Michigan prisons: Riot causes are still there


JACKSON, Mich. -- Even as they waded through $5 million in charred rubble at three Michigan prisons, state corrections officials were amazed four violent riots did not cause more damage or injuries.

'We were lucky that we did not in the course of those disturbances have fatalities,' said Gov. William G. Milliken.


'That we came very close is no question.'

Still, the inmate uprisings -- two at the massive Southern Michigan Prison at Jackson and one each at the Michigan Reformatory at Ionia and the Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula -- left state officials shaken.

Arson, looting and vandalism, May 22 and 26, destroyed or damaged 30 buildings. About 100 inmates and guards were injured in the course of the four riots.

Total costs, including many hours of overtime for guards and other employees, topped $9 million.

Ironically, the hardest hit areas were those where inmates had their greatest freedom -- school buildings at all three prisons, inmate stores, dining areas and eight medium security dormitories at Jackson where 270 prisoners lived.


'I think we're very fortunate to have property damage of this extent without loss of life,' said Deputy Corrections Director William Kime.

For a decade, Michigan's prison system has borne the brunt of progressively conservative public opinion and a sagging state economy.

A tough new law initiated by Michigan voters denies 'good time' sentence reductions for dangerous criminals. A law enacted by the legislature slapped an additional two-year term on criminals using guns. Both statutes have stepped up the flow of felons into the state's prisons.

Over the past 10 years, Michigan's crime rate has increased 168 percent. Its prison population, however, has grown only about 20 percent, to a current 13,022. Still, the prisons only safely hold 12,874.

Prison officials -- described as moderate to progressive -- are blunt about the problems they face and equally candid about their inability to find sweeping solutions.

'We've been severely overcrowded and had serious problems to deal with in the last six years,' said state Corrections Director Perry Johnson.

'In the large perspective, the potential for something to erupt is always there.'

The state was lucky for almost 10 years. Despite the prison population explosion, the 13 institutions and 11 prison camps remained quiet after a minor 1973 disturbance at Jackson.


Prior to that incident, Michigan's worst prison rioting was at Jackson in 1952, when one inmate was killed, several guards taken hostage and a cellblock destroyed.

'We've had a very peaceful system here,' said Johnson, a former Jackson warden who has been corrections director since 1972.

'In the past decade, when other major systems have had their serious problems, we haven't.'

The peace ended abruptly when unionized guards at Jackson, frightened by attacks by inmates and angered by what they considered a lax administration, took the situation into their own hands.

The initial Jackson riot was sparked by guards who ignored the orders of prison administrators and attempted to 'lockdown' prisoners for a weapons search. Milliken's office termed the guards' action 'a mutiny.'

Disciplinary action may lie ahead for guards deemed responsible for the first disturbance and criminal charges are expected against more than 150 inmates.

The other three riots were blamed in part on a domino effect from the original Jackson uprising.

Johnson and his protege, Jackson Warden Barry Mintzes, are criticized for their moderate corrections philosophy, which stresses rehabilitation over punishment.

The prison system of their dreams consists of medium-sized regw6Pw:::wPtmaller prisons would allow inmates to live closer to home, receive more treatment and allow greater supervision.


Six years ago, corrections officials warned they would have to build a new 500-inmate facility every year to keep up with the growing influx of convicts shipped off to state prisons.

In recent years, the state has managed to build a handful of those institutions -- called 'community college prisons' by their critics. An old military base in the Upper Peninsula was converted into one of the medium security facilities.

Several plans to raise construction funds have failed, including a 1980 ballot proposal to increase Michigan's income tax from 4.5 percent to 4.6 percent for five years. The financially strapped state cannot afford to build the new prisons from existing revenue.

Michigan is now under a court order to reduce its prison population and is trying to ease the overcrowding with a new law granting early parole to inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

Ironically, the first early release order under the law was issued just one day before the Jackson rioting erupted.

But for now, the bulk of Michigan's felons remain incarcerated at the three riot-torn prisons which represent the worst the state's penal system can offer.

The Jackson prison -- called 'Jacktown' by its residents -- is the largest walled prison in the world and holds 5,600 inmates. While Jackson is not overcrowded to the degree of some other institutions, guards complain the prison is little more than a warehouse for criminals.


'You can't function properly here, the public knows it but they don't want to pay for it,' said guard Richard Goldberg.

Often only three guards are patrolling the bleak, bar-lined cellblocks of Jackson's central building, which house over 400 inmates each.

'Sometimes, you look across the block and can't even see your partner,' one guard complained.

Conditions at Ionia, severely overcrowded with the 1,400 young inmates it houses, are even worse. Walls are crumbling at the century-old prison and water leaks in through cracks in the dungeon-like basement, where rings for shackles still line the walls.

Marquette has its own share of tensions. Although its buildings are newer than the other two prisons, its inmates are Michigan's most dangerous. Most are serving life sentences.

A special state task force is examining all aspects of the prison problem and will issue its findings in about two months.

Prison officials admit, however, that any recommendations will be difficult to implement based on past experience. They are counting on luck to get the state through the rest of the summer safely.

'We've gone through a number of long hot summers in the last five years,' said corrections deputy Kime. 'It may go better for the rest of the summer.'


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