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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Reforming Corrections

July 28, 2017

LANSING – You could say that Heidi Washington is in charge of a widely dispersed community slightly larger than Muskegon.

Her population is shrinking, and unlike the leaders of most communities, she and everyone else is glad about that. After all, it costs state taxpayers about $35,000 for each one.

She also has far more power over her people than any mayor, and while she has to look after their welfare, she has another job that is even more important: protecting us from them. She is the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, the person ultimately in charge of the state’s network of 30 prison facilities.

“Change is the only thing that is constant,” she said during an interview in her office, looking up with a faint smile from a pile of reports about various aspects of a system that held, as of last week, 40,317 convicted felons. Some will be released soon; others are there for life no matter what, and many others are in between.

“I always say, ‘don’t look back – we aren’t going that way.”

Today, prison spending, at about $1.9 billion a year, is the largest single component of the state’s general fund budget, and there is tremendous pressure to reduce that, somehow.

Ironically, that pressure also sometimes comes from the same politicians who oppose reducing sentences or making parole easier, because they want to brag that they are tough on crime.

Director Washington is acutely conscious of the need to protect public safety. She has worked for corrections since 1998, beginning as a legislative assistant, and along the way serving in a variety of jobs, including as warden in two state prisons.

“Originally this was just going to be until I finished my law degree,” said Washington, now 47. She had intended to become a prosecutor, but found corrections work so compelling she stayed.

Two years ago, she was appointed to the prison system’s top job in the wake of the Aramark food services scandal. She had been an outspoken opponent of Aramark, and while she is doing her best to work with Trinity, the private company that replaced it, one gets the clear impression she would rather have not privatized food service.

She also vigorously opposes the concept of private prisons; corrections, she has said “is a core function of state government.”

Politically, her conservative credentials aren’t in question. She is the daughter of the legendary Tom Washington, Michigan’s legendary — and controversial — hunting and fishing enthusiast.

He was president of the National Rifle Association before his death from a heart attack while deer hunting in 1995, and Heidi Washington recently was elected to the NRA board. But she thinks being conservative also means not wasting the taxpayers’ money, and she would like more inmates safely paroled. “I don’t know what the number (behind bars) should be, but I know we aren’t there yet,” she said.

Back in the early 1970s, prisons were a relatively small part of the budget; there were only 7,900 state inmates in 1973.

But then lawmakers got the idea that the way to fight the drug epidemic was to impose long, even life, sentences on those caught with even a relatively small amount. This proved to be an utter failure when it came to fighting drugs, but caused the state’s prison population to explode, until it reached 51,000 a decade ago.

Since then, drug sentencing guidelines have been modified, there’s been a decline in some types of crime, and the inmate population has begun to shrink fairly dramatically. This may accelerate, now that the courts have ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional.

This has led to a new set of problems. Prison officials in recent years have worked hard to reduce the recidivism rate, meaning the percentage of released prisoners who find themselves back in prison within three years.

“That was once close to 50 percent,” said Chris Gautz, the state Department of Corrections’ spokesperson. Today, that has fallen to 29.8 percent, he said, in large part because of efforts to prepare prisoners for life on the outside. There was huge national publicity surrounding the case of Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, who was granted parole after serving 29 years in prison. But other Michigan prisoners have been released who have served as much as 43 years behind bars.

They are, in a very real sense, time-travelers. There was no internet or smart phones when they were put away. Prison officials have been taking some shortly before their release to the Macomb Correctional Facility for a crash course in adjusting to modern life.

Making sure her prisoners don’t come back is a top priority for Washington, who said that she wished she had more money for educational programs. She is especially proud of “Vocational Village,” a first-of-its kind skilled trades program at the prison in Ionia; open to prisoners soon to be released.

The department is planning to open a second one in Jackson soon. There are other, serious challenges ahead; the percentage of mentally ill and geriatric prisoners is steadily increasing.

Those inmates are by far the most expensive. Some cost the state as much as $300,000 each year for their medication alone; inmates in state custody are not eligible for Medicaid.

Whether it makes sense not to commute the sentences of the dozens of inmates now in wheelchairs is not an issue Washington can do anything about. She had to fight this year to prevent the legislature from making cuts she judged dangerous.

She may, indeed, have the most challenging job in state government. My impression is that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

July 27, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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