Michigan has dramatically lowered the rate of inmates returning to prison
IONIA—Taking a break from his automotive technology class in this Michigan prison town, Kevin Fabus looked ahead to a day etched into his brain: Jan. 2, 2023. His parole date.
He saw nothing but hope.
“I’m not going to stop until I have a job when I get out,” he said. “With what I am learning here, I am not going to fail again.”
Michigan’s taken notable steps in recent years to prepare inmates for a productive life after prison so they are less likely to return. Among the most promising is the intensive skilled-trades program that fuels Fabus’s optimism that he can find work.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, the percentage of inmates returning to prison within three years of their release has plunged — from 44.9 percent of those released in 1999, to 26.6 percent of those released in 2017. The prison population also has dropped dramatically, from more than 51,000 inmates in 2006 to about 33,000 today.
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz attributed part of the decline in prison recidivism to changes in parole supervision geared to help former inmates succeed on the outside.
“Supervision has become a lot more evidence-based — stressing public safety and treatment, rather than just relying on sanctions for those offenders who have a technical violation of parole that is not endangering the public,” he said.
But for all that progress, reform advocates say there are still too many inmates who find it difficult to get work after release, which makes them more likely to find their way back to prison.
In an east side Detroit neighborhood, former inmate Gary Maxwell said he has struggled to find jobs and been homeless off and on since he left prison a decade ago. His current home is a camper parked in the trash-strewn, overgrown backyard of a run-down house where an acquaintance lets him stay.
A few years ago — when he had money from a modest inheritance — Maxwell said he was turned down by some metro Detroit mobile home parks that refused to sell him a spot because of his felony record.
“I’m supposed to be getting a second chance,” he told Bridge Michigan. “Where’s the second chance when you are still punishing me for something I did 30 years ago? What am I supposed to do, live under a bridge?”
A boost in skilled trades training
John Cooper, executive director of Lansing-based Safe & Justice Michigan, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization, said he too sees fewer people sent back to prison for technical parole violations like missing a meeting with a parole officer or failing a drug test.
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“It doesn’t make sense to send a person back to prison if the conduct can be addressed in the community,” he said.
Cooper guessed the falling rate of recidivism may also be tied to falling crime rates in the state over the past two decades.
“The crime rate has been dropping since the 1990s,” he said, an environment which could make it less likely former inmates would commit crimes as well after they exit prison.
But Cooper noted that some still struggle in the critical first few months after their release to attain the basics they need to succeed: a job and a place to stay. Some employers won’t hire them. With no family to turn to for housing, they say they encounter landlords who won’t rent to them – rejections that combine to make a return to prison more likely.
“We pay for them time and time again when guys fail,” said Joe Haveman, a former three-term GOP West Michigan state representative and long-time advocate for prison reform, noting that taxpayers ultimately pay $35,000 a year to house each prisoner.
“They need to be given the tools to succeed. The more we reach out and walk alongside them, the better off we are going to be.”
Recognizing the need to add to those tools, MDOC in 2016 opened its first high-quality job training facility, called a Vocational Village, at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility outside Ionia ─ the prison where Fabus, the inmate awaiting parole, is learning how to diagnose a faulty fuel pump or automotive computer control module. MDOC launched a second Vocational Village the following year at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson and expects to open a third such program later this month at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. According to MDOC spokesperson Gautz, more than 1,300 inmates have graduated from these programs since 2016.
The programs are a step up from vocational training MDOC offered before. Vocational Village is promoted as an immersive, state-of-the-art set of trade courses that range from welding to carpentry to computerized manufacturing, taught by instructors experienced in their field and supplemented by hundreds of thousands of dollars in training equipment. Graduates — who apply from prisons throughout the state — can earn a variety of trade certifications and state licenses that are often a path straight to a job, many paying upwards of $30 an hour.
Perhaps just as important, MDOC officials say, inmates in these programs are housed together, so they develop a sense of shared purpose and spend more time in training.
Dan Seal, an employment counselor at Richard A. Handlon, said the ongoing shortage of skilled labor in Michigan has forced more employers to take a chance on Vocational Village graduates. He estimated that nearly two-thirds are finding work in their chosen trade.
“If we can connect an employer to our students, the success rate has been great. It’s a great time for these guys coming out finding work.”
Barriers remain for many
But for all the promise of these programs, most of the estimated 8,000 Michigan inmates who are paroled each year exit prison with no such edge. About half enter prison without a high school degree, adding to their challenges when they return to an outside world transformed by rapid changes in technology. Many don’t qualify for the Vocational Village program, which requires that participants be within 24 months of their release date and have a good conduct record.
Research confirms that prisoners who struggle to find work after their release are far more likely to return to prison. A study of nearly 7,000 Illinois inmates found just 18 percent who found jobs after leaving prison returned within three years. Conversely, more than 50 percent of inmates who did not find a job returned to prison within three years.
Employers are often reluctant to consider former inmates because they lack a consistent work history, or required education or training credentials. Even with the current shortage of available workers, many businesses still won’t consider someone out of prison.
A national survey of 100 employers found that more than half would not hire a person with a nonviolent felony conviction ─ even with financial incentives to do so. The hiring odds for someone with a drug or violent felony conviction drop even lower.
At a specialty butter manufacturing firm in Grand Rapids, Butterball Farms CEO Mark Peters has been hiring ex-offenders at his plant for more than a decade. Of his production work force of about a hundred workers, Peters estimates that a third have criminal records.
“This whole idea that we all need second chances is just so true,” Peters told Bridge. “It’s a matter of just saying yes to people.”
