By: Jason Moore, Contributing Writer
As a prisoner and former gang member in the Michigan Department of Corrections, I don’t know which is more repulsive: gang activity or prison officials claiming the moral high ground only to reach with a limp arm when searching for ways to stop gang growth.
It’s understandable for prison officials to view gang members as vile prisoners who prey on the weak, but it doesn’t make much sense to declare them unworthy of rehabilitation. Prison is not a perfect place, and the criminals within its walls aren’t there for being all that bright. Many have committed serious crimes. Still, most are there for rehabilitation. That, however, is not to say they should be coddled and given help every time they say “Sorry.” There is an acceptable point at which some can be correctly deemed incorrigible.
But even in asserting a hard stance on felons, there must remain a strict prohibition against prison officials breeding better criminals. Until then, prison officials are going to continue, perhaps unwittingly, to operate terrorist and training camps for prison gangs.
A bold statement? No doubt. You see, during the late ’90s, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) systematically dismantled its beast. By closing its largest prison [Jackson State Prison], which housed over 5,000 single-celled, violent adult males, it regained control of its prison system – or so it was published. There is no mistaking that that particular prison was so out of control that prisoners actually dictated who lived and died and worked behind its walls. Putting an end to that era, however, was merely taking control of a specific problem, not the entire MDOC, as was claimed.
During that imagined shift in power, there was a grace period, a sense of relief that permitted prison officials to gloat about their success. But the flashing lights, the handshakes and the pat on the backs only distracted officials from the brewing disaster to come.
Somehow, rather than officials exploring ways to better control its beast, they came up with the brilliant idea of dispersing those extremely violent prisoners throughout the system’s many double-bunked prisons, mixing predatory adult males with vulnerable baby-faced teenagers. As foreseen, sexualities were explored and appetites were fed – while prison officials did nothing. The younger prisoners were forced to defend themselves, and they did so by finding strength in numbers.
Consequently, for a handful of prisoners hungry to claim their respect among killers, the chaos offered a feeding ground for desperate prisoners open to gang mentality indoctrination. At first, prison officials thought it was funny to see their “problem children” afraid to shower with naked adult males who haven’t touched a woman in decades, or to see “the kids” huddled together in fear on the recreation yards. But as the laughter grew, so too did the groups of kids; and the purpose of their cohesiveness worked.
Almost two decades later, their numbers have soared into the tens of thousands and continue to grow at an alarming rate due the never-ending influx of younger prisoners.
Contrary to popular belief, most prisoners altering the system have hope of being rehabilitated and going home. Unfortunately, in many case, that just isn’t possible because of the MDOC’s inability to control its escalating gang violence.
Nobody wants to lose an eye or his life, so many are often forced to defend themselves. And the guards routinely allow known gang members to enter the cells of other prisoners to steal and take what they will. That, in turn, causes additional problems that may include hospitalization or segregation — misbehavior that is certain to add a year or two to their parole eligibility.
Despite watching prison gangs grow like bacteria, the only response prison officials could devise was to create a policy that mandates the identification and monitoring of all gang members. The Serious Threat Group (STG) policy, however, is by no means a stroke of genius. It actually perpetuates the problems with prison gangs. It prohibits STG prisoners from conversing and socializing with non-STG prisoners who might otherwise be a positive influence on them – the ones who are working to earn an honest living, to obtain an education and other certificates of personal achievement to increase parole eligibility.
Additionally, STG status restricts a prisoner’s visitation privileges. Visits with family and friends who are positive influences are limited to one hour and those visits are non-contact [separated by a partition]. These prisoners are now even restricted from going to the Law Library and receiving General Library books.
The MDOC has not only refused to rehabilitate these prisoners, it strictly prohibits them from rehabilitating themselves. Instead, these prisoners are forced to survive by the only means known (again, they aren’t all that bright), which further fortifies their mentality of “us against them.” And in the process, these prisoners must learn from each other to become better criminals if they are to increase their chances of not returning to prison. That hardly justifies stupidity, but nothing more can be expected from uneducated prisoners who are grossly ill-equipped to find jobs, let alone maintain them with poor social skills, especially in today’s job market.
Admittedly, I do not have a degree in behavioral science, but it doesn’t really require one to see the seriousness of the problem here. Common sense and experience begs the simple question – since stricter punishments have proven only to increase gang violence and membership, would exploring alternative measures be such a bad thing?
Certainly rehabilitation is not the demand for reform while withholding the readily available antidote. There are a lot of veteran gang members – now older, wiser, and more self-confident to stand on their own – who want out of both the gang life and prison. They aren’t asking for their STG status to be pardoned, but simply for some help to help themselves to become better people – while given the opportunity to earn the trust required from prison officials to no longer be considered a STG member.
Frankly, there doesn’t appear to be any reason not to help these prisoners unless, of course, to do so would stifle a larger political agenda geared to the expansion of Michigan’s correctional industry.
Jason Moore is serving 15 years in Michigan for armed robbery.
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Jason Moore #487462
Ionia Correctional Facility
1576 W. Blue-water Highway
Ionia, MI 48846