vest the MDOC Director with unfettered discretion to appoint and control the new 10-member Parole Board, along with the composition of that Board, speaks volumes.

“We need to let the professionals in the Corrections Department determine whether it’s appropriate to release prisoners”, Snyder explained. The prisons have gained 1000 inmates since the advent of Governor Snyder.

No evidence has yet been presented to demonstrate that Granholm’s Prison and Parole Reform policies did anything but save the state money. A November 2009 report by Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the National Prison Project of the ACLU, concluded that Granholm’s efforts to reduce the state prison population without provoking a public backlash provides “a possible model for other states seeking a smarter and more affordable criminal justice policy” (See PLN June 2010, pg. 13). According to Sampson, Granholm designed the former 15-member MPCB to be gradually reduced by attrition to a 10-member Board by 2013 anyway.

Under Granholm’s parole reforms, the last four years of her tenure, an estimated 7000 prisoners (15% of the Michigan prison population) earned release on parole after serving lengthy sentences, and there is simply no evidence to date that suggests these prisoners reoffended at a rate greater than prisoners paroled under pre-Granholm parole practices. A majority of these prisoners had served an estimated 120% of their minimum sentences imposed by the sentencing judge and posed very little, if any, risk of reoffending.

If Governor Snyder is sincere about prison and parole reform and, moreover, saving the State of Michigan money, he will need to consider far bolder measures than those he’s taken thus far. Many prison professionals and those in the relevant news media have offered some rather wise suggestions such as:

* Releasing some or most of the more than 8000 prisoners who have served more than their minimum sentences imposed. Many of these are being held long past their minimum outdates simply because the prison system has failed to provide them with mandatory group therapy, often due to unavailability or overcrowding of such courses.
* Restore the former “good time” credits previously awarded to prisoners who demonstrate positive prison adjustment and self-rehabilitative efforts. Opportunities to earn such credits should be available to those prisoners who are truly serious about their own rehabilitation and desire to return to society as productive citizens.
* Restore the former prisoner personal property policies. This move would allow prisoners to purchase their own clothing rather than requiring the State to spend millions every year on unnecessary prisoner clothing.
* Take swifter internal corrective actions in response to reports of staff abuse of prisoners in an attempt to mitigate the amount of damages later being awarded through successful prisoner lawsuits. The State should not condone and indemnify the criminal behavior of prison guards. From March 2009 through May 2010 PLN reported on a staggering $106.9 million in prisoner-related damage awards (See PLN, March 2009, pg. 41; July 2009, pg. 52; Dec. 2009, pg. 30; Feb. 2010, pg. 38; and May 2010, pg. 24).
* Repeal Michigan’s barbaric Juvenile Lifer law which divests judges of sentencing discretion, forcing them to impose the harshest penalty permitted by Michigan law upon children as young as 14. There are currently more than 300 such prisoners serving natural life in Michigan’s prisons.
* Revise Michigan’s disproportionate statutory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders and limit the new Michigan Parole Board’s use of technical rule violations to return prisoners to custody for minor rule infractions.
* Reform the parole process for Lifer Paroles. There are hundreds of parolable Lifers in Michigan’s prisons who have served decades with positive adjustment and self-rehabilitative efforts that pose little or no risk upon release. Most of these life sentences stem from a single, pivotal act for which the prisoner is deeply remorseful and such prisoners are unlikely to reoffend.

Governor Snyder needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time to stop the pandering to political party pressures and take real action on prison reform. Michigan is one of only a handful of states that hasn’t adopted federal truth-in-sentencing standards which make prisoners eligible for parole after serving 85% of their sentences, currently has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the nation, and is one of only four states that spends more on prisons than higher education. It’s a sad day when prison guards make more money than teachers. Where are Governor Snyder’s priorities?

Sources other than PLN: MDOC F.Y.I. Vol. 23, Issue 7, Feb. 25, 2011; MI-CURE NEWS Nov. 2010; Detroit Free Press Editorial, “Undoing State Parole Reforms Could Cost State In Long Run”, Feb. 9, 2011; Detroit Free Press Editorial, “Bolder Prison Changes Would Save State Millions”, Feb. 19, 2011.

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