Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Prisoners lose another tool of justice

This is a shame.  This office has done a tremendous amount with very little for a long time and now is closing for lack of funding.

After 30 years of helping people no one else will, Prison Legal Services of Michigan is broke and will close at month's end. Executive Director Sandra Girard, who had been the agency's only full-time employee, hasn't seen a paycheck for nearly two months. She's clearing out her Lansing office, sorting through thousands of files, many on prisoners with no other place to turn.

Since joining the nonprofit in 1983, Girard and her staff have helped tens of thousands of prisoners and their families navigate the criminal justice system.

"Our closing leaves them very vulnerable to the arbitrary policies of the Department of Corrections," Girard, 63, told me over lunch in Lansing last week, just after filing for unemployment. "A little hope keeps prisons calm and functioning. When you squash it, people have nothing to look forward to, and nothing to lose."

The closing of Prison Legal Services of Michigan also means even less oversight of a state department that holds 50,000 people -- a population nearly the size of Battle Creek -- and spends $2 billion a year, more than Michigan devotes to higher education. It makes a well-staffed Corrections Ombudsman's Office more essential than ever.

"The public really has no idea what goes on inside the prisons," Girard said. "The department has made changes to restrict access, not just for the media but also for volunteers and visitors."

Prison Legal Services represented inmates in the class-action Cain case, a lawsuit challenging new restrictions on inmate clothing and personal property. But it also published self-help packets for inmates filing appeals, compiled information about prisoner deaths, answered phone calls and e-mails from families and friends of prisoners, served as an advocate in the Legislature, and helped prisoners prepare pleadings in family law cases.

And it helped save lives.

Earlier this year, Detroiter Walter Swift was cleared by the Innocence Project and freed from prison after serving nearly 26 years for the rape of a young mother in Detroit's Indian Village neighborhood. Prison Legal Services of Michigan opened the first door to freedom.

Swift contacted the agency as an inmate in the early 1980s, when Prison Legal Services was housed in a Jackson prison. It helped him with an appeal. Later, in 1996, Girard referred Swift to the Innocence Project. He wrote to the project, which won his freedom after an 11-year campaign.

"Prison Legal Services of Michigan and Sandra Girard are a godsend," Swift told me. "They're the only check on the Department of Corrections. Now there's no one to police these people, and they don't police themselves."

With a budget of about $150,000 a year, Prison Legal Services relied mostly on money from prison inmate benefit funds, generated through profits from inmate stores. The state has, in effect, squeezed those funds by raising store prices, restricting the inmate hobby crafts program, drawing co-pays for health care, and now slapping a 10% surcharge on many prison store items.

Prison Legal Services has struggled with funding for most of its 30 years, but the beginning of the end came in 2003. Corrections pushed the agency out of the Egeler prison in Jackson, where the department had provided office space. Inside a prison, Prison Legal Services of Michigan had maintained direct contact with its clients and employed prisoner paralegals, who worked for about $1 an hour. Before moving out of its prison office, Prison Legal Services employed a dozen prisoners and assisted thousands more every year.

Girard won a Champion of Justice Award from the State Bar of Michigan in 2004 and a Justice for All Award from the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan in 2006. She's one of a handful of people and agencies, some in danger of folding, that do prisoner advocacy work in Michigan. They include Barbara Levine, executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Safety; Penny Ryder and Natalie Holbrook of the American Friends Service Committee; Doug Tjapkes of Humanity for Prisoners; and attorneys Patricia Streeter and F. Martin Tieber.

Their cause is unpopular, their work largely unrecognized and unrewarded. But they provide a few checks on a criminal justice system that affects hundreds of thousands of people. They are, I think, what writer James Baldwin had in mind when he said the world is held together by the love of a very few people.

"Most of the people I've helped in prison have also been victims," said Girard, who might start another prisoner advocacy group. "Long before they committed a crime themselves, they were victims of violence, poverty or something else.

"I have great faith in people's potential. I hate to see it wasted."

With Prison Legal Services of Michigan almost history, Girard's mission to make the criminal justice system work for everyone becomes more important than ever.

JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at gerritt@freepress.com or 313-222-6585.

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