Alger thinks outside the prison boxMUNISING -- More than 400 miles from Detroit, Alger Correctional Facility is one of those prisons "across the bridge" many inmates dread because its remote location often means few or no visits from friends and family. It's also a prison with 176 segregation cells in two housing units named -- God knows why -- "Aspen" and "Birch." Even by prison standards, segregation is a different world, completely locked down. Inmates were, by protocol, handcuffed or put in a cage called an interview module while I spoke to them.
To its credit, Corrections is trying to reduce the use of segregation, where inmates do time alone in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cell, instead of being double-bunked. Segregation costs nearly double the $33,000 a year the state typically pays to incarcerate each prisoner. More important, MDOC administrators understand that isolating inmates who have nothing to do is no way to equip them for life after prison. Bad things can happen in seg in almost total secrecy, especially to mentally ill prisoners.
In July 2009, Alger employees, led by Warden Catherine Bauman and Assistant Deputy Warden Lyle Rutter, started an "Incentives in Segregation" pilot project to reward positive behavior. The program has cut down on major misconducts and so-called critical incidents in segregation, including cell damage, by more than half. It has also reduced days in segregation by possibly 10%.
"When you start re-enforcing positive behavior, (prisoners) have something to lose," Bauman said. "It's made a safer environment for staff and prisoners."
Bauman credits the new program with helping Alger to convert one of its segregation units into double-bunk housing two years ago, and for encouraging her officers to interact more with inmates.
"It empowers me to do my job," said Officer Tracy Berg, who now helps train staff at other prisons.
Segregation, by the numbersNearly 1,000 Michigan inmates are under administrative segregation, the highest and most restrictive custody level. With space for 44,200 inmates, MDOC has 1,126 administrative segregation cells, plus 542 punitive detention and temporary holding cells. Most of the state's 32 prisons have segregation cells.
International treaty bodies and human rights experts, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, have denounced the widespread and, in some states, growing use of segregation cells. Inmates are isolated from programs, treatment and other people, and restricted to their cells for 23 hours a day. They are handcuffed when they leave their cells, eat off serving trays pushed through the slots of steel doors, and generally lack the few privileges they get in the general population, such as telephone calls, contact visits and television. At least 17% of the state's inmates are mentally ill, but Corrections officials acknowledge that the share of such inmates in segregation is probably significantly higher.
It was in segregation -- a holding cell -- that Timothy Joe Souders, a 21-year-old mentally ill inmate died of heat and thirst in 2006, after spending most of his last four days strapped down, naked and soaked in his own urine. In a segregation cell since August at Marquette Branch Prison, another mentally ill inmate, Kevin DeMott, 19, has received misconduct tickets for trying to hurt and even kill himself. DeMott cut himself and tried to make a noose out of a blanket, his mother, Lois DeMott of Lansing, told me this week. She's the co-founder of Citizens for Prison Reform.
In 2008, Corrections started requiring wardens to interview segregation inmates every six months. The department also ordered regional administrators to interview prisoners in long-term segregation. From August 2008 to August 2011, the number of Michigan prisoners in administrative segregation dropped from 1,275 to 964.
"We've focused on getting to know who's in administrative segregation, how long they've been there and why -- and making an effort to get these folks out," Russ Marlan, administrator of MDOC's executive bureau, told me.
Support from officersAt Alger, veteran corrections officers such as Berg, Randy Ollis and shift commander Kevin Taskila were at first skeptical of the incentives program, but have become big supporters. Segregation units at Alger have become quieter and calmer. "I'll be honest -- at first it seemed soft," Ollis said. "But I've worked in segregation for 16 years, and I can tell you this works."
Before returning to the general population, segregation inmates work through six stages, usually within two to 12 months. Each stage requires tasks and grants privileges. At Stage 2, for example, prisoners must explain why they are in segregation and what they need to do to get out. They also can use library services and get some recreation time. At Stage 4, inmates can use a personal television and also get one 15-minute phone call a month, while performing jobs such as cleaning cells and tutoring other prisoners. Stage 5 requires prisoners to work in a journaling program, and allows them two 15-minute telephone calls a month. Other incentives include photo tickets; ordering food items from the prison store, and getting a personal cup.
"Getting some incentives breaks up your time and gives you a chance to work for something," said inmate Patrick Thomas, 44, of Detroit, who has spent five months in seg for possessing a shank. "You can go stir crazy just sitting in a cell."
Dustin Watters, 26, of Howell, landed in seg after officers found a razor in his mattress. Watters has done well, nearly completing the six stages and working as a porter. "It's shown me that if I do good, positive things will happen," he said.
Not all inmates in seg feel the same. As I walked through a unit, several inmates shouted derogatory comments about the program. Speaking through a bolted door, one inmate told me incentives do nothing to reduce seg time and that officers sometimes abuse their authority in controlling who moves up. Staff members meet weekly to determine when a prisoner graduates to the next stage.
Former MDOC prisoner Peter Martel -- now a law student and program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor -- said officers' discretion can pose particular problems at UP prisons like Alger, where 70% of the inmates are African American and staffs are practically all white. Alger has no African-American officers. Martel spent 10 years in segregation from 1995 to 2005, following an attempted prison escape.
The Alger program expanded in 2009 to Baraga Correctional Facility, which converted one of its four segregation units in 2011. Ionia Correctional Facility and Marquette Branch prison have also adopted the program, as will Bellamy Creek. Other states, including Ohio, Maine, California, Colorado and New York, have requested information on Alger's incentive program.