At Michigan’s only all-women prison, reimagining a ‘hostile situation’

‘We know it’s awful, we know it’s deplorable and together we can do this differently than we’ve been doing it’

By: - March 23, 2022 12:02 pm

[Left to right] Natalie Holbrook, Annie Somerville, and Lawanda Hollister speak during Safe and Just’s panel discussion on the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

“There are only two things that can happen once you go to prison,” Lawanda Hollister said. “You are either going to die there, or you’re going to get out.”

Hollister, who spent 34 years at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility before being released on May 8, 2020, was determined not to die there.

No one, she said, should die there.

“[In prison], things are often changing; they change every day,” said Hollister, who now lives in Ypsilanti and runs a nonprofit, The Chow Hall, that helps people leaving prison and reentering society. “But it’s never changing for the better. It’s always changing for the worse. It gets harder and harder to survive in there.”

Hollister joined Monica Jahner, who served 28 years at Huron Valley and now works to help people making the transition from prison to society, and Ypsilanti City Council Member Annie Somerville, who also serves as chief of staff for state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), at a Tuesday panel discussion at the Capitol organized by Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based criminal justice reform organization.

The discussion, “Building power with incarcerated women: Standing in solidarity with people at Women’s Huron Valley,” was moderated by Natalie Holbrook, program director of the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program. The panel was one of a series of events that Safe & Just Michigan offered Tuesday as part of what’s known as a “Day of Empathy,” an annual event that advocates for an improved criminal justice system and is organized nationally by the Oakland, California-based nonprofit Dream Corps JUSTICE.

A spokesperson from the Michigan Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

There are only two things that can happen once you go to prison. You are either going to die there, or you’re going to get out.

– Lawanda Hollister, who served 34 years in prison

Holbrook and the panelists said there are almost countless improvements that could be made to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan’s only all-women prison. The facility, for example, is overcrowded — about 1,550 women are living there, while the University of Michigan noted the prison only has capacity for 1,100 people. Women are not given resources to prepare them for leaving the prison and people living in the prison are routinely fighting for such basics as healthy food and toilet paper.  

“The food got so bad we were eating processed meat, and blood pressure was off the charts,” said Jahner, who is now the program director of A.R.R.O. (Advocates, Resources, Re-entry, Outreach), a Lansing-based initiative that works to help remove barriers reentering citizens often face with housing, employment and more.

It is, Holbrook said, “a hostile situation” at Huron Valley, where 194 women are serving life sentences and another 600 women have “very long sentences.”

“Things have gotten worse,” Holbrook said. “There’s less education inside. The food is as processed as it’s ever been. They’re feeding people on $2 a day. Fresh food is not available. We know it’s awful, we know it’s deplorable and together we can do this differently than we’ve been doing it.”

That different way of doing things doesn’t just mean better food or people not being crammed into cells, Holbrook said. It means closing down Huron Valley and entirely rethinking the way society approaches criminal justice. 

“When somebody does something terrible — when they kill somebody or there’s a terrible assault — what can we do to interrupt cycles of harm and violence and intergenerational trauma?” Holbrook asked. “How do we do it differently?”

“How can we build a different system where people are held accountable for their actions, but we don’t punish them for 40 years or 20 years or 34 years or even 10 years? What would that look like?”

[Left to right] Annie Somerville, Lawanda Hollister and Monica Jahner speak during Safe and Just’s panel discussion on the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

‘All my family had passed away. I had nowhere to go.’

By the time Hollister was released from Huron Valley after being sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison for second degree murder at the age of 17, her family members had died. She had no idea where she was going to live or what she was going to do. 

“When I was released, it was hard,” Hollister said. “It was extremely hard, and I had to overcome that. I was fortunate to have met Natalie [Holbrook]. All my family had passed away, and I had nowhere to go.” 

“Having been in prison for 34 years took me away from society,” she continued. “I committed a crime; I should be punished; I have no problem with that whatsoever. However, the things I went through in there [Huron Valley] need to be different for the people who are left in there so they do not have to go through that.”

One of the biggest changes Hollister and Jahner said they want to see happen in Huron Valley is a focus on rehabilitation and reentry. 

“They never teach you anything about coming home even though they tell you when you go in to prepare for leaving,” Hollister said. “But you can’t prepare for leaving because you need to survive in there. … I didn’t know how to use a telephone when I was released. They didn’t give me that skill set in prison. There is no education; there is no rehabilitation. There is none of that.”

Jennifer Jones, an audience member at Tuesday’s panel discussion, said she returned home last year after serving 19 years in prison. 

Things have gotten worse. There’s less education inside. The food is as processed as it’s ever been. They’re feeding people on $2 a day. Fresh food is not available. We know it’s awful, we know it’s deplorable and together we can do this differently than we’ve been doing it.

– Natalie Holbrook, program director of the American Friends Service Committee-Michigan Criminal Justice Program

“I sat there and cried for days because I didn’t even know how to open a laptop,” Jones said. 

Somerville, whose City Council represents the area where the women’s prison is, emphasized the advocacy work happening in the community to help individuals transition to life outside of Huron Valley. 

“There are so many organizations that pay attention to women and prison issues,” Somerville said. “There is lots of work being done for returning citizens, in particular providing wraparound services for women leaving prison. There have been efforts by both Ann Arbor government and Ypsilanti city government to remove some barriers to things like housing.” 

Somerville noted that “housing and job accessibility are two of the most significant barriers when you’re leaving [prison] and coming home.”

One organization doing crucial reentry work is We The People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti, Somerville said. Hollister participated in that program, which was started by a man who previously served time in prison and provides paid farming-related internships for returning citizens and a no-cost food distribution program. 

In 2020, the group provided about 1,200 pounds of food to individuals in the surrounding community.

[Left to right] Annie Somerville, Lawanda Hollister and Monica Jahner speak during Safe and Just’s panel discussion on the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

A push for legislative change

While groups like Safe & Just work to entirely reshape the criminal justice system and ultimately close Huron Valley, Holbrook said advocates are in the interim working to pass Senate Bill 487. Introduced by state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), the bill would create an advisory board to oversee the conditions of women imprisoned at Huron Valley.

The 13-member board would be housed within the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and would include a range of people who are experts in the needs of women in Huron Valley. This board would be able to “go inside and hear from the women about what it’s like to live there,” Holbrook said. 

“They can hear what it’s like to have your toilet back up once a week or twice a week in your cell and what it’s like to eat crappy food and what it’s like to have your doctor’s appointments canceled, all those sorts of terrible, horrible things,” Holbrook continued. “We need to flip the prison system inside out.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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