In Maximum Security Prison, the System Works to Deny Us Transfers

    Since 2018, I have been incarcerated in a maximum security unit of Michigan’s Baraga Correctional Facility. It’s an isolated location on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Nearly three times a week, the facility goes on lockdown. No yard, phones, email or showers. We sit in our rooms without knowing why, feeling like captives in the truest sense of the word.

    We hear multiple explanations for these shutdowns from the prison’s correctional officers (COs): staffing shortages, COVID, shakedowns or a plain “We didn’t feel like it.” I write numerous kites (messages) to administration, including the assistant deputy warden, about my impending transfer and always get the same answer: Be patient. 

    I’ve been patient for more than two years now. On December 6, 2019, I became eligible for transfer out of Baraga to a different, lower-security prison. My current Level 5 facility uses constant intimidation and false disciplinary tickets to send prisoners to solitary confinement, which bumps them off the transfer list. We face constant stressors inside a place where everything is working against us getting out. I feel trapped.

    For transfer to lower-level facilities we are categorized through a “security classification screen sheet.” It uses a point system that’s supposed to set the so-called “active” prisoners apart from those on “good behavior.”

    Points range from 0 to 35. Prison security levels are 1 to 5. The higher your points, the higher your security level is supposed to be. It’s kind of like a traffic ticket: You get too many citations and your license gets revoked, the license in this situation being access to a lower-security prison facility. 

    If we file a grievance, we’re almost guaranteed retaliation.

    I’m in a Level 5 facility, but I have zero points. I haven’t received any major misconduct tickets or been sent to segregation in three years. Maintaining low points inside a maximum-security prison is difficult, especially because of the long segregation times many people receive here. I’ve known people to be in solitary for seven or eight months. Years, sometimes.

    By the time they’re moved back to the general prison population, the strain to their mental health is horrific. Meanwhile, COs are roaming around looking for excuses to write tickets. Whenever the administration puts the facility on yet another lockdown, the tension only rises.

    But the prison administration—the warden, assistant deputy warden, inspectors and COs—gets to decide what counts as bad behavior. They can “stack on” tickets for any prisoner they want to keep from transferring. (Michigan Department of Corrections did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment by publication time.)

    Many of us accumulate points by way of harassment from COs. For example, a CO might press his ear to a cell door to see if he can hear a TV or radio. The prisoner is then written an excessive noise ticket. In a bad shakedown, where a prisoner feels uncomfortable and complains, they get a “threatening behavior” ticket. If we file a grievance against a CO, we’re almost guaranteed retaliation. The administration also bans us from writing more than five grievances per year. 

    Some hope came in December 2020, when our prison counselor announced that there would be a massive transfer: over 150 Level 5 prisoners to be placed in Level 4.

    All that’s happened since is constant harassment to turn Level 4 eligible prisoners back into Level 5 prisoners. For example, sharing food with someone was traditionally penalized with a one-day “loss of privilege,” meaning no recreational yard, no appliances and no phone. It didn’t impact our points or classification. Now, sharing food is increasingly written up as a “theft” ticket to hike our points back up. We’re told it’s all under protocol to correct our behavior. 

    I live without hope that I could transfer to a lower-level prison where I can be more active with my family’s life.

    Once a prisoner is on the transfer list, it usually takes four to five months before they’re moved to a lower-level facility. But Baraga officials used COVID to put transfers from all facilities on pause. I live not only living under the threat of COVID, but without hope that I could transfer to a lower-level, more flexible prison where I can be more active with my writing and my family’s life. Meanwhile, the administration staff come and go, spreading the virus to the rest of us anyway.

    I am vaccinated, as are the majority of people in my housing unit and 66 percent of all Baraga prisoners. Many are citing their vaccination status as further reason to process their transfer. Michigan Department of Corrections still refuses to resume transfers, telling us and our families that this is because of continued COVID concerns and lack of bed space. 

    But even though the facility hasn’t transferred the Level 4-ready prisoners out to their correct placement, it has been accepting countless transfers in. When prisoners arrive from lower-security facilities downstate, we ask them what’s going on. And they tell us: Transfers haven’t stopped. Visits have resumed. Everything is okay.

    As those of us in Level 5 wait to be moved to the lower level we’re eligible for, I know some of us won’t make it. Not because of COVID, but because of a system designed to keep us here.



    Photograph by ErikaWittlieb via Pixabay

    • Demetrius’s work has appeared at, or is forthcoming at, PEN America, Apogee, Marshall Project, RHINO and Michigan Quarterly Review, where he won the 2020 Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets. He is the winner of the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize.

      Portrait by Daniella Toosie-Watson.

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