At Honeysuckle one of our pillars is to spotlight those doing work that empowers marginalized communities and advocates for reform and equity. Last year, we covered protests against prisoner abuse at Michigan's Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, where activists from numerous organizations banded together on behalf of human rights. One of the key people responsible for that action, Daniel F. Jones of American Friends Service Committee, was tragically killed not long after the protest. His family, friends and colleagues urge the public to keep fighting for justice in his honor. To learn more about his personal story and community programs through the nonprofit Silent Cry Inc, click here.
Daniel F. "Danny" Jones was an advocate for justice, especially for young people directly impacted by the criminal justice system. He was murdered on November 19, 2022—but his work continues and his legacy lives on in many ways. One of the ways that Danny keeps giving back to his community and to the work he loved so much is with the Daniel Jones Juveniles in Incarceration Education Act, a new bill that seeks to improve the educational well-being of young people incarcerated in the state of Michigan.
Michigan’s Injustice for Juveniles
Michigan has a terrible history with prosecuting and incarcerating children, especially children of color and those from economically challenged communities. In the last ten years, 95 percent of all the youth entering adult jail, prison, or probation were 17 years old at the time of their offense – totaling 19,124 young people. Over 1400 children are currently incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons, with hundreds more held in jails and detention centers. Nearly half of all referrals to juvenile court and over 60 percent of youth in secure detention have only committed a status or misdemeanor offense as their most serious offense, meaning Michigan is putting children in jail for minor incidents, 58 percent of whom had no prior record.
Racism and economic injustice are rampant: more Black and brown children are sentenced to incarceration in Michigan than their white peers, and more Black and brown girls are incarcerated than white girls—in fact, Michigan has the fourth highest rate of incarcerated girls overall in the country. To add insult to injury and to compound the difficulty for these young people and their families, Michigan allows counties to bill the parents of juvenile offenders for their own detentions. The fees are for everything from detention to drug testing and can run up to $300 per day, which can quickly climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, crippling the families in debt. Cases remain open until these fees and fines are paid, making the young person’s transition back into society all the more difficult.
The corruption and insensible nature of the system has set off a public outcry, and it has finally gotten to the point where things may be changing. A new task force has been appointed to make changes to the juvenile justice system by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who declared October “Youth Justice Action Month” in Michigan, and several pieces of legislation are making their way through Michigan’s legislature with the goals of reforming this system. These changes are long in coming and are sorely needed.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of juvenile “justice” in Michigan is that, due to draconian laws regarding violent crime, there are more young people in Michigan prisons who have been sentenced to mandatory life sentences without parole, and who have even received the death penalty, than any other state in the nation. Michigan is one of only 10 states that automatically prosecutes 17-year old children as adults; until recently, a child aged 14 and up would be tried as an adult for certain offenses and subject to those mandatory life sentences if found guilty. Even though the United States Supreme Court declared life without parole for juveniles to be unconstitutional in 2012, Michigan has been slow to re-sentence those young men and women who have languished in the state’s prisons for decades. Hundreds of people are still awaiting justice to this day.
Danny Jones And His Struggle for Michigan’s Kids
Danny Jones knew this struggle intimately. Born in Michigan on December 6, 1979, Danny entered prison in 1996 as a juvenile at the age of 16. He spent 23 years incarcerated after being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole while he was still legally a child. Danny was finally released after being resentenced in 2017, after the Supreme Court decreed that juvenile life without parole was unconstitutional.
After his release from incarceration, Danny devoted his life to fighting for those who need a voice, particularly those who were or are incarcerated. He worked with the nonprofit Chance For Life, was on the National LWOP [Life Without Parole] Leaderships Council, as well as the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, ICAN, Nation Outside, Safe & Justice Michigan, and the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office (SADO). In 2022, he was working for American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based organization for peace and humanitarian rights, where he was part of a family, not just working a job. He was a gifted public speaker whose dedication to the causes he was passionate about shone through in everything he did.
An unknown assailant shot and killed Danny at a gas station on the night of November 19, right after he returned from an Atlanta conference looking for strategies to promote long-lasting transformation and second chances. There is still no conclusion to the investigation into Danny’s murder. His family, friends, and community continue to mourn his loss while they also continue his work: reformation and restoration for the young people entangled in the criminal legal system. One aspect in which such reform is desperately needed is in education behind prison and jail walls.
Michigan Juvenile Education 101
Education for children is compulsory in the United States, and that requirement does not change when the child is detained or incarcerated. However, Michigan’s policymakers have been incredibly lax and deficient in their administration of this duty to the children in their legal charge.
