When Lois DeMott first got involved with the Michigan Department of Corrections — which came about because of the legal troubles of her then-15-year-old son — she didn’t know much about how the prison system worked.
Like many family members of incarcerated loved ones, DeMott had trouble navigating a system she said was fraught with red tape. Getting a simple visitation with her son was difficult.
Inspired by those roadblocks, DeMott is not unfamiliar with the system anymore. In fact, the group she founded based on her early experiences, Lansing-based Citizens for Prison Reform, is working to make it easier for those who’ve followed in DeMott’s footsteps.
According to the CPR website, the grass-roots group engages, educates and empowers family members and loved ones affected by crime and punishment to advance their rights.
“That came out of my own personal experience of never having dealt with the system before and, all of a sudden, being thrown into it,” DeMott said. “What we experience — what we go through, some of the hardships — often don’t seem real to families.”
DeMott believed one of the biggest issues involving prisoners and their families was a matter of connectedness. She believed some of the policies within the MDOC made it much harder for the families of inmates to remain connected with their loved ones.
She formed the Citizens for Prison Reform, which began meeting monthly. The group has done educational presentations in the Lansing area every month since 2011.
Inmate's dad advocates for successful outcomes
The goal was to educate families about how the system works. DeMott felt the system’s policies often left families in the dark about the health, condition and welfare of their loved ones.
She pointed to a couple of examples that demonstrated there was a need for improvement:
A family authorization form, which she likened to the form patients fill out when they go to a doctor, wasn’t automatically being given to prisoners; it was something the prisoner had to ask for. Without it, DeMott said, families didn’t know if their loved one was ill or had been hospitalized. Because of the education effort put in by the CPR, the MDOC is now making that an automatic part of the intake process.
Another issue was discipline. For example, she said, if a prisoner had received two substance abuse tickets, the director of corrections can take away visits for that prisoner. The problem, as DeMott sees it, is that family members don’t know that until they arrive for the visit. Families have lost visitation for years for that reason.
“A lot of these prisoners and families don’t know … I still get calls from families who are in crisis because they don’t know enough,” DeMott said. “Our point all along has been that if you truly believe family support makes the difference, why are we punishing entire families, including small children who have parents or siblings on the inside?”
DeMott applied for, and received, a Soros Justice Fellowship, a grant that funds projects designed to advance reform and change on a range of issues facing the criminal justice system.
Grant in hand, she began working more directly with MDOC officials because “we had some specific issues and concerns we were seeing,” she said.
“We’ve done a lot of legislative work and that started early on,” DeMott said. “We started bringing a lot of attention to capitol hill.”
DeMott said the MDOC has been a willing partner in the work the CPR and its support groups, the Family Participation Program and the Family Advisory Board.
Kyle Kaminsky, legislative liaison for the MDOC and its liaison with the Family Advisory Board, said the department is working with the group because it’s doing good work.
“The work they do is really helpful,” Kaminsky said. “The information flows in two directions. They bring useful information to us so we have better knowledge and we can share information with them that they can then disseminate to families.”
The work is helping. Pete Letkemann, a Westland resident whose son Alex is in the system, said the group has effected some change, particularly in areas surrounding visitation.
According to DeMott, some prisons have made enough change that visitation has improved. Families who’ve traveled fewer than 400 miles, for instance, are guaranteed only a one-hour visit. And the rooms often are small enough, she said, that people have to wait hours for their visit — or don’t get in at all.
“Can you imagine driving two or three hours and then having to wait?” DeMott said.
Letkemann said visitation can be affected by so many things — and so dramatically — that he’s heard inmates tell their loved ones the risk of not getting a visit is high enough that the loved ones “shouldn’t make the trip.”
That’s part of the reason, according to Letkemann, that only some 14 percent of inmates get visits. But that is starting to change, he said, because of the work the FAB is doing.
“Sometimes, it feels like you’re not doing any good at all,” said Letkemann, who recently stepped up to the chairmanship of the Family Advisory Board. “Then you think back on some of the problems we’ve helped with.”
The group has helped with enough that the state has considered making the Family Advisory Board — right now a volunteer group of maybe a half-dozen people — an official part of the system.
State Rep. Stephanie Chang introduced legislation in 2015 that would do just that (she has not reintroduced that bill again this year). Kaminsky acknowledged the bill, if ever approved, would formalize the FAB’s standing. He wouldn’t say whether he thought it was a good idea — “The department refrains from taking a position on legislation,” he said — but acknowledged the group is doing good work.
"The current approach is working pretty well,” Kaminsky said. “We’re happy with the way it’s working right now.”
The groups are active now. The Citizens for Prison Reform hosts its sixth Legislative Day on May 11 in Lansing and will use a replica of a solitary confinement cell to educate legislators about what that part of prison life is like. The Family Advisory Board meets quarterly, at the will of the MDOC.
DeMott called the working relationship between the CPR and the MDOC “fabulous.” She said officials with the MDOC understand prisoners need “productive, positive things to do with their time,” which will make them better citizens when they re-enter society.
“When we make things difficult, has that really helped them when they come out?” she said. “Does that make for a safer neighborhood? Who would you rather have living next door, someone who has been a victim (of the issues in the system) or someone who has been encouraged with family assistance?
“The biggest issue we’re working to address is the connectedness and the support of families … how we can have better family connectedness,” DeMott added. “The department is working with us, but it’s a very big department. It’s a huge ship to get turned around.”
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