Mornings in Michigan: Starting a day in prison | Michigan Radio
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Mornings in Michigan: Starting a day in prison

Nov 8, 2019

This story is part of Michigan Radio's series Mornings in Michigan, which looks at routines and rituals that start the day across our state.

I recently spent a morning in a place most Michiganders will never go.

On a weekday in September, well before sunrise, I arrived at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti with Michigan Radio Morning Edition producer Lauren Talley and intern Katie Raymond. 

The security check was like a highly detailed airport screening between locked doors. Before our visit, the Department of Corrections required us to submit a list of everything we'd be bringing, down to the exact number of extra batteries for our audio recording equipment.

Tall fences and barbed wire line the perimeter of the prison complex. There are about two dozen buildings separated by green grass and paved walkways. 

Inmates Erica Osburn (l) and Jennifer Hulbert like to spend time outside early in the morning while it's still quiet. Osburn says it makes her feel free.
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

One day closer to going home

Inmates Erica Osburn and Jennifer Hulbert were standing in the grass soaking in the early morning light. I asked what they think about as the day is starting.

"What I think about peace, happiness, free. That's what I think about in the morning," Osburn said.

What makes her feel free? She looked out at the view beyond the fences.

"The sky, the air, the trees. It's beautiful. I love the morning."

Hulbert agreed.

"Really that's my quiet time, too. Trying to start my day off so I can be peaceful. Just do what you have to do to get through the day and one day closer to going home."

While we were talking, prisoners walked by without escorts. As an outsider, it looked surprisingly casual. 

"It's not as bad as it seem like," Osburn said. "We have a really great staff and they take really good care of us, so... this is like cupcake camp. I feel like I'm at a college campus most days. I swear. That's how I feel. And it's an all-girl campus and the officers are the teachers and it's the same. It's like high school, seriously."

But time is a tricky thing, and it's easy to wonder if Osburn will change her mind someday. She's just a couple of years into a sentence of 27 to 50 years for second-degree murder.

Warden Shawn Brewer says he and his staff work hard to set prisoners up for success on the outside. "We make every opportunity available to them."
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

The quest for quiet

There are just over 2,000 inmates at Women's Huron Valley living in 14 housing units, most filled with two-person cells. The buildings also have day rooms where prisoners hang out, check out tools to do their hair, and send emails.

But they spend a lot of their time in other buildings and over several hours, Warden Shawn Brewer and members of his staff showed us of many of them. 

"Very large compound. Easily put 10,000 steps in a day," Brewer noted as we crisscrossed the roughly 140-acre property. The facility is staffed by more than 650 employees. 

In prison lingo, inmates' meals, classes, and jobs are known as "call-outs." Brewer says call-outs are good. "Calls," a.k.a. assaults and other incidents, are not.

"As an administrator, you always want to make sure that all of our call-outs are being called timely and the prisoners are actively attending those call-outs," Brewer said.

What are the signs of the start of a good day?

"Quiet," Brewer said with a laugh. "No calls."  

Inmate Shikea Tyler eating breakfast with friends. She says television shows exaggerate the drama and violence in prisons. "It's nothing like 'Orange is the New Black.'"
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

Work on the inside

One of our first stops was the prison's kitchen. It's a large industrial setup with a full bakery. The workers are inmates supervised by prison staff.

Rose McSwain was sweating as she stirred two large, steaming vats. One was oatmeal, the other hot chocolate. She was making breakfast, which usually includes a hot cereal, a cold cereal, a hot drink, and a cold drink, like milk or orange juice.

Most prisoners are required to have a job. They’re paid a small hourly wage. McSwain is 52 and serving a life sentence. She’s been working in prison kitchens off and on since the late 1980s.

"We work for short wages. It’d be better to be free and work for minimum wage," she said. "If you can do it for 32.5 cents an hour, you can do it out there for minimum wage."

Out in the chow hall, prisoners were lined up to get their meals. The room could pass for a high school cafeteria. Shikea Tyler was eating with some friends.

"It's nothing like Orange is the New Black. It’s not about fighting. No one’s stabbing each other or anything like that," Tyler said. "It's like our own little community, our own little world here."

As Laura Gay Willis waited to get her food, she wasn't so upbeat.

"Every day is the same. It hasn't changed in here. It's just the people. They don't coincide with each other. It's a push-shove situation," she said. "It just makes me sad here."

The Michigan State Industries Dental Lab makes all of the dentures and partials for prisoners in Michigan. The work is highly specialized and training takes years. Longtime employees Anne Vincenza (l) and Donnell Miracle are both serving life sentences.
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

Michigan's only women's prison  

This is the only prison for women in Michigan. Eric Walton is acting deputy warden. He has also worked in men’s prisons.

"There's a definite difference. Generally with men, they're busier. They wake up in the morning and they’re go, go, go. Here with the women, it's a little more complex. Women are more social. They're more relational," Walton said. "An idle prisoner's a problem, so you try to keep 'em as busy as possible. Keep them focused on something positive, and then that decreases your problems."  

One of the more unusual places to stay busy is the Michigan State Industries Dental Lab. The lab makes all of the dentures and partials for the entire state prison system. Inmate Anne Vincenza is a lab manager.

"We get to see a benefit of it in our peers when they have some teeth in their mouth and now they smile. We know that we've given somebody an extra chance when they go out. An employer will hire somebody with a full set of teeth versus someone that doesn't have teeth."  

The staff supervisor said only two or three out of every 100 inmates pass the first hiring test, and workers have a high employment rate in the industry when they get out. But because training can take years, the lab also needs prisoners with longer sentences. Vincenza is a lifer and has worked in the lab for two decades. She loves her job, but there’s another personal benefit.

"We have families out there. We have families that are very proud of us, that we have careers, that we're doing so well," Vincenza said. 

Stephanie Martin is studying for her GED certificate. She's hoping to take additional courses in cosmetology and computer skills at a new vocational village under construction at the prison.
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

Looking past prison  

There are more opportunities coming to Women’s Huron Valley. A job training center called a vocational village is under construction. Stephanie Martin says she's been accepted for programs in computer skills and cosmetology that will be taught there. During our visit, she was in a packed classroom working on her GED certificate. 

"It's a good feeling in my stomach when I can call home and say, 'I passed this or I got this test back and, you know, I got a good grade. And now I'm in the pool for taking my GED next week," Martin said. "So it's good. When I pass it, it's even better."

Some inmates credited prison officers for helping them see the importance of staying positive and working toward a goal. Others praised fellow inmates who serve as tutors or mentors. Whatever the path, that mindset can be hard to achieve.

"Ultimately if they’re not willing to accept that or make that commitment, it can be very frustrating for the staff," Warden Shawn Brewer said. "We’re preparing them as best we can [so] that they’re successful when they return as citizens. And that certainly is a major process."

This story includes reporting by Lauren Talley.

Find more of Michigan Radio's coverage of Michigan's prison system in Stateside's series "Life on the Inside," recorded at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater.