Michigan prison takes a gentler tack with mentally ill

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Whitmore Lake — The most severely mentally ill of Michigan's nearly 10,000 inmates who receive treatment are housed here at Woodland Center Correctional Facility.

"It's different at other prisons than here," said inmate Christopher Goike at the Woodland Center Correctional Center. "You don’t get to work with your caseworker as much (at other prisons)."

The maximum-security prison, which is about 11 miles north of Ann Arbor, provides acute and longer-term psychiatric treatment for inmates throughout Michigan's prison system at a sprawling one-story building that resembles a school. It treats about 200 inmates at a time with a 23-bed inpatient infirmary and three-bed dialysis unit for inmates with or without mental illness.

Among Michigan's prisons, Woodland appears to most closely resemble prisons in Norway, which has gained an international reputation for effectively rehabilitating inmates and has prompted states like North Dakota and Oregon to adopt some of its practices. 

Located in the former W. J. Maxey Boys Training School, the building was retrofitted to provide a therapeutic environment. Inmates live in small units of 10 prisoners each and can participate in art and music therapy, and even a theater program.

Together with Vocational Villages at prisons in Ionia and Jackson — where as many as 400 inmates are trained at a time in robotics, plumbing and other in-demand careers  — Woodland reflects a decade-long effort by Michigan officials to focus on rehabilitation. Only 2.2% of the 670 prisoners paroled from Vocational Village programs since 2016 have returned to prison, according to the state.

Michigan had the nation's eighth best recidivism rate in 2018, bested only by Minnesota in the Midwest, according to a report by the Virginia Department of Corrections. About 28.1% of Michigan inmates return to prison within three years of release, according to the Virginia report. 

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"We can focus on security, while still providing comprehensive prisoner training and education," said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz, noting reductions in Michigan's prison population since the appointment of Corrections Director Heidi Washington in 2015.

"And that’s 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." 

But there remain stark differences in the ways Norway and Michigan treat prisoners, even at Woodland. 

More than 25% of Michigan's roughly 38,000 state prisoners are receiving mental health treatment throughout the system, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. The diagnoses range from depression, anxiety and personality disorders to bipolar, schizophrenia and other severe and disabling mental illnesses, state officials said. 

There is no wait list for a bed in Woodland's Crisis Stabilization Unit, where the average stay is about seven days, according to the state. Prisoners typically are transported here within 24 hours of referral from another Michigan prison, Warden Jodi DeAngelo said.

The majority of Woodland prisoners are in Rehabilitative Treatment Services, a partial-hospitalization program that lasts six months or longer. There is also a unit for inmates with developmental disorders, as well as about 50 "permanent" residents — inmates with late-stage dementia or mental illness so severe they can't be managed in a normal prison, DeAngelo said. 

More:Michigan treatment courts focus on rehabilitation, not retribution

More:States put Norway-style prison reforms to work in U.S.

But differences between Woodland and the Norway system are apparent. 

As throughout Michigan's prison system, there is little freedom of movement for prisoners at Woodland. Supplies in the art room are locked up, and the walls of the corridors are bare. The atmosphere is spare and utilitarian. 

In the yard, one prisoner plays basketball with a recreational therapist. A half-dozen or so corrections officers huddle in the shade nearby while inmates congregate at a picnic table dozens of yards away. Norwegian correctional officers routinely play games, socialize and eat meals with inmates. 

Segregation, when inmates are put in solitary isolation away from other prisoners for disciplinary or other reasons, is still practiced in Michigan, but is rare in Norway. Corrections Director Washington vowed to reduce separating mentally ill prisoners away from other inmates, Gautz said. 

Across Michigan, the average daily number of severely mentally ill or developmentally disordered prisoners in segregation declined 84% from 88 during the 2015-16 fiscal year to 14 in 2017-18, according to a required annual report. There was a similar 84% plunge in the total number of days mentally ill prisoners spent in isolation over the two-year period. 

"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," Gautz said.

'There's lots of sunlight'

Woodland's sprawling facility houses 350 prisoners, including 199 who are there for treatment.

The other 150 general-population inmates work at the facility, providing custodial or other services. Some monitor fellow inmates who require 24-hour observation due to suicidal behavior, Alzheimer's disease or other conditions. 

"The layout helps tremendously," said DeAngelo, who led The Detroit News on a tour of the facility. "There's lots of sunlight."  

Common areas include a "treatment mall" with rooms for arts and crafts, music therapy and other activities. Woodland employs two music therapists, two occupational therapists and four recreational therapists, DeAngelo said.

Prisoners can use a large, well-equipped library with computers, and Eastern Michigan University conducts a theater program for inmates who would like to try acting.

