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In prison, people find passions, hobbies, interests, and ways to contribute to the common good. But once released, they’re left without much guidance.

*Editor’s Note: We are anonymizing “Jenny’s” name so she could share her story without fear of retribution.

YPSILANTI, Mich.—In prison, Jenny* settled into a groove. She worked at the library. She learned to crochet. She served as a mentor for younger incarcerated people.

Never throughout her sentence did she have any sort of demerit, except for small gaffes, like having her shirt untucked or breaking stride while walking, both of which are against the rules at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

Now, she’s on parole, essentially under house arrest with an ankle monitor and very specific parameters for when and why she can go outside. In other hours, she can’t even have the blinds open.

She’s still looking for a job and having difficulty reintegrating into society.

“We weren’t prepared to reenter into this world,” she said.

Many of Jenny’s best friends remain behind bars. Jenny spends her time volunteering for a variety of causes that advocate for incarcerated peoples’ rights and assistance for people who were once in prison. She’s also still fighting to reverse her sentence too, some 19 years later. 

“There’s just so many people counting on us to succeed,” Jenny said. 

Prior to prison, where she was sentenced to for a criminal sexual conduct charge that she contests, Jenny had a promising future. Originally from Battle Creek, she was one year away from her bachelor’s and on track to become a teacher. 

Back in the early 2000s, she knew how to repair a computer and get it back running.

But when she received her release, she didn’t know what an “app,” short for application, was. Same for Google Docs. The last computer program she was familiar with was Microsoft Office Suite 2000.

Even though her parents sent her a laptop and iPhone to help her settle back into life, she wound up more overwhelmed than ever.

“The first laptop, I just sat here and cried, because I didn’t even know how to turn it on, to even open the thing,” Jenny said.

After spending years fine-tuning her resume while working in the library, now, she wonders if someone should have warned her that a paper resume wasn’t going to go all that far in the modern world. 

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Overcrowded, Under-Programmed

Michigan has only one prison for women who are incarcerated. 

By April 2021, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility met dual crises—overcrowding and COVID-19. Jenny says there, policies were sporadic. At one point, she was crammed into a gym with all of the other prison frontline workers, such as those in the cafeteria, and people whose roommates had COVID-19.

People in prison didn’t receive masks until May, and even then, the state jumped around different protocols that didn’t measure up well to COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“People cut up underwear, cut up t-shirts to make their own masks,” Jenny said.

Jenny said that during the first few months, they sat awake, worried about a masked guard approaching their cell to tell them to gather their items in a certain amount of time and move to the gym or to segregation, often known as solitary confinement. Eventually, Jenny got sick. According to her, most people did.

She saw people she knew die.

“Every hour, you didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It was like walking the Green Mile.”

All people in Michigan prisons are required to take certain programming prior to release. They’re enrolled in these classes, which can include violence prevention and substance abuse, in the year of their release, often within six months. 

But during COVID-19, these classes were suspended or delayed. Some peoples’ release dates were pushed back as a result, Jenny said.

Jenny was able to sneak in her classes just in time. She fought to take the earliest availability, which began in 2019. Had she waited until March or April, her release would have been delayed.

Prisons also offer voluntary programming as well that can help people attain their GED or learn life skills, like reading. With the pandemic, however, institutions often canceled these programs, leaving people without a way to be productive during their sentence.

“I think we really need to consider this idea that we need to keep punishing people once they’re inside,” Lois Pullano, executive director of Citizens for Prison Reform, said. “Their punishment was being removed from society.”

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The Unique Challenges for Women

Incarcerated people experience two different lives inside and outside of prison.

Jenny still remembers her first day, in 2003, at Plymouth Prison, back when Michigan had more than one women’s prison. She stepped off the bus, wearing a t-shirt, orange “smock thing”, socks, and shower shoes, and set off shivering through the snow, feet shackled. She showered, underwent an exam, handed over her materials, and was handed her uniform.

At her cell gate, she was greeted by a large, hulking woman, tattooed from head to toe. After joking with her at the cell door, “You don’t want any, and you can’t come in,” she greeted Jenny and began showing her the ropes.

