Phone Calls from Prison
Tracking a young friend through the MDOC
by "John Allen"
From the February, 2020 issue
I gave him $50 to pay his final probation fee, helped him write a resume, and worked with him to get a job and apartment. But then, in early April, he showed up at my door at midnight, showing all the signs of being drunk or high. He told me he was celebrating getting off probation and would soon "get it together." I provided him with bedding on the sofa in the living room. Ten minutes later, he and my car were gone.
-"Life on Probation," Ann Arbor Observer, June 2017.
"This is a call from a prisoner at a correctional facility," the familiar recorded voice begins. "If you feel you are being victimized or extorted by this prisoner, please contact customer service … To accept this call, press zero."
I accept the call and am connected to "Eddie," the nineteen-year-old who three years ago stole (and totaled) my car, then carjacked two others with a fake gun. He's now serving a minimum of six-and-a-half years in the Michigan Department of Corrections.
I met Eddie during my own brief incarceration in the Washtenaw County Jail. I was there for drunk driving, Eddie for the latest of many juvenile probation violations ("A Sobering Experience," March 2017 Observer). He was out only a few weeks before the automobile thefts sent him back.
Though I was very angry about my car, I visited Eddie in jail. I wanted to understand who he was, why he made so many poor decisions, and what would happen to him next.
After he pled guilty, I followed his trek through the state corrections system. It's easier to keep in contact with incarcerated people now, because current rules allow emails, and phone calls are less expensive than in the past.
As I observe, from a distance, his life in prison, I wonder what will happen when he gets out. Will he continue to commit crimes, or will his time inside point him toward a better future outside?
I tell Eddie that I want to write about him, he's eager to share his story. He hopes that people will see him as a whole person, he says-one who has made mistakes but also has dreams and ambitions for a good, productive life.
His life so far has been challenging. Eddie grew up in Ann Arbor and moved to Ypsilanti when he was fourteen. He says he wasn't particularly motivated in school, instead becoming an early adherent to marijuana, alcohol, and minor juvenile delinquency.
He began by stealing from local stores, then, at age fifteen, escalated to grand theft auto. Eddie would enter people's homes, find their car keys, and go joyriding. He enjoyed the thrill. When we were in jail together, he boasted that two Detroit TV stations had covered his most notorious escapade: the cops had spotted him driving a stolen car, launching a high-speed chase that ended when he smashed into a fence at Willow Run Airport.
Instead of going to school, he says, "I preferred hanging out at the bus station with my friends. I would sleep on park benches, on friends' couches, anything to keep me away from home. My mother remarried and seemed more interested in the younger kids, and I don't think they wanted me around. My father is currently in the middle of a twelve-year sentence at another prison in Michigan."
Another shock was learning that he'd been adopted-his mother told him while he was in jail. "I was kicked out of three schools and ended up at the WAVE [Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education] program in Ypsilanti. The one positive thing I did during probation is that I stayed off smoking pot so I wouldn't 'test dirty.'"
He served time in various youth facilities, then, at age seventeen, in the adult section of the Washtenaw County Jail. (Local rules have since changed, and seventeen-year-olds are now housed in the juvenile section.)
He celebrated the end of his probation by going back to smoking pot. When I asked him later why he'd stolen three cars in one night, he said only that he wasn't "thinking."
The Michigan Department of Corrections defines recidivism as a discharged prisoner returning to prison within three years for committing another crime or violating parole. The department says that rate has declined from a high of 48 percent of people discharged in 1988 to 28 percent of those released in 2014.
The trend line is moving in the right direction, but, with Eddie's history, I worry about what the future holds for a nineteen-year-old who won't be returning to society until he's at least twenty-five.
He's currently at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater. Given his youth and small stature, I worry that he might be assaulted, but he tells me he mostly keeps to himself and hasn't been hurt.
While he likes Lakeland, he's hoping to be transferred to one of the MDOC's Jackson facilities. The infamous walled prison there has been replaced by smaller clusters of buildings where prisoners bunk in dorm-like "units" instead of individual cells, and there he'd have a chance to further his education through a program offered in conjunction with Jackson College. Although the curriculum is geared toward business and trade studies, he says he's also interested in studying religion and philosophy.
While it's encouraging that Eddie might have educational options in the future, his current life seems to consist mainly of dull daily routines and boredom. He gets up early, has breakfast, goes back to his unit, sometimes goes outside and plays soccer in the prison yard, works out with weights, and then returns to his unit to read and sleep-he gets a lot of sleep. The one activity that seems to really interest him is art-he's taken up drawing, and works on it for hours at a time.
When we talk, I'm cautious about telling him things I'm doing for fear that it will just make him feel worse. Thinking it would give us something to talk about-and give him some perspective on his own situation-I recently sent him a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account of life in the notorious Siberian prisons of the Soviet Union. It's a thick book, but I figured he has plenty of time to read.
For all his missed youth and bad choices, I sense a growing maturity in Eddie. He's constantly reflecting on his mistakes, how long he has to endure prison, and all that he's missing.
In the meantime, at least I will always know where he is. I take a strange comfort in the thought that both he and society are probably safer with him removed from criminal temptations.
Meanwhile, when I see the familiar number appearing on my phone, I continue to accept his calls. I start a recent conversation by asking, "Did you get a chance to start reading the book I sent you?"
"It's really long," Eddie replies. In spite of everything, he's still a nineteen-year-old.
So again we talk about his desire to attend college as soon as possible, and his drawing. He hopes to have a piece selected for inclusion in the Michigan Prisoner Creative Arts program, a U-M initiative that displays prisoner art at locations on campus.
He says he's trying to depict what freedom will feel like "when I get out." I'm eager to see what develops.
[Originally published in February, 2020.]
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