I love going to prison.
Once in a while I head west on I-96 from my place in Lansing to Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia to see Stephen Grant, the man convicted of strangling and dismembering his wife in 2007.
The first time I did it I was writing a true-crime book, A Slaying in the Suburbs: The Tara Grant Murder (Penguin/Berkley, 2009), and Grant was cooperating.
Bellamy is a major correctional facility and the layers of security are considerable. But it’s an educational place to visit, one of the more interesting off-the-beaten path sources of knowledge.
Michigan has 34 state prisons, which offer opportunities to see how the other half really lives. That is, 44,000 folks who have found themselves on the wrong side of the justice system, including an element of our population that finds murder to be a suitable alternative to anything — even divorce.
To take advantage of this tourism opportunity, you’ll have to know someone who is staying behind the walls.
If they like you, they’ll put you on their visitation list, which is then provided to the administration at the prison.
Your only job is to send in a form that is downloadable at the Michigan Department of Corrections’ website. You’ll need the prison number of your pal, a government-issued ID and some detail of your own incursions with the legal system, as in the old “have you ever been convicted of a FELONY? “(upper case on the application).
Send that off to the respective prison with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and wait. And wait. Remember, these are bureaucrats we’re talking about — nothing gets done in a hurry.
Once you’re approved, check the visitation schedule, also at the website. It’s a bit of a maze, easy to get confused and it differs for each facility. Inmates carry different levels according to the severity of their crime, time served and their behavior behind bars. Some are in protective custody, like Grant. It all affects their visitation. Check it before you go.
Also check your threads. Holes and hoodies are not permitted. Ditto extremely loose fitting clothes. Shoes and underwear are mandatory.
Show up between the appointed times and sign in at the desk of the prison. You’ll be given a key and directed to a locker. It’s where you put the stuff you have that’s not permitted inside, which includes everything except your ID, a prepaid card for vending or some change, depending on the facility, and the visitor pass issued at the desk.
You’ll go through a pat down, metal detector passage and ID check before you pass a series of automated prison doors, some of which have the metallic thunk when they shut.
And you’re in.
Presumably, your excursion will be pleasant. Some of the guards are even friendly on occasion.
I’d like to say the Michigan Department of Corrections was responsive when I called for some help on this piece. But I can’t. Let’s just say that when it comes to the public, the state continues with its “who cares?” attitude.
County jails are a different story. Who hasn’t had a friend land in the drunk tank for a few days, or opt to serve a few weeks over a sizable fine for some minor offense? They can get visitors too and the procedure is hardly as onerous as visiting a killer.
Jails have more leeway in terms of security as they are usually run by local law enforcement, be it city or county.
I highly recommend the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility in downtown Detroit, run by Wayne County. It’s a return to the old school of prisons, where the doors clang, elevators rattle and generations of paint layers encase every surface.
I went there to visit Bob Bashara, who was convicted of first-degree murder last year for his part in the murder of his wife in 2012.
The ride up the creaking, clacking elevator to the seventh floor was a treat. I got to the seventh floor, where he was staying, and a guy behind a double-paned window pointed me to the left. I got to a steel door, opened it and there was Bashara behind the glass. We talked through greasy plastic phone receivers.
Don’t know anyone in the clink?
If you’re not friendly with a convicted criminal, there’s a prison experience alternative in the Original Historic Jackson Prison Tour, where you can check out Michigan’s version of Alcatraz.
This big house, Michigan’s first state-run prison, was built by inmates and opened in 1839. By 1882, it was the world’s largest walled facility. Today it’s the pleasanter home to the Armory Arts Village, a resident artists’ community. But the tour takes you to the “old solitary area” while promising you’ll “hear the echoes of thousands of inmates past.” Check it out at historicprisontours.com.
While you’re there, visit the Cell Block 7 Museum, where you can walk around a once-active cell block.
If things work out for you, you’ll never be part of the inside of a prison. Visiting and studying these institutions is good deterrent to any funny ideas you might have. n
Steve Miller’s fourth true crime book, Murder in Grosse Pointe Park: The Killing of Jane Bashara (Penguin/Berkley), is scheduled for release in the fall.