"They use theater as a way for them to identify and work through emotion," the warden said. 

The prison is divided into self-contained "pods," each with two 10-prisoner units situated on either side of a large activity space. A glass wall divides this large open area from prisoners' living quarters. Corrections officers can look through the window to a small day room where a row of cells line the far wall. 

Each pod is staffed by two to three officers, as well as a nurse and two therapists who have offices off the activity space.  

"The fact that you only have 20 in a pod makes us much more successful at managing their behavior," DeAngelo said. 

During The News' visit to a pod, the prisoners were locked in their cells behind thick stainless steel doors, each with a small window. One prisoner's chart showed he'd been observed nine times by multiple staff members between 6:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on the day of the visit. 

Warden Jodi DeAngelo shows a metal cage, or therapeutic module, that contains a bench for prisoners to sit on during therapy sessions.

The spartan day room outside their cells was furnished with a few metal stools; a small television set was mounted near the ceiling. 

At the maximum-security Halden Prison in Norway, inmates live in dorm-like bedrooms and walk freely throughout the prison campus. They are sent to a local mental hospital if needed and then returned to the prison.

At Woodland, prisoners are let into the glassed-in activity space for therapy or activity sessions. The room contains a "safety table"  where prisoners can be restrained with a handcuff and chain. There is also a man-sized cage made of chain link fencing that contains a small bench where a prisoner can sit. 

Chris Goike, 33, said he is doing better at Woodland, which he likes better than other Michigan prisons where he has been incarcerated. Goike said he came to Woodland after trying to kill himself in a Residential Treatment Program unit at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. 

Inmate Christopher Goike would like to improve his education, but classes in Michigan prisons are reserved for inmates who are within about 18 months of their earliest possible release date. Goike is in his 9th year of a 20- to 40-year sentence.

Goike frequently suffered from psychogenic polydipsia, a condition associated with severe mental illness, especially schizophrenia. People with polydipsia drink so much water they can suffer cardiac arrest and die.  

"I’m slowing down on my water and taking my meds," said Goike, who added that he has more contact with his caseworker at Woodland than he did at other prisons. 

Goike is serving his ninth year of a 20-year to 40-year sentence for perjury after lying during a murder trial, according to state records. He knew who committed the murder, but blamed it on the wrong guy, he said.

A prisoner died of polydipsia at Handlon Correctional Facility in 2014. The family of Kenneth Dalstra, 40, who had schizophrenia, sued the state Department of Corrections and accused prison staff of ignoring his symptoms for days leading up to his death. His estate received $1.1 million in an out-of-court settlement.

Goike appeared subdued in an interview with The News. He said his family members in Detroit were in gangs, and there was a lot of chaos.

Asked if he has any goals, Goike said he would like to improve his education. But classes are generally reserved for the inmates who are closest to their earliest release dates, the state department confirmed. 

Damone Signil, 43, was looking forward to his impending parole after nine years in prison for bank robbery. He previously served 10 years for a similar crime. He spent the year and a half he was free between sentences in a mental hospital, he told The News.  

Signil has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

Inmate Damone Signil soon will be paroled directly from the maximum security Woodland Center to his parents' home, after spending roughly 20 years either in prison or a mental hospital. Home visits while incarcerated are prohibited under Michigan law.

"I just became a little bit offset because I thought everybody was plotting against me, and I thought I was a deity of importance," he said. "Since I’ve been in mental health, people like (Unit Chief) Miss (Mara) Trefry assist me, and when I have problems or complications she will make sure that I’m safe and I will have a management plan."

Signil was granted a D-47 parole on Aug. 9. The program provides mentally ill offenders with social services and community mental health support after release from prison. 

He will be on parole for one year. It is unknown how many prisoners in Michigan were freed directly from maximum-security prisons without supervision in 2018. 

North Dakota and Washington State have work release programs so offenders can acclimate to the outside before release. Michigan law forbids time away from prison prior to release, Corrections Department spokesman Gautz said.

Inmates at Woodland Center Correctional Center, where Michigan's most mentally ill prisoners are treated, are locked in their cells between therapy and activity sessions.

In Norway, prisoners progress from short trips outside prison in the company of guards, to weekends away with family. They serve the end of their sentences in open prisons where they can leave to go to work or school. 

Freedom will be an adjustment for Signil. He was released to the care of his parents, though he hadn't been home in more than two decades.

"I just really want to be able to function in the community without being a victim or being a predator, or someone else which I’m not," he said.

“Healing Justice” is a Detroit News project made possible through a fellowship with the Association of Health Care Journalists funded by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit foundation focused on health.


Twitter: @kbouffardDN

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