Kids enter the Michigan juvenile justice system with a deck stacked against them, as Danny Jones well knew. Most youth in the system are already behind in school and suffer from severe behavioral health needs, and adult probation and prison programs are not designed to address these needs—but that is the system that receives them. The statistics are grim. 48 percent of 17-year old kids entered prison, jail, or adult probation with a 10th-grade education level or lower. 51 percent of 17-year-olds entering prison had a substance abuse issue, and 24 percent had alcohol abuse issues. 23 percent received mental health treatment prior to entering prison, but an estimated 85 percent of the children who enter Michigan DAC custody need some form of mental health help. When you take these grim statistics and then add on the shock of being separated from family and loved ones, taken from schools and communities, and any other issues of traumatic abuse or neglect that the child may have endured prior to their becoming entangled with the system, it becomes obvious that this is not a recipe for academic success.
The Intermediate School District (ISD) in the areas in which the detention centers are located have educational jurisdiction. Students with disabilities who are detained or incarcerated maintain their right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). This includes special education programs and services as specified in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). This sounds great, but the problem is in the execution of these rights. The system is plagued with administrative neglect, is understaffed and underfunded, and is often at odds with the correctional framework, making it impossible for the kids to receive the education they are owed. The local school district is responsible for supplying the educational needs for the kids who are confined in their areas, but it is not always possible for them to do this work. A glaring and recent example of the failure of this system is how the charter school contracted for the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center has not been able to get into the facility, so the 140 children warehoused there have been without an education for months…nor have they had access to hygiene products, clean clothing, or even showers. That jail is currently at more than double capacity and has been the subject of health department emergency orders, sexual assault investigations, and much more. Amid this chaos, kids who were already at a terrible disadvantage only find themselves farther and farther behind in their academics.
The Daniel Jones Juveniles In Incarceration Education Act
This is where the need for the Daniel Jones Juveniles in Incarceration Education Act becomes so readily apparent. Despite education being compulsory and there being mechanisms in place to deliver that education, the actual practice of the policies has been an absolute failure. Targeted and reformative action must take place.
The aims of the legislation are both specific and lofty, but are absolutely possible with buy-in from the legislature, the educational system, the correctional system, and the public. A press conference about the Act was held recently on November 20, attended by State Representative Donavan McKinney of the 14th District and Shawanna Vaughn of Silent Cry Inc., a Michigan criminal justice and community advocacy organization.
The first step for reform under this Act will be to create a Juveniles in Incarceration Education Board composed of all stakeholders, including incarcerated juveniles. System-impacted and peer-led efforts are most impactful, informing processes and procedures with lived experiences. The board will produce a comprehensive report that includes detailed statistics on the juveniles in secure facilities, including, race, gender, ethnicity, type of offenses committed, learning and other disabilities, and the facilities where they are held. The board will then develop a curriculum for the training and education of incarcerated juveniles that prioritizes scientific skills and technology, improves the juvenile's development and behavior, and prevents further delinquency and contact with the justice system.
The Daniel Jones Juveniles in Incarceration Act will also establish an Education Fund to develop and operate the educational programs recommended by the board.
Danny Jones lived a life that was unfortunately cut short, but he died in the midst of doing the things that he loved, serving those whom he felt needed his energy and time the most. With the implementation of the Daniel Jones Juveniles in Incarceration Education Act, we could finally begin seeing some real and meaningful change for the kids that Danny believed deserved better for, and worked so hard for every day.
To learn what you can do for the community in memory of Daniel F. Jones and how to support the Daniel Jones Juveniles in Incarceration Education Act, please visit silentcryinc.org and afsc.org. For more about Silent Cry's programs and to donate, click here.
Shawanna Vaughn is an internationally-renowned humanitarian advocate and the founder of Silent Cry, Inc., a nonprofit human rights organization that takes a holistic approach to aftercare from mass incarceration, gun violence, and trauma. Silent Cry works to support children and families impacted by poverty-related trauma. The team provides resources to those currently and formerly incarcerated, striving to help people heal through the process of self-development and overcoming grief. Silent Cry additionally raises awareness of Post-Traumatic Prison Disorder, calling for comprehensive prison and policy reforms across the country to address training for core competencies in all trauma-informed mental healthcare.
For more information about Silent Cry and how to get involved with community advocacy, visit silentcryinc.org. Support the Post Traumatic Prison Disorder legislation by clicking here, and donate to Silent Cry's other programs by clicking here.
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Featured image: (C) Silent Cry Inc.