Michigan prisons have undergone big reforms on Washington’s watch

Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington | Casey Hull

Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Heidi Washington is the only carryover cabinet member from former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

She is responsible for the department’s 13,000 employees and approximately 39,000 prisoners housed in correctional facilities around Michigan.

When then-Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer announced last year that Washington was staying on, she cited the “significant decrease” in the department’s prison population, as well as the prisoner skilled trades training program Washington implemented.

The Advance had the opportunity to sit down with Washington and talk about her story, as well as reforms she’s implemented as criminal justice reform remains a big bipartisan priority for the state’s leaders.

It’s part of the Advance’s new video series, “Inside Michigan Government,” interviewing key state department directors and taking you behind the scenes of your government and how decisions are made.

Path to DOC

Washington began her career at DOC in 1998 as a legislative assistant. But she never intended to turn that position into a career.

Michigan's Department of Corrections
Department of Corrections | Susan J. Demas

“I was always interested in criminal justice and crime,” Washington said. “I had the opportunity to come here, to the Department of Corrections, but my mind was set on going to law school.”

Washington would indeed go on to earn a degree in law from Cooley Law School, but her work at DOC became more than temporary employment.

“I went to school at night, and on the weekends. But I never left [DOC] because I found the work very rewarding,” she said. “After I got my law degree, I was already settled here and I never wanted to leave, and so I am still here after 21 years.”

As she grew in her career, Washington served as the warden at Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson, as well as Duane Waters Health Center.

“When I first became a warden, I tell people that it was a life changing experience for me,” Washington said. “Just the opportunities to listen to the issues that impacted their lives and to try and be a good role model for them and try to make a difference in the place that they live while they were incarcerated.”

Michigan Department of Corrections Honor Guard at assembly before 27th Annual Candlelight Vigil at National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. | Elvert Barnes, Wikimedia Commons

Washington was named the Public Official of the Year by Habitat for Humanity of Michigan in 2017. In 2018, she received the Tom Clements Award from the Association of State Correctional Administrators for implementing skill building programs for inmates.

“I tried to be very involved in what was going on at the facility, so I understood how what we were doing impacted [inmates] and how we could do it in a way that made the experience better for everybody, including staff,” Washington said.

Time for change

In 2013, DOC established a strategic plan outlining a five-year roadmap for the department. When Washington was appointed as department director in 2015, she made offender success a primary mission of that plan.

Washington said her job is about helping everyone. She believes it’s imperative that offenders are given the support to make it through probation, prison and parole. And it’s up to her to make sure staff has the training and education to succeed at their jobs.

Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington | Casey Hull

“We are the ultimate people industry, we have a 100,000 human beings, individuals, men and women, under our jurisdiction in some form. And we also have 13,000 staff — everything we do is about people,” she said.

Washington also tries to implement the most recent research regarding incarceration and treatment programs.

“I think as we continue to educate ourselves, we do change our views,” she said.

Washington points to trauma training for DOC employees as one example of how the department is utilizing new information to provide better experiences for both inmates and staff.

“Ten years ago, I would not have thought that the department would have a goal or objective of becoming a trauma-informed department,” she said. “[Trauma] impacts how [prisoners] respond to us, how they do their time and how we interact together. I think it’s very important for us as a department to really educate ourselves about that. So we can have better interventions, and have better outcomes, and so we can understand the reasons why somebody behaves the way they do.”

Life after prison

One of DOC’s main goals is to make sure that those released from prison don’t end up back behind bars.

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To that end, Washington has pushed programs that provide prisoners the ability to learn skilled trades and provide them with the tools to succeed after reintegration into society.

Some of these are traditional programs that take place in prison. Others, such as the nationally recognized Vocational Villages, provide training in welding, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, automotive technology, masonry, computer numerical control (CNC) machining and robotics.

The first Vocational Village opened at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in 2016. The following year another was launched at Parnall Correctional Facility, with a third scheduled to open later this year at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Each program can house around 200 prisoners.

“I’ve seen a lot of culture change in this department,” Washington said. “I think you’re seeing that across the state and throughout the country, is how we look at criminal justice and our approaches to criminal justice, and what do we want out of a Department of Corrections. I think historically, when you look back at incarceration and how we’ve incarcerated people and why we’ve incarcerated people, things are different today and people’s views on that are different.”

Former state Rep. Klint Kesto talks with the welding teacher at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in 2014 | Wikimedia Commons

Washington said running secure prisons ensures public safety in the short-term, but DOC’s long-term goal is preparing inmates for re-entry into the general population.

“Ninety-eight percent of people are going to return home, so what we really need to be concerned with on a day-to-day basis is how we achieve long-term public safety. And that is by making the time we have with people meaningful and impactful, in a way that helps them transform their lives,” she said.

Michigan’s prison population has continued to decline under Washington’s stewardship and has reached a 23-year low of 38,761 prisoners. A decrease in probation and parole violations were the two primary reasons for the decline, according to a 2019 DOC prisoner population report.

“While we’ve had great results in this department in regards to the things we measure, like our prison population and recidivism … our population hasn’t dropped because we’re not holding people accountable, because we do,” Washington said.

Former state Rep. Joe Haveman and Andy Ribbens, President of Premier Finishing in Grand Rapids, look over some of the products created by prisoners in the machines shop at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility, 2014 | Wikimedia Commons

The prisoner success mission of the department seems to be having the desired impact. A national study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found an average of 68 percent of released prisoners were arrested within three years. Comparatively, DOC reported a recidivism rate of 28.1 percent in 2018, the lowest in state history.

Criminal justice reform

Democrats and Republicans have found some common ground on criminal justice reform this year, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signing criminal asset forfeiture legislation and establishing the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration

Washington said DOC is also embracing systemic reforms.

“One of the things that I’ve been trying to focus on since I’ve been director is focusing on the front end of the system — on probation and on people who are involved at sort of the lower end of the justice system,” Washington said. “How can we work to develop more interventions and more opportunities to help people locally so they don’t end up coming to prison?”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs an executive order for a criminal justice reform taskforce, April 17, 2019 | Nick Manes

Some of the “front end” programs are the Wayne County Residential Alternative to Prison, Special Alternative Incarceration and problem-solving courts, which are judicial programs that provide alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent criminal offenders with substance use disorders and mental illnesses.

These programs generally utilize much smaller prison sentences, but require individuals on probation to participate in rigorous programs designed to address underlying issues. Drug courts, for example, attempt to quickly link participants to treatment services while allowing them to avoid jail or prison.

“When we do that, we’re having the greatest impact of all. Because we’re keeping families intact and we’re keeping people employed,” Washington said.

There are still areas in which our justice system can continue to be improved, she noted.

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Bail reform has been identified as one aspect of corrections reform that needs to be addressed. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently suing the 36th District Court in Detroit for setting unreasonable bail costs that has a large impact on the black community. And legislation scrapping cash bail has been introduced.

Bail is the responsibility of the courts and not DOC, but it does impact the ability for individuals to maintain employment and family relations.

“The topic of bail reform is a national topic that is being discussed everywhere, including in Michigan, and it’s ripe for discussion,” Washington said. “We all want a justice system that is fair and equitable for all people. I’m glad to see that there is discussion around this topic and I think we’re going to see some progress on it.”

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