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Michigan Finding Success With More Humane Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

by David M. Reutter

Michigan’s new approach to dealing with mentally ill prisoners is not only more humane, it is proving to be more effective at reducing recidivism.

When Heidi Washington took over as director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in 2015, she vowed to change the way mentally ill prisoners were treated. Eliminating their placement in solitary confinement was a top priority.

Woodland Correctional Institution used to be the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School, which was a facility that housed juveniles. It was retrofitted to provide acute and long-term psychiatric treatment. It treats 200 prisoners and houses another 150 to fulfill general prison jobs. There is no wait list for Woodland’s Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) and prisoners referred for Woodland by other prisons are usually transported there within 24 hours.

The average stay in Woodland’s CSU is seven days. Most of the prisoners are in Rehabilitative Treatment Services, a partial hospitalization program that lasts six months or longer. Woodland has a unit for prisoners with developmental disorders and houses about 50 prisoners with late stage dementia or mental illness that prevent management in other prisons.

The new approach has seen an 84% decline in the average number of mentally ill prisoners housed in solitary confinement since Washington took MDOC’s reins. In 2015-16, an average of 88 prisoners were in segregation every day. That number was reduced to 14 in 2017-2018, which also coincided with an 84% drop in the number of days mentally ill prisoners spent in segregation.

“It has been a priority of Director Washington to seriously reduce the use of segregation for the mentally ill, with the goal of completely eliminating it as an option,” said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

Woodland has 20 man pods that have a large activity space. Prisoners engage in recreation, a theatre program, and music and art therapy. The set up provides “lots of sunlight,” said Warden Jodi DeAngelo.

“Since I’ve been in mental health, people like (Unit Chief) Miss Trefry assist me, and when I have problems or complications she will make sure I’m safe and I will have a management plan,” said prisoner Damone Signil.

Vocational Villages at prisons in Ionia and Jackson have had a positive impact, for prisoners released from those programs have a 2.2% recidivist rate. Michigan had the eighth best recidivist rate in 2018 at 28.1% within three years of release, according to statistics released in 2019.

“We can focus on security, while still providing comprehensive prisoner training and education,” said Gautz. “And that’s been proven by the fact that since Washington has led the MDOC, the prison population has decreased by more than 5,000, the recidivism rate is near an all-time state low, and we have been able to close three prisons.”

The focus on mental health care needs must also focus on guards, concludes a report that found 24% of them meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. The report further found 49% of MDOC employees have general anxiety disorder, and 19% exhibit alcohol abuse symptoms. The results point to a “mental health crisis” among MDOC employees. 



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