I’m not going to let it go. The story is still on the TV news tonight. My latest rant is here tonight. I’m not ready to abandon this whole topic of deaths behind bars. Maybe the Jeff Epstein story will finally heighten awareness of this problem, one that our team faces on a regular basis.
Let’s be honest. Most of us have little interest in the deaths of prisoners. We read about it in the newspaper, we see it on the TV news: another suicide in a county jail, another murder in a state prison, or a mysterious death in a federal facility, like the one making headlines these days. Yawn.
Major newspapers are carrying a quote that I want to underscore. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s prison project: “Tragically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what happened to Mr. Epstein... . This is just the…baseline dysfunction of prisons and jails and how suicide prevention in most prisons and jails is a joke.”
The New York Times reported that the two overworked staffers assigned to Epstein’s unit ― one of whom wasn’t working as a corrections officer but was forced to take on that role due to staffing shortages ― fell asleep and falsified records saying they had performed checks as required. From what we are able to determine, fake cell checks are extremely common at all levels, federal, state and county.
We are outraged when people are gunned down in the national plague of mass shootings. We are brokenhearted when traffic accidents claim the lives of friends and loved ones. Citizens mourn when US military personnel die serving their nation. But prisoners? That’s another story.
It comes down to this simple statement by Father Greg Boyle, as he discusses our disinterest in the senseless killing of gang members: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”
The work in our office focuses on the occupants of state prisons in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Corrections records more than 100 deaths per year among our population of more than 38,000 prisoners. Because of our state’s shameful record of keeping people in prison far too long, many of these are deaths due to natural causes among the aging population.
But the others are not, and I think it’s safe to say that many of these are preventable.
It’s time for Michigan’s new administration to insist on more corrections officers, better-trained officers (especially in the field of mental illness), and improved procedures.
It's true: Even prisoners are created in the image of God.
Their lives matter, too.