As a wall painter in Allen Park, Ryan Flores had been sober for over a decade after his arrest in 2006 for possession of cocaine and other narcotics. Through painting, he was managing to provide a steady source of income for his son, Andrew. Andrew’s mother, who also had problems with drug abuse, left them both when Andrew was born. As Andrew’s primary caretaker, Flores was a constant presence for his son. They went to nature parks, concerts, restaurants — as his sister Stefanie Veselaneck described to me, “They would do everything together. … They were inseparable.”
“I was able to save money and I had a vehicle. I don’t know. It was just a better life,” Flores said of the years after his release. He managed to grow his business and provide security for his son during this time.
About 9 years later, though, in November 2016, Flores was on his way to work when he got in a car accident, totaling his truck and injuring his back and wrist. The company that towed his car, Westland Car Care Automotive, connected him with the Southfield Pain Clinic, which would pick him up from his home and take him to various clinicians and doctors to treat his pain.
One of the doctors he visited, Dr. Johnny Trotter II, began prescribing him medications such as OxyContin and Xanax to alleviate his pain, his mother said. Flores disclosed his prior drug history with the doctor. However, he trusted Trotter’s credibility and took the prescribed analgesics, despite OxyContin being a potent and addictive opioid (Trotter has since been convicted of health care fraud totaling over $28 million in cash and property).
“That was probably one of the roughest times I’ve ever had … I think a lot of it had to do with the Xanax,” Flores said in a phone interview from prison, referencing the prescriptions he was given. “I mean I’m sure it was everything … But like I was taking the Xanax and … the muscle relaxers that were prescribed.”
As the opioid crisis has demonstrated, OxyContin and oxycodone, the generic form of the drug, have also led people to turn to more potent drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl. Soon after, Flores began abusing his prescriptions, and when he couldn’t receive any more, he started stealing them. Months following the accident, he broke into a home during a high stupor.
A week later, the police broke down the door of his mother’s house where he was living and arrested Flores, taking him away for questioning. The effects of the drugs were still clouding his judgment during the interrogation.
“I felt like I was going to die … There’s really no way else to explain how that works,” Flores said while recounting the arrest.
He was told the prosecutor would seek a life sentence should he not accept a plea bargain. Flores, still inundated by the effects of the opioids, accepted the bargain. He was charged as a fourth time habitual offender, despite not coming into conflict with the law in over nine years, with his other arrests occurring as a minor in 1996.
The plea and sentencing, which lasted a total of 18 minutes, sent Flores to prison for a five-year minimum sentence, mandated $3,700 in restitution and $1,300 in court fees. Veselaneck, a single mom who works at the Rusted Crow Distillery in Dearborn Heights, claimed the counsel was seemingly uninterested in helping Flores.
“Obviously we don’t have the money, so (Ryan) wasn’t able to go and get an amazing attorney,” she said, recalling the trial. “So he had to get a court appointed one and … they didn’t care.”
Her nephew, Andrew, claimed the lawyer said, “He had two honeys waiting for him in Chicago and he was just trying to get out for the weekend.”
In a letter Flores wrote to Judge Sean F. Cox, he said one of his attorneys said he “just wanted to get my arraignment over with.”
After the sentencing, the victim forgave Flores, who showed immense guilt for his crime. However, this was after the sentence was delivered and didn’t alter his conviction.
Flores appealed his sentence, claiming his counsel was ineffective due to the revolving door of lawyers sent from the public defender to work on his case and the waiving of a preliminary examination. He also appealed the imposed court costs of $1,300 on account of indigence, or extreme poverty due to his lack of verifiable employment at the time of the arrest. His appeal was denied and his sentence was reaffirmed.
Flores’ appeals lawyer, Jayne Carver, spoke with me about the nature of his sentencing.
“He did get a sentencing agreement. So he actually was sentenced to lower than his guideline range.” She said that there is a “big however,” which is called the “10-year gap rule,” where felonies more than 10 years old cannot be counted as habitual offenders.
“Unfortunately it’s from a discharge date of his last offense until the commission of the new offense,” she continued, “which in his case was I think about 9 years. So, in my opinion, his guideline score was artificially inflated.”
His background is something that may have come up during a preliminary examination. However, one of his court-appointed attorneys waived the preliminary exam, which would have determined if there was probable cause to proceed to trial, though it is unclear how much this would have impacted his trial considering he admitted to his crime.
Flores’ case is an aggravation of systemic issues facing working class individuals, both in Michigan and the United States. It is also, in part, an example of the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged communities across the Midwest as pharmaceutical companies have exploited people like Flores.
Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan professor in the History and Afroamerican and African Studies departments as well as a Pulitzer-winning author for her work on the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, described how this story exhibits the common practice of incarcerating people with substance abuse problems.
“Those who have run afoul of the law often do so for reasons of health, you know, addiction, public health reasons, not actual criminal justice reasons,” she said.
In a study conducted between 2007 and 2009 by the U.S. Department of Justice, over half of state prisoners and two-thirds of jail inmates met the criteria for substance abuse or dependence. This study was conducted prior to the current opioid crisis and doesn’t take into account the massive increase in drug abuse that ensued in the years following. Such criminalizing policies also disproportionately impact people of color.
Once the system ensnares people like Flores, it exploits their families’ finances, as Thompson described.
“It requires poverty to get into the system to begin with,” she said. “And ironically, once you get into the system, the one thing you need most to navigate it as a family and as an incarcerated person is money.”
Sandra Parker, Flores’ mom, spoke of the myriad of ways she is bankrolling her son’s health and safety from outside the prison walls of the Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson. One would assume the prison provides the items she buys for Flores. But often, some of the necessities that Parker has to pay for are not provided at all by the prison. In the items that are provided, the issue lies within the quality of the necessities they are receiving. There have been several recorded instances in Michigan prisons of maggots, mold and “crunchy dirt” found in the prison cafeteria food.
“Deodorant, toothpaste, soap, food, you know, socks, underwear. And with the winter, we had to buy him two sets of gloves and hats because they get stolen. And (the prison doesn’t) care,” Parker said. “A pair of socks is like $12. It’s like two something for one package of ramen over there.” A pack of ramen noodles at Meijer is typically about $1.
There are also transportation costs. From the area they live in to Flores’ prison, Flores’ sister said that to drive, “It’s about an hour and 10 minutes maybe.”
She noted that her car’s low mileage usually means that she has to refill her tank every time she wants to visit him. Sometimes, because her mother prefers not to drive on the highway, she will drive her. And if they cannot visit Flores that week, there are the costs associated with placing calls and sending and receiving emails.
When I asked how much these expenses totaled up to, she said some months it can reach up to $1,300. This may also include copays to visit the medical infirmary, which Flores says is usually around $5 a visit for something as low-maintenance as a headache. Flores said he earns just 40 to 50 cents a day in his GED course, making it difficult to pay for such expenses on his own.
Though Ryan has the support of his mother, for others, not having family on the outside can exacerbate these issues. There’s also the concern over paying his restitution, which is the recompense that perpetrators are ordered to pay victims. This is usually taken from the funds put in one’s commissary and wages they accumulate from the jobs given inside prison.
This kind of spending strains his family’s finances. Parker is a special education teacher at the Creative Montessori Academy in Southgate, and the items Parker mentioned don’t begin to touch the payments Flores and his family will have to make if he is released on parole.
Flores and his family’s pecuniary engagement with the prison is not the result of his criminal background (which is a non-violent one that stems from issues with addiction, a health issue state and federal lawmakers have a penchant for criminalizing). It is the product of a web of private corporations capitalizing on families who try to care for their incarcerated loved ones and is reified by state and federal policies. This engenders an inter-generational struggle, creating a vicious cycle of indemnity that can easily damage families and communities.
On March 13, the Carceral State Project hosted their fifth event at the University. The project, which was spearheaded in 2016 by Thompson, brings the community together to discuss the impacts of mass incarceration. At the event, the panel members discussed how incarceration disrupts and destroys communities — for example, how children can be adversely affected through policies that inure them at an early age to the criminal justice system. The panel of five consisted of experts, counselors and community activists. This included Kathie Gourlay, whose son had been previously incarcerated.
Gourlay and her husband, Don Campbell, who are an older couple whose years are dense with interactions with the criminal justice system, discussed the exhaustive list of costs associated with supporting a family member in prison.
“We only went (drove) five and a half hours,” Gourlay said, describing the weekends her and Campbell took to visit their son, who was incarcerated in a prison in the Upper Peninsula. There are 31 prisons in Michigan, holding more than 45,000 inmates. Six of those prisons are in the Upper Peninsula, a far drive for most, especially considering that the majority of crime in Michigan occurs within the Metro Detroit area.
“And we’d have to spend the night and the bridge is eight dollars to go over,” she continued, detailing a trek that can be perilous during the biting cold of winter.
“Not to mention the gas,” Campbell chimed in. “So you’re looking at $50 to $70 in gas.”
And despite the extensive lengths the couple would take, there was still the possibility they would be denied entry. If a prisoner were to get into an altercation, then they would be held in a secure facility that has separate visiting hours. This happened on one occasion to the couple, and they were not informed of this until they arrived at the prison, after preparing and driving for a weekend-long trip.
“Once you’re in prison, they don’t care about the family,” Gourlay said during the program. “The only time they’ll tell you anything is if your family member is almost dead.”
Later that week, I spoke over the phone with James Dankovich. Dankovich is a chiropractor who is involved with several criminal justice initiatives. His son, Chris, has been incarcerated since 2005. He said there were several instances in which he would drive over an hour to visit his son, only to be denied entry because of a security drill.
“Sometimes the facility will have what’s called an emergency count, which means you drive all the way up there to the facility and they won’t let you see your loved one because they’re running a security drill and they have a mandatory number of (emergency drills),” Dankovich said.
The panelists at the event discussed how time consuming these trips can be, especially for a lower-income family who already has to set aside money for such traveling. Often, this means a prisoner won’t end up receiving visitors.
“We spent one full visiting day in the winter. We were the only visitors,” said Gourlay, describing one particular trip. “There’s 2,000 prisoners there.”
The emptied visiting rooms reflect the onerous journey that hinders a family’s attempt to see loved ones. One study by the Prison Policy Initiative found less than a third of people in state prisons receive visits from family or friends in a given month. Another saw, among incarcerated people locked up less than 50 miles from their home, about half of them receive visits. This number dwindles dramatically as the distance grows. And arduous travel is just one of systemic factors that separates families.
Several states have austere policies that further inhibit a family’s ability to visit, despite studies demonstrating that visits and, hence, the maintenance of family ties, serve as one of the leading ways to reduce recidivism, or reentry into prison. States such as New York are more lenient, permitting visits any day of the year. Others are more restrictive. North Carolina allows visits only once a week. Beyond limits on number of visits, there are also invasive policies such as those found in Arkansas and Kentucky, which requires prospective visitors to submit their social security numbers upon entry request. In Arizona, travel isn’t the only consideration made when visiting; visitors must also pay a $25 background check fee before a prison permits your entrance.
Some policies are so vague they can be interpreted at the whim of the correctional officer on duty. In Washington state, a ban on “excessive emotion” is a rule left to the discretion of officers, meaning they can remove people indiscriminately.
Some states have begun reforming these policies, looking to close the gap between family members on the outside and inside. While Washington state is home to such unnecessary legislation, it also passed the Family and Offender Sentencing Act, which lets judges impose community custody for primary caregivers of minors in lieu of imprisonment — a ruling where the convicted spends part of their sentence in the community instead of in prison.
In Michigan, nonprofits have been taking up the mantle where legislators fall short. Organizations such as the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency have spurred programs that allow incarcerated fathers to spend several hour-long visits with their children with room for activities.
Still, the barriers erected between the prisoners and their families exposes a cynical distrust of not only the incarcerated, but the relationships they have beyond prison walls. States like Michigan could unburden families by creating policies that place prisoners in facilities that are closer to their homes.
However, the hardline policies comprise the central problem of an institutionalized, overcrowded prison industrial complex. These policies send prisoners away in every direction to a network of facilities that resembles something ecumenical in its disproportionate presence and outsize influence on communities.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, state and federal legislators have crafted policy such as habitual offender laws that mandate sentencing that includes life without parole, even if the offense is nonviolent. There are truth-in-sentencing laws, which eliminate the possibility for prisoners to be released on “good behavior.” There are the racist, seemingly inexorable policies that disproportionately imprison Black and Latinx individuals, and the classist bail policies that favor the rich and ensure that those who cannot post bail remain indentured to the criminal justice system.
The problem with distance is inextricably tied to these esoteric policies long justified by the state and country to incarcerate as aimlessly as possible. If the U.S. didn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the world, perhaps seeing a loved one would not be such a formidable endeavor.
Ashley Lucas is one of the University’s most prominent voices on criminal justice reform. An associate professor of Theatre & Drama, she also directs the Prison Creative Arts Project, an organization run through the RC that centers around artistic collaboration between prisoners and students as a means of restorative justice. She has written extensively about the impacts of the criminal justice system and moderated the most recent Carceral State Project Symposium panel.
Lucas spoke with me over the phone about the unending list of costs associated with communication between family members and their loved ones in prison. No matter the channel through which a family member may contact someone in prison, there is always some kind of payment associated with it. One company that prisons contract with for email services is JPay.
JPay is a private corporation that state and federal prisons contract with to provide e-messaging services.
Despite the free email servers provided outside prison walls such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, JPay users must pay “stamps,” which are electronic tokens that fluctuate in price, typically covering about a page of information for anywhere from 35 to 47 cents per page. Prisons receive a commission based on this spending. Lucas described how, often, prisoners or family members will send a message without any clear indicator of how much they will end up being charged to send it.
“When you’re typing into the email textbox on your screen (through JPay), you can’t actually see when you’ve crossed onto another page,” Lucas said.“So right after you send the email, it tells you how many digital stamps it’s going to charge you … But because you can’t see where the page starts and ends, you could be just one line of text over and they’ll go ahead and charge you for that page, but if you had known that then you would’ve been able to edit your letter down a line or two in order to make it not charge you more.”
