The University of Michigan’s Residential College hosted a discussion on issues of criminal justice, incarceration and drug addiction Monday evening.
The event featured married couple Graham MacIndoe and Susan Stellin, authors of a recent memoir titled “Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love” which focuses on MacIndoe’s decade-long struggle with heroin addiction, his experiences in New York City and Homeland Security-run prisons and Stellin’s efforts in navigating the complex criminal justice system.
Stellin began the discussion by reading a passage from the book that describes the night in 2006 when MacIndoe was arrested in Brooklyn for misdemeanor drug possession. For more than a day, Stellin had to travel between numerous New York City jails to obtain information on MacIndoe’s whereabouts and the nature of his arrest.
MacIndoe talked about the humiliation of being strip-searched in a Brooklyn jail and his anxiety that night about how the arrest would impact his future. He went on to describe the physically and mentally taxing time he spent at Rikers Island, a New York City prison complex notorious for abuse of prisoners by guards, unsanitary and overcrowded conditions and the large amount of people held there without being convicted for a crime, as detailed in a 2014 article in The New York Times.
However, MacIndoe was a citizen of the United Kingdom at the time his of arrest, which captured the attention of the Department of Homeland Security and led to his transfer from Rikers Island to a Homeland Security detention center in rural Pennsylvania. While MacIndoe described life at Rikers as bleak and difficult, his experience as an inmate in Pennsylvania was to be much tougher.
“They whisked me to immigration detention, which, as Susan said, was so dehumanizing and devastating to me,” MacIndoe said. “I used to lie in my bunk at the Homeland Security detention center and fantasize about being back at Rikers because as rough and tough and crazy as Rikers was, I had a job and I could go out in the yard and I got good meals, but in immigration detention I got none of that.”
For Stellin, one of the most difficult parts of MacIndoe’s detention was the lack of transparency about his legal status. She said a large number of legal documents she and a lawyer assembled for him were never delivered and money that was put in his commissary account “mysteriously disappeared.”
“What really horrified me was how quickly all of this happened and how little contact he was allowed to have,” Stellin said.
MacIndoe said he was lucky he had friends and family who supported him in his legal case and battles with addiction after being released. Many at Rikers Island and in the American criminal justice system do not have this type of support, he said.
“The thing is that many of them are stuck in there for long, long periods but they can’t afford bail, and bail is not that much sometimes, but people live in poverty and can’t pay it,” MacIndoe said. “We shouldn’t be spending our money on keeping people locked up at Rikers Island because they can’t afford a 500-dollar bail for weeks, months or years on end.”
Ypsilanti Township resident Amy Atwell, who attended the event, said the detailed account of MacIndoe’s struggles with drug addiction, his subsequent arrest and Stellin’s efforts just in locating where MacIndoe was sent in the city showed strength of character.
“What struck me initially was how brave both the addict, Graham, and his spouse were, because she is the support to a person who is dealing with an illness that does not go away,” Atwell said.
LSA sophomore Chanelle Miles said MacIndoe and Stellin’s account resonated with her on a personal level, as she has seen people she knows locked up or dealing with the stigma of having a criminal record upon release.
“The one and most important thing is that even though he was on Rikers Island and it seems so far away from here, it touches so close to home as I am African American, I come from a community that is urban and I come from a community where the majority of my friends and my family members know people who have been incarcerated,” Miles said. “He went through his different trials and tribulations, but even through his trials and tribulations, I could see my friends and I could see my uncle and their stories.”