By Barbara R. Levine/Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending
Legislators agree we should spend less on corrections, but are reluctant to make the fundamental choices -- like reinstating the sentencing commission, reforming parole practices and restoring sentencing credits -- that could safely reduce the prisoner population by thousands and reduce spending by the hundreds of millions. So, to contain its $2 billion budget, the Michigan Department of Corrections has taken steps that are not only hard on prisoners and their families, but are ultimately counterproductive.
Research shows that family contact reduces recidivism, yet family ties have a low priority when cost-cutting decisions are made. Visiting hours statewide have been reduced by more than 20 percent to lessen the need for visiting room staff. The Mound facility in Detroit was chosen for closing, although it meant more than 1,000 prisoners, the majority of them from the greater Detroit area, were dispersed to facilities all over the state, making it far more difficult for their families to see them.
In a similar vein, the rates for prisoner telephone calls were increased by roughly 80 percent to create a “special equipment fund.” For FY 2013, the MDOC plans to spend $19.7 million from phone surcharges on security equipment. For some unexplained reason, another $8.4 million from the surcharge will go to the vendor. When rates go up, the number of calls that prisoner families can afford goes down.
Living conditions inside the prisons have deteriorated. Overcrowding is the norm, with eight people squeezed into space meant for four. Prisoners must buy their own hygiene supplies and over the counter medications. Toilet paper is strictly rationed. In the name of “operating efficiencies," the quantity and quality of food have been cut substantially. This leaves people hungry or drives them to buy chips and candy at the prison store – hardly desirable in a system trying to save money on health care. Recent notices advise that salt and pepper will no longer be served in the chow halls.
Institutional programming has also declined. Despite the proven connection between increased education and reduced recidivism, the state funds no post-secondary education and relatively little vocational training. The proportion of prisoners taking vocational programs has dropped from 10 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 2011. Prisoners have few opportunities to demonstrate responsibility, learn skills or develop confidence in their ability to achieve something positive. While some have jobs or prepare for GED exams, idleness is rampant.
The issue of clothing epitomizes why purported efficiencies should be closely examined.
Until 1998, prisoners could wear their personal clothing. It allowed them to retain some measure of individuality and was safer for staff. If there’s a fight, it’s easier to identify the guy in the red shirt than the guy in the blue uniform.
Allowing lower security prisoners to again wear personal clothes could save nearly $4 million.
Eliminating the $575 annual dry cleaning allowance for roughly 7,000 custody personnel would save another $4 million a year. This allowance is essentially a bonus since officers’ uniforms are machine-washable.
So, instead of this potential total savings of $8 million, the MDOC has cut each prisoner’s uniforms from three to two. The department estimates this will save about $1.1 million.
The constant squeezing of prisoners and their families causes resentment and cynicism. We talk about preparing people to re-enter the wider community, but we don’t encourage them to be productive members of the prison community or to maintain connections with the free world. We are moving toward the human equivalent of factory farming, where the only concern is how to contain the maximum number of people as cheaply as possible while meeting the minimum legal requirements for food, space and health care.