Michigan and Ohio have 60 prisons, holding roughly 100,000 people. Each of those prisoners has family and friends. If you're one of them, you know there's some truth to the adage: When people get locked up, their families and friends do time with them.
When you visit an inmate, some officers treat you like a criminal. I've been in every prison in Michigan, and several in Ohio. I'm treated differently when I go in as a journalist or speaker than when I'm there as a visitor.
Family members visiting inmates haven't committed a crime. Their taxes pay the salaries of prison employees. They ought to be treated with simple courtesy and respect.
But even requests for basic information can be tortuous or futile. When Michigan inmate Timothy Souders died of heat and thirst in 2006, after spending four days strapped down in a hot segregation cell, naked and soaked in his own urine, prison officials wouldn't tell Souders' mother how her mentally ill son died. I dug it up through court records, and his mother learned about it when someone handed her a front-page story I wrote for the Detroit Free Press. The story was later picked up by “60 Minutes.”
Even little things can be a trial. I often buy books for my brother-in-law, a 40-year-old Detroiter who's locked up at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in nearby Adrian, Michigan. You can order books for inmates through an approved vendor like Amazon.com.
This spring, I sent him two books he requested: “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “Brainwashed” by Tom Burrell. Both are scholarly books. Neither is on the department's list of banned material.
He didn't get the first order. I figured it got lost and reordered the same two books. Amazon delivered the second order on April 29, and I sent my brother-in-law the documentation that it did.
A few weeks later, after he didn't get the second order, he filed a grievance with the prison administration over the missing books. Officials rejected it, calling the grievance “untimely.” In other words, he filed it too late.
You'd think the administration would want to know if one of its employees was stealing. Or maybe one of the officers didn't think the books were suitable reading for prisoners and chucked them.
I called the Michigan Department of Corrections about it two weeks ago but never got a reply.
This is small-time stuff compared to what most families go through, but it gets on your last nerve.
I've met hundreds of corrections officers over the years, and most of them act like professionals. But the Adrian prison is known by inmates around the state as a “foul” institution, a place where corrections officers routinely abuse their authority.
A few years ago, I took my brother-in-law's teen-aged daughter for a visit at another prison in northern Michigan. She forgot her state ID. So, after a four-hour drive from Detroit, she couldn't see her dad. While she broke down and cried, the officer at the reception desk stood there, arms folded.
“Rules are rules,'' he said.
Yeah, I get that. But the same standard should apply when prison employees break them. How do you think most of the drugs and other contraband get into prison?
And when an inmate doesn't get medical care, or a book disappears, or a brutal death is called “accidental,” there's not a damn thing family or friends can do about.
Inside the walls, it's their world. Inmates just live in it. Unfortunately, so do their family and friends.