But though Jenny developed relationships inside the prison, many women report feeling extremely isolated and alone within prison walls, advocates say. Pullano said this is often because women are caretakers within the family, and when they’re sentenced, their support system falters. Then, they’re left alone.

Pullano, who’s son went to prison, said that families carry a tremendous burden as well—she used to drive from southern Michigan to Marquette two times a month to visit her son, bearing all the costs. Families also own the burden of helping to support the cost of email access, extra clothes, and food for people who are incarcerated. Many families can’t afford that.

“I’ve had families say, ‘I’ll take your phone calls but we can’t afford to visit,’” Pullano said.

For bad behavior, punishments first target socialization time, such as in-person visits and calls with family. People in prison can also be sent to segregation cells by themselves, which can lead to PTSD they might never recover from.

Inside women’s prisons, especially, mental health services are lacking. There is a psychiatric ward for some of Michigan’s most seriously ill male incarcerated people—about one of every five people in prison has a diagnosed mental illness but most are still treated in regular facilities—but there is only a small psychiatric unit inside the women’s prison.

“Mental health should not be handled by jails or prisons,” Pullano said. “When we have someone that comes in with a known mental illness, what happens is, according to the criminal justice system, their crime takes precedence… and their mental health falls to the bottom. That is how we’ve had so many individuals die in segregation.”

Pullano is part of a campaign to restrict the use of segregation except for severe, absolutely necessary spaces. Instead, she’d like to see more therapeutic cell spaces, which have murals and activities to keep people engaged, and programming. 

Jenny said she knew a lady who inside prison was popular, active, and busy, but outside, she floundered. She couldn’t cope with all the outside world, and hung herself.

“That leads to people committing suicide inside, and overdosing and committing suicide when they get out because they can’t handle the change,” she said.

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What’s Next?

Prison reform advocates worry that the lack and delay in mandatory programming means people inside aren’t actually being equipped with what’s required to succeed in the outside world.

Jenny and others believe that a better system would put programming in place early and often, so that people in prison could have the tools and understanding needed to succeed while serving their time. They wish prisons offered more programs and worked harder to enroll incarcerated people in voluntary courses.

“Do you want somebody who sat in a cell, was beaten down, and did not receive basic human needs?” Pullano said. “Or do you want someone who was rehabilitated?”

Pullano has seen successful pilots in select jails across the state. Genesee County, for example, offers more than 50 virtual options to people in jail, which can be applied to diplomas and GEDs.

At the state level, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has introduced a jails task force that is already making progress, advocates say. 

One initiative for prisons has been the highly touted Vocational Villages, which pairs incarcerated people with career fields and introduce them to potential employers. However, the Vocational Villages that was supposed to open in the women’s prison has been delayed numerous times, including because of COVID-19, and faces an uphill funding battle. 

Living a Meaningful Life

In Kalamazoo, Jennifer Gougeon-Catarino began emailing back and forth with people in prison after she suffered a traumatic brain injury, caused by an unruly student in her English class. After dropping out of teaching, she took to journaling and scribed a mission statement for herself.

“Live a meaningful life, cultivating honest relationships with others, being able to both seek and give help, to act in a respectful way, and actively work to minimize injustice in my community,” she read from her journal.

Through her church, she learned of a program speaking with people in jails. She was nervous, she admits. But in her first visit, she hit it off with the person who was on the other side of the glass, and she has gone regularly since.

Whether over email or in person, she now keeps in touch with more than 20 people who are incarcerated. Jail staff in the Kalamazoo area know her well, and she thinks they’re skeptical of why she comes in so much.

Through that experience, she met Jenny.

To many, including to her parents, she knows the connection seems like an odd one. But incarcerated people are often backed into tough situations and forced to react, Gougeon-Catarino said. When they get out, they’re totally different people, living incomparable lives.

Together, Jenny and Gougeon-Catarino have gone to the Capitol, advocating for aid for formerly incarcerated people and the rights of people in prison. Gougeon-Catarino’s mom was worried about her safety, being in the car with someone who had been in prison for 19 years. 

Gougeon-Catarino wasn’t concerned at all. This is someone she’d emailed with for months, developed a relationship with, and related to.

“If people would really just take the time to get to know people, our world could be so much better,” Gougeon-Catarino said.