Hearing on Imprisonment Indicates People are Ready to Change Direction

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

On March 19 members of the State State Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Grand Rapids to take testimony from citizens on a broad range of issues relating to the prison system. It was one of three or four hearings in different parts of the state designed to take “a comprehensive look at the Michigan Correctional (sic) System”.

Numerous people showed up to testify, and the hearing lasted three full hours. Following are highlights of the testimony, taken in the order it was presented:

John Campbell, Chair of the Allegan County Commission and representing the Michigan Association of Counties, said that the large and increasing cost of imprisonment in Michigan means that other services are increasingly limited. If present trends continue, “corrections” and Medicaid will end up being the only programs funded in the state. Alternatives need expansion, and privatization should be looked at.

Patrick Bowler, Chief Judge of 61st District Court; and representing District Court judges, said: “I don’t think a judge today-can send someone to jail because they tick ’em off. At least judges shouldn’t do that.”

I personally found that interesting, having been kept in jail for nearly a month last year after Bowler got “ticked off’ when i insisted on a personal rather than a video arraignment, and then would not agree to stay away from Calder Plaza (my “home:’, then and now).

David Schieber, an assistant Kent County Prosecutor who claimed to represent Michigan prosecuting attorneys, complained about prison being too comfortable, with “regular meals, TV s, VCRs … ” Relatively minor felony infractions are “useful” to put “dangerous people” away for along time. The ADC (sic) program is “basically producing feral children.” Going to prison in sign of manhood for some; “the stigma of prison is gone now.” We inevitably have to consider alternatives that have a stigma, such as caning, which should be done by martial arts instructors, as it is in Singapore. In Singapore, women can safely waIk the streets at night.

Questioned about alternatives other than caning, Schieber replied that co did not want to get into that, as it would likely “demean what is a serious discussion” .

Jerry Ammon(?) held family breakdown as being responsible for most criminality, saying: “Most prisoners are from single parent families.” Parents who can’t make child support payments, rather than being locked up, should be asked to do work benefiting society. Judges should be required to have college credits in family-related courses.

Deborah Gutierrez cited a man sent to prison for five years for drunk driving who now “cannot take care of’ cos family. “Humongous sentences are given for small amounts of cocaine.” Rehabilitation is suggested instead. Overcrowdedness results largely from mandatory minimum sentence laws. As for the prison system, “the more people they keep in there, the more money they get.”

John Wynbeek; Director of Alternative Directions and a member of the State Community Corrections Board, said the goal of the criminal justice system should be–reconciliation and restitution for harm. Last year those in Alternative Directions, a 75-bed facility [located at 1706 S. Division in GR], earned $500,000, enough to pay substantial taxes, over $100,000 in rent, and $71,000 in restitution.

A person whose name i did not get said the prison system’s grievance procedure was basically totally ineffective.

Dennis Schrantz, former director of the Michigan. Community Corrections Board, told legislators that they have added 5000 prison cells and one billion dollars in yearly costs since 1980. There has been a dramatic drop in the rate of increase since the Michigan Community Corrections Act was passed in 1988. Judges should have more discretion, and legislators should not set minimum sentences.

William Van Regenmorter, Committee Chair, commented in response that Michigan’s index of violent crime has gone down 20% since 1985.

Doug Redford of Prison Fellowship [a “Christian” group headed by ex-burglar Charles Colson] said we’ve poured billions into the prison system, yet when inmates leave they typically have a fourth grade education, no money, no job skills, no friends, no place to stay, etc. So the 75% recidivism rate should be no surprise: “Moral reformation” was offered as the answer!

I said if anyone belongs in prison, it is JayVanAndel, Rich DeVos, and others of their ilk who have stolen far more of our wealth than anyone else. Corporate power and greed are the driving forces for the increase in imprisonment. We have to take back control over large corporations. Money being spent for prisons should go to those who now have the least as a matter of justice. “Most of the total existing wealth on this planet was not created by a few corporate executives sitting in their jets and air-conditioned offices, but was created by a combination of nature and the work of all of our ancestors.” Judges who intervene in the prison system have a slightly moderating influence, which is good, but are afraid to do more partly because of “self-serving politicians such as some of you up there who mouth deceitful ‘tough on crime’ slogans because you believe doing so will help you get voter support”. We all, because we are part of the human family, “have basic rights and deserve basic respect and support, no matter what we may have done”.

Joseph Soper; local Court Administrator, said, “It’s good to force us to be creative at the local level rather than rely on the state bureaucracy.”

” Will Konyndyk, of Hope Network/Exodus (a ministry to people released from prison jail), asked that mandatory sentences be dropped. At Exodus, “we try to· teach personal responsibility”. Mary Montgomery, who husband was denied parole in 1994, said letters to the Parole Board have often been sent back due to legislation recently passed by the State.

Hiba Nimmer(?), whose prisoner advocacy with the American Friends Service Committee~ said wardens now are encouraged to deny “special good time” to prisoners. This often results in years more prison time; in one case eight years more.

The Judiciary Committee, dominated by Republican legislators such as Van Regenmorter who have often played to public fears in pushing for more punitive measures, was confronted during the evening with a clear message that we need to follow a different path. Whether that path ends up being less punitive is an open question, though majority sentiment clearly favored that. And i was surprised when my presentation, in a roomful of suits, was one of a few that elicited generous applause.

One would not know any of this from Grand Rapids Press coverage of the hearing. The headline was, “Caning could be a crime stopper”, and Schieber’s testimony was given the most prominent and extensive space. In fact, only two others who testified were quoted at all.

Thankfully, G.R. Press to the contrary, there was only one David Schieber at the hearing. Once again, there is some public indication that things are starting to turn around.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org