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Fighting for life behind bars: West Michigan advocates work to reform prison system

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Sharae Anderson

In Michigan, close to 41,000 people are in prison. Sharae Anderson, a resident of the Madison Square neighborhood, shares how her experience of inhumane treatment at a correctional facility has inspired her to advocate for others.
For some of us, home is near a dining room table close to our loved ones, family and friends; perhaps home is a childhood memory of a warm summer day spent chasing after the sunset. For others, home is a battleground. A disastrous battleground of uncertainty. For Sharae Anderson, a resident of the Madison Square neighborhood, home was a battleground built out of unmet needs. Growing up in an unstable home environment of drug exchange and substance abuse – all of which became her normal – Anderson learned the way to meet her basic needs was by stealing and engaging in criminal activity. Throughout her childhood, Anderson would be stripped of any control, enduring years of abuse and trauma.
 
“I didn’t see people buying things, applying to jobs and going to college,” says Anderson.
 
“I couldn’t take being at home,” she says. “I was always running away and stealing. I started stealing from a young age, and eventually this led me to prison.”  
 
Once in prison, Anderson further experienced the institution that is in the business of incarcerating people of color at rates significantly higher than any other demographic.

One in eight black men in their twenties is locked up on any given day in the United States, according to data obtained and analyzed by Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and legal scholar, in her work titled “The New Jim Crow.”

At Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan, Anderson reports she was stripped of her rights, humane treatment and control. It was at this facility that, Anderson explains, she would be coerced into giving up the rights to her son, Joseph Anderson-Jordan, who was born while she was incarcerated, to a foster family. It was behind bars that Anderson would have to learn to give up control of her body, which she states was taken advantage of and violated. 

It was under the watchful eyes of guards and health professionals that Anderson reports she would have her cesarean section staples removed days before any physical healing occurred.
 
Due to HIPAA constraints that protect the privacy and confidentiality of inmates, Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, could not confirm nor deny the allegations.
 
“They told me to come back in one week to have my staples removed, but the doctor at Scott’s said he was going on vacation the following week, so he removed my staples one day after I was released from the prison’s hospital,” says Anderson.
 
In the facility, Anderson felt she was treated not as a human being but as another body taking up space. Another unnamed black woman who was being denied appropriate health care.  From 1977 to 2007, the number of women in U.S. prisons has increased by 932 percent, according to data obtained from Alexander’s work, “The New Jim Crow.  Even though white individuals use drugs at the same rate as people of color, 75 percent of people in state prisons serving sentences for drug convictions are people of color, states Alexander in her work.  In the state of Michigan, 41,000 individuals are serving a sentence in prison, and 54 percent of these are black Americans, explains Gautz. 
 
Doug Tjapkes, founder of the Grand Haven-based organization Humanity for Prisoners (HFP), explains that women make up the majority of the complaints his organization receives, even though they only represent 5.5 percent of the population in prison according to Gautz. 
 
Doug Tjapkes“About 2,200 of the prisoners in Michigan are female,” explains Gautz. 
 
HFP operates with two full-time staff and more than 50 volunteers whose primary focus is to develop relationships with, and advocate for, prisoners in the state of Michigan.

"We see prisoners who are denied pain meds after surgery, and the response is, 'Well they are just a prisoner.' Our job is to make sure these people are treated as humans, regardless of how heinous their crimes are. It is in their constitutional right to receive humane treatment,” says Tjapkes.  Here, Tjapkes is referring to the eighth amendment in the United States Constitution, which limits the government from imposing excessive bail and the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments.
 
Like Anderson, many women currently in Michigan’s prisons are being denied appropriate medical treatment and care while incarcerated, according to Tjapkes, who says that tends to be the most common reason prisoners reach out to HFP for help.  
 
“This past month, we had over 360 contacts with inmates whose main complaint was medical care,” says Tjapkes.
 
The need for healthcare reform in Michigan prisons has also been emphasized by the U.S. government. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation based on reports of mistreatment of mentally ill inmates at the Women’s  Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), now the only prison in Michigan that houses women. The oversight from the Department of Justice continued until reforms were made in 2015. Reforms included the banning of restraint used on inmates on suicide watch, and an increase of individual medical treatment plans for inmates. A letter from the U.S. Office of the Attorney General to the Michigan Department of Corrections, written in August of 2016, prompts WHV for continued oversight over suicide risk assessment, medication administration and management in the special housing units, and monitoring medication side effects. The investigation has since been closed.
 