Paying for these on a salary that is typically well below a dollar an hour ensures that prisoners have to be extra wary, and their family members may have to be the ones to pay more. However, as Lucas said, often the person incarcerated was the one providing the most consistent source of income for the family.
“When you lock someone up, you’re taking a person out of the lifecycle of a family,” she said. “You’re taking away a financial contributor, you’re taking away someone who provides childcare, eldercare, you’re taking away a sense of stability in the household.”
In an interview with Wired magazine, Holly Kramer, a communications representative for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said, “Maintaining a positive network of support is really important to their future success when they rejoin the community.” MDOC has contracted with JPay since 2009.
In the same article by Wired, Jade Trombetta, JPay’s senior manager, said, “Part of JPay’s mission is to provide technology … (that) empowers those individuals with access to educational tools and assists in their overall rehabilitation process.” However, when asked by Wired to discuss the reasoning behind payments or price fluctuation, she declined to comment.
JPay continues to be a central source for communicating with family members, proving that their model to capitalize off of this market specific to prisoners is lucrative. Prisons make a five cent commission off each message, which generated about $710,000 for prisons in 2014. This continues to be profitable in Michigan, as 800,000 to 1 million messages are sent a month. Should families choose an alternative, such as phone calling, they will have to pay about 20 cents per hour, which goes to JPay’s parent company, Securus. This is essentially extortion. Ironically, when Flores called me to conduct his interview, the prison’s operator told me to hang up should he try to extort me.
The state budget for prison service that one would associate with paying for these services does not have money allocated for these communications. This is despite the $1.95 billion allotted to MDOC, making up a fifth of Michigan’s general fund. However, in the fall 2019 to 2020 list of appropriations, on which there were 21 changes in budget allocations, there was nothing regarding outside communications.
Even if prisoners are paying for their messages to be sent, correctional officers still peruse everything sent. Lucas spoke briefly about this, saying, “All the emails are still being read or censored or vetted by the prison mail room. It’s all being filtered through the prison for information control before it sees the outside world.” Whatever is being sent, prison officials are entitled to read non-privileged messages sent to and from facilities.
For those trying to keep in constant contact with the incarcerated family members, companies such as JPay and Securus ensure costly hurdles to communication. There seems to be little rationale for erecting such factitious monetary obstacles for something as crucial as maintaining contact with those on the outside.
Family savings groan under the weight of institutional costs from incarceration even after the family member leaves prison, especially if they’re on parole. This issue is something Gourlay and Campbell were forced to familiarize themselves with after their son was released from prison.
“When you’re on parole, you have to pay specific fees every time you do something,” Campbell said. “There’s the supervision fee of $600. There’s the $50 a year fee. We spent probably, I’m guessing, over $25,000 in lawyers’ fees that our son use the appeals lawyer to get some things on his PSI changed.” A PSI is a pre-sentence investigation report and is used by judges when sentencing an offender. “And lo and behold, that was $775 that he had to pay back. You know, we didn’t even know that there was going to be a charge on that. You know it’s just one thing after another.”
In the case of their son, they mentioned they were lucky they could provide for these costs. However, for someone whose family may struggle in this regard, the likelihood of recidivism may increase. Probationers and parolees are often required to pay the costs for parole advisement, as well as for programs they may enter for drug treatment or rehabilitation after their time in prison.
Though the Constitution protects those who have exhibited indigence to the extent that they cannot pay whatsoever, those who demonstrate that they may have the means to pay are often required to do so.
In Massachusetts, there are 67,000 people on probation. They are charged $50 to $65 monthly, depending on their “tier” of probation, which is either supervised or administrative. Failure to pay these fees can result in jail time. These probation service fees total to over $20 million a year. This is just one state example of the laws states have put in place that have the potential to reincarcerate parolees.
This becomes an issue for those wishing to re-enter society with a fresh start, something that is already impossible considering the numerous barriers that prohibit those with criminal records from working. With new financial burdens to consider, recidivism becomes a more likely outcome.
This is something that causes Flores’ sister, Stefanie Veselaneck, frequent concern.
“I’m not sure how he’s going to look like, I don’t know how he’s going to feel about trying to go back to doing what he does, like painting and stuff,” she told me, her voice wobbly over the phone. “I don’t know. I just really worry about him getting out and not being able to adjust back to being an everyday, normal-life person.”
Despite the endless systemic pressures that supporting a loved one in prison entails, and the knowledge that even Flores’ release doesn’t mean the end of such concerns, Flores strives to be hopeful for his family. In a written letter sent to his son Andrew for his 20th birthday, he wrote, “I’m sorry for having to have made it so you and nan are take (sic) care of me now. I know how expensive all of this is an (sic) trust me Andrew it means the world to me. Without everything you do I prob wouldn’t make it or struggle really bad … I will get out of here and change my ways and be by your side and be the dad/best friend I am supposed to be! You are my everything Andrew!”