Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An open letter to women in Michigan prisons

There are about 43,000 people in Michigan’s state prison system.  This does not include people who are incarcerated in county jails, nor does it include those persons in federal prison facilities.  Of this 43,000, approximately 2,200 are women.  They are all housed in several buildings on one campus called Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in the city of Ypsilanti.  HFP has received and is still receiving a constant flow of complaints related to overflowing problems.  In response to these letters, telephone calls and email messages from both inmates and their loved ones, President Doug Tjapkes asked for and was granted a private audience with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington.  Following the meeting, he penned this letter to the women at Huron Valley.  If you have a friend, relative or loved one at WHV, you are welcome to share this letter.

My dear friends at WHV,

For months we have been hearing your cries for help, your pleas for understanding, your simple requests for relief due to overcrowding issues.  As a result of this deluge of messages that arrived by mail, email and telephone, I requested a meeting with the new director of the MDOC, Heidi Washington.  I know that many of you had hoped that she would have been granted the Warden position at WHV.  I know that many of you had hoped to see miracles at WHV the moment she took office as Director.  In my opinion, she’ll be far more effective in this position.  And my simple advice is to give her a little time.

In preparation for the meeting, I felt totally inadequate to be raising your complaints. I would be voicing the issue as a man, totally unfamiliar with your environment, your issues, and your uniquely feminine needs and problems.  And so I decided that Ms. Washington should hear your voices.  I searched through the many pieces of communication, captured your words on print, and gave them to the Director as well as reading them to her.

On overcrowded conditions, she heard you say, In this 4-man unit there is no window, no desk, no chair, no trash can, no door-mirror or bulletin board.  It’s infested with ants.  Water runs down the wall when it rains, over an electrical outlet.

On inmate activities, she heard you say, I counted the chairs to sit in…we have 55 chairs for 180 women in our community place.  If we cannot find a place to sit we have to go back to our rooms.  In our rooms we have one chair, so one of us ALWAYS has to be on our bunks.  I eat, sleep, type, write, read, paint, crochet, watch TV on my bunk.

On delayed meals, she heard you say, 4 PM count, and still have not been down to lunch.  We’ll be having dinner at midnight!

On long visitation delays, she heard you say, Last Thursday in the visiting room 2 inmates were refused to use the restroom, resulting in them urinating on themselves.  There is several hours in between the inmates’ visitors leaving and the inmates being searched before they can return to their housing units.

On lack of programming availability, she heard you say, I am unable to get my recommended programming on time so that I can get out on my early release date, due to overcrowding.

My time was limited, so I couldn’t cover every problem, every issue.  But I want you to know that she heard you, not me!

And then came the reassuring words that I know you long to hear from the person at the top.

Re WHV:  That facility, and the women at WHV, have a very special place in my heart!

Re these complaints:  If they are legitimate, this is outrageous!

Re future action:  I’m overdue for a visit there.  It’s time that I get over there!

I’m writing this letter because I don’t want you to feel alone or unnoticed.

Matt and I, and our host of professional volunteers, are not magicians and we have no magic wand that will instantly solve your problems.  But we’re trying, and this was a huge step forward!

The Director is new on the job.  She’s savvy.  She has grit.  We think you’re going to see and feel change, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced you are in her thoughts.

I know that you are in my prayers.

Even though hugs are not allowed on your property, here’s one by mail!

In Christ’s love,

Doug Tjapkes, President

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