Still, deep-rooted problems with the way healthcare is provided in prisons persist, which is where Tjapkes’ organization comes into play. Humanity for Prisoners began as a grassroots organization in 1995 after Tjapkes developed a relationship with Maurice Carter, a black American who was wrongfully convicted for the shooting and wounding of a Benton Harbor police officer. After serving 28 years in prison, Carter was released, but he died three months later due to complications in his liver as a result of Hepatitis C, an infection which he contracted while he was in prison. Thanks to Tjapkes’ advocacy, Carter was absolved of his crimes, and now Tjapkes wants to make sure other individuals in prison are not faced with the same kind of treatment that eventually took Carter’s life. On March 7, Humanity for Prisoners will be hosting Piper Kerman, author of the award -winning work, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” at Fountain Street Church, located at 24 Fountain St. NE, beginning at 4pm. Registration fees will serve to continue the work of Humanity for Prisoners.
 
“I believe that every person is worthy of rehabilitation,” says Tjapkes.
 
While in prison, Anderson was pregnant with her youngest child, Joseph Anderson-Jordan. Before giving birth to her son, Anderson had been diligent in filling out the necessary paperwork to give power of attorney and guardianship to the boy’s father, Gregory Jordan. When Jordan came to pick up his son from the hospital, three days after the baby had been born, he was informed the boy had been taken into the foster care system.
 
“They said he had crack in his system, and when Gregory tried to come pick him up they told him he was already up north with a foster family. My story was not the only one like this; there were other women with me who were also stripped of their rights and their children taken away,” explains Anderson.
 
Tjapkes believes to make systemic change there needs to be a way to address the election of prosecutors and prosecutorial misconduct.
 
“Electing prosecutors is a problem because prosecutors get re-elected based on their conviction rate, and I think that prosecutorial misconduct is a serious problem,” states Tjapkes.
 
Gauze explains that, at $300 million, health care costs make up the largest line on the budget for Michigan prisons. As of last year, the state's health care for inmates was re-awarded to Corizon Health, a private health care company.
The country's largest for-profit health provider for inmates has been under scrutiny after the 2015 report release from Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler, which stated the company failed to complete 22 percent of inmates' medical assessments regarding chronic conditions care on time.
 
"We will continue working with Corizon Health to attend to the report's recommendations," says Gautz. 
 
Following the release of information from Ringler, the Michigan Department of Corrections has put into a place a statewide chronic care project to attend in a timely manner to the care of patients suffering from chronic conditions, according to the report from the Michigan Auditor General.
 
Since being released on July 30, 2008, Anderson has worked hard applying for jobs and obtaining her high school diploma, but as a result of her background and her mental health concerns caused by childhood trauma, she has continued to have difficulty finding meaningful work.
 
“I am more than ready to go back into the workforce, and I want to help others by sharing my experience,” Anderson says.
 
Despite all of the abuse Anderson has faced, she has taken steps to take back control of her life. To relearn how to interact with mind-altering substances and choose sobriety. One of the ways Anderson is empowering others is by sharing her story of courage and triumph. Every week, Anderson chooses to be vulnerable with other women in the southeast community by hosting a women’s group at City Hope Ministries, 1975 Jefferson Ave. SE, on Monday evenings beginning at 7pm. To connect with Anderson or to find out more about the group contact City Hope Ministries.
 
“We welcome any woman to attend,” says Anderson. The leader wants to be a light and inspiration to those women who feel ignored by a system that says they are not adequate enough to reenter society due to their criminal background.
 
To hear more of Anderson’s story, be sure to attend the Southtown Sustainable Women’s Group Luncheon on April 1 at 12pm. The luncheon will be held at Madison Place, located at 1401 Madison Ave. SE. Anderson will be the keynote speaker for the fundraising event. The event will serve to raise funds for women experiencing hardship in the southeast community of Grand Rapids.
 
On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.
 
Photography by Dreams by Bella.
 
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