Peters acknowledged that his motive in hiring ex-inmates “wasn’t very altruistic at the beginning.”
That was back in the late 1990s during a tight labor market, when he turned to a work-release program at the Kent County Jail to fill open spots on his production line.
“They were great employees and they were showing up every day because they were being driven to work,” Peters recalled.
“That really opened my eyes to the talent pool of people coming out of prison.”
Within a decade, Butterball Farms had put in place a deliberate strategy to hire ex-inmates from the state’s prison system.
In 2008, Jimmy Erickson was paroled after serving 21 years for second-degree murder. He said he stabbed a friend after a night of drinking.
“I plead guilty. Whatever happened, I deserved what I got,” he recalled in a recent BBC News profile.
He walked out of prison at age 46, filled with anxiety about his prospects.
“I was basically starting life over. Anybody trying to find a job with a felony record is challenging, let alone with a very violent felony record.”
Six weeks after he left prison, Butterball Farms gave him a shot ─ an entry-level job on the production floor packing boxes with packets of butter.
“When I walked in that door, I wanted to put more than 100 percent into showing them how much I appreciated it and I was going to do whatever it took to be successful,” he said.
Thirteen years later, Erickson is a production manager at Butterball Farms.
“I don’t think I ever visualized where I am today,” he said.
In 2012, Peters, the CEO, spearheaded an initiative called 30-2-2, which aimed to persuade 30 West Michigan firms to hire two workers with criminal records and monitor their performance for two years. According to its records, more than 300 West Michigan firms hired 1,518 workers with a felony from 2016 through 2018. Its tracking data found those with criminal records were more likely to stick with the job, logging an annual turnover rate of 106 percent compared to 121 percent for those without a criminal background.
A housing dilemma
Securing a paycheck isn’t the only challenge. Reform advocates say finding — and holding — a job remains a shaky prospect for those who lack stable housing.
“Housing is the single most important factor for anyone coming out of prison,” said Demetrius Titus of Ypsilanti-based American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit criminal justice organization.
“You need to have housing to be employed. Everything in that person revolves around having a stable place to stay.”
Joe McGuire, an attorney for the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit social justice law firm, said the state’s tight rental market makes it easy for landlords to turn away would-be tenants with a felony record.
“Landlords are looking for any excuse to cull the herd and reduce it to a smaller pool of applicants.”
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidelines advising public housing authorities and private landlords that refusing to rent to someone with a criminal history could violate the Fair Housing Act because “racial and ethnic minorities face disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration.”
But critics say the HUD guidelines are vague and rarely enforced.
In 2019, the Detroit City Council passed an ordinance that banned landlords with five or more rental units from asking for potential tenants' criminal records during the initial screening process. Only after determining that the tenant is otherwise qualified and offering them a conditional lease can the landlord run a criminal background check.
The applicant could still be rejected due to their criminal history, but the landlord must first give them a chance to show evidence of rehabilitation, such as proof of completing drug treatment or a letter of recommendation from an employer.
McGuire said there are limits to what these measures can do to protect former inmates.
According to Gautz, the prison spokesperson, about a third of inmates wind up in transitional housing after prison, which could include an apartment, hotel or homeless shelter depending on the region and circumstances of the offender. The state generally pays for up to 90 days of transitional housing before former prisoners are on their own.
In May of 2020, 52-year-old Lewanda Hollister was released from Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti after serving 34 years for second-degree murder.
“I had no living relatives in Michigan I could turn to for a place to stay,” she said.
“I went from my parents’ home to the penitentiary to the streets. When I got out, I felt like I was dropped off in a foreign country.”
She said five landlords in the Detroit area turned down her rental application.
“I was a felon. That doesn’t make it easy,” she said.
About a year ago, she secured a basement apartment in Ypsilanti for $700 a month. It’s rent she can barely afford, as she scrapes by with vegetables, meat and canned goods from a local food bank and about $350 a week she earns at a Washtenaw County nonprofit farm that hires men and women with criminal records.
Hollister expects her farm job to dry up with the coming of cold weather. She said she has no idea what she will do then.
“My first thing is stay out of the penitentiary. My second thing is don’t be homeless.”
Back at a welding class at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility, 32-year-old inmate Nicholas Bomia sat in a break room and looked to a parole date that is four months off. He has no worries about where he’ll stay upon his release; he said his mother and stepfather offered space in their home south of Monroe.
With his Vocational Village training, Bomia hopes to land a job as a pipefitter or maintenance technician when he leaves. His goal: Earn enough to move into his own place along with his 12-year-old daughter, now staying with his mother and stepfather.
“Being able to get this experience before I go home, it’s a blessing,” he said.
The future is less secure for Maxwell, the former inmate living in Detroit.
He earned a GED certificate in prison, but Maxwell said he’s been up and down since his release in 2011 after a 20-year sentence for burglary.
He was homeless much of the time, living out of a series of cars. He worked, off and on, as a painter, picking up bottles, sometimes walking up to a business to ask if there was work he could do for cash.
“There was a pile of dirt at an auto repair place, and they wanted it spread over the grass. I got $50 for that.”
Not long ago he found another painting job, where his employer arranged to bank half his pay so he has some money when the job’s done.
“I suck at money. If I have it, I spend it,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said he inherited about $9,000 four years ago after the death of the father. It was enough to buy a mobile home trailer, but he couldn’t find a park that would sell to him.
Regardless of what comes next, Maxwell is proud of the fact he’s been out of prison 10 years without going back. He swears he never will.
“My motto is never quit, never stop, never give up,” he said. “As long as you’re out here, something can come along. Nothing in prison changes but the rotation of the faces.”
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