The story of El Chapo’s escape from prison in a laundry cart and his triumphant return to Sinaloa

A book cover shows a colorful painting of El Chapo beneath the title, in bold white letters
The cover of El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord

In early 2001, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug trafficker better known as El Chapo, decided he didn’t want to be in prison any longer.

El Chapo had been at Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison outside of the city of Guadalajara since 1995, locked up for his role in a bloody shootout in 1993 at the Guadalajara airport. And he’d been doing alright at Puente Grande, had enjoyed many of the same creature comforts during his years in Puente Grande as he had on the outside-good food, women, volleyball-and unlike his life on the outside, he even got to sleep in the same place every night. Much of this was thanks to his patronage of Dámaso López Nuñez, who’d taken over as deputy director of security in 1999 and had proved even more pliant than his predecessor in seeing to it that all of El Chapo’s needs were met. When Dámaso arrived, El Chapo immediately began to shower money and gifts on him: ten thousand dollars in cash here, a house there. When one of Dámaso’s children was injured in an accident, it was El Chapo who paid the child’s medical bills.

“When I needed anything, I would ask and he would give it to me,” Dámaso said years later.

Unfortunately for El Chapo, Dámaso had left Puente Grande in the fall of 2000, under a cloud of suspicion amid drastically belated efforts by the government to investigate corruption there. And on January 18, 2001 everything changed for El Chapo when the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that the United States could extradite Mexican prisoners such as El Chapo, as long as the death penalty was taken off the table. His worst fear, an American prison cell, was suddenly much closer to reality.

A woman in a cramped shop holds up a shirt that reads "Who do you trust" with a picture of El Chapo.
A vendor in Sinaloa state, El Chapo’s birthplace in Mexico, shortly before he was sentenced in 2019.

So the next day he left, smuggled out the door tucked into a laundry cart, rolled to freedom by a guard known as El Chito. And nobody saw fit to stop him.

In the book Narcoland, journalist Anabel Hernandez argues that the laundry cart story was a tall tale cooked up in the wake of the escape to hide the real story: that El Chapo had simply walked out the door. Others have joined Hernandez in speculating that the laundry cart story was a fanciful tale ginned up to cover up a more mundane escape made possible by systemic corruption. (Years later, when El Chapo was finally put on trial at a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, the laundry cart theory was retold repeatedly by multiple former accomplices.)

Regardless of whether El Chapo was rolled out, or walked out in a stolen guard uniform, it was his ability to buy the right people that allowed him to escape.

El Chapo was back. Within days, he was holding a series of meetings with his partners, including the man who in the ensuing years would become his most steadfast ally, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. At one of the first meetings at a lieutenant’s ranch, El Mayo made it clear that he was backing El Chapo to the hilt.

“I’m with you one hundred percent,” El Mayo said. “I’m going to help you with anything you need. And any kilo of coke that I receive from Co- lombia, I’m going to give you half. So for now, just take care of yourself, stay in hiding.”

Two police are seen standing in the back of a vehicle and facing a prison complex, seen in the distance.
Mexican federal police patrol the surroundings of the Puente Grande State prison.

But the question was where. El Chapo was travelling with a hard-to-conceal entourage of armed men, and his face was plastered across televisions and newspapers all over Mexico. Where could he lay low without attracting attention?

El Mayo had an idea.

“Let’s go to Sinaloa,” El Mayo said. “Let’s go back to your native lands.”

“El Cielo”

Perched atop a peak that looms over La Tuna, a ring of cypress trees sits like a crown, blowing faintly in the breeze. From below, across the valley, the trees are all you can see of “El Cielo,” or the Heavens, the home El Chapo built for himself.

It’s a sanctuary he never got to truly enjoy, but which he visited from time to time, sneaking back into his hometown to throw a party or visit his mother.

A man is seen wearing a grey winter coat and looking tentatively to the side.
El Chapo is pictured on July 10, 1993 at La Palma prison in Mexico after being apprehended.

It sits unoccupied now. With El Chapo serving a life sentence at a supermax federal prison in Colorado, it’s unlikely he’ll ever set foot here again. (But don’t tell his mother that-the family once threw out a television reporter who had the temerity to ask Doña Consuelo directly how she felt about her son spending the rest of his life in prison.)

If he were to get out of prison, however, he might want to head to this mountaintop retreat. Indeed when he escaped from Puente Grande prison in January 2001, it was to El Cielo that El Chapo returned, to plot his new empire-and to see his mom.

Things were looking good for him then. He was free, back in the mountains in which he had grown up and gotten his start, where much of the population loved and supported him, and where the remoteness and the rugged terrain provided a natural defense that allowed him to move about with relative ease.

He was moving coke again, and marijuana and heroin as well-there was always more money to be made in cocaine, but the local economy of his sanctuary still relied heavily on the production of those two trusty cash crops, the hills dotted with red poppy flowers and redolent stalks of cannabis.

By purchasing these drugs from local farmers, he could make a handsome profit, prop up local business, and buy an enduring base of support. Who’s going to turn on the guy who pays wholesale for their crops?

Among the farmers El Chapo bought from in those days was a man named José,* an affable father of three, born, raised, and still living in a small town just off the highway. (Names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.)

An elderly woman is seen seated in a car and looking out the window.
Maria Consuelo Loera, El Chapo’s mother, leaves the US embassy in Mexico City in 2019 after applying for a visa to visit her son.

Like El Chapo, José and his neighbors learned how to grow weed and opium from their fathers, using tried-and-true methods to grow the crops on little plots of land in the hills above their village. In the early 2000s, José was working an area of land roughly equal to the size of about five football fields. The area was under the protection-or the control-of El Chapo, to whom José and other growers paid a 30% tax in exchange for protection from the soldiers who might otherwise raid the area, burning crops and sending months of work up in smoke.

For several years after the escape from Puente Grande, José did not meet the man to whom he paid taxes. But that finally changed in 2005, when, short on funds, he decided he wanted to make a proposition. A friend agreed to make the introduction, and they drove together up the highway, onto the dirt road, and on to La Tuna. When El Chapo received them, José made his proposal: What if El Chapo covered the expense of planting, and then they split the eventual profit fifty-fifty?

El Chapo readily agreed; that’s just the kind of guy he was, José recalled.

“He was a very simple man, and very natural,” José said. “You just felt like talking to him, never found him to be aggressive.”

The relationship between trafficker-strongmen and the people who grow opium and weed is rarely an even one, and can sometimes be downright feudal: Growers rarely have much choice in whom they sell to, so the people buying are able to set the asking price. The exchange is one of constant negotiation, and often features a certain degree of coercion-whether through the direct threat or deliverance of violence, or through the local boss withdrawing his protection and opening the farmer up to the full fury of a state that is, technically, dedicated to wiping out the farmer’s livelihood.

A small white and red church is seen in a lush and hilly stretch of land.
A cemetery known for the many prominent narco-traffickers who are buried there sits on a hilltop in Santiago De Los Caballeros, in Mexico’s in Sinaloa state.

Until very recently, small-time, self-employed farmers like José formed the backbone of the opium and marijuana industries. (This status quo has been upended in recent years as widespread legalization of marijuana in the United States and the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the heroin supply have caused prices of both crops to plummet.)

As in any good capitalist system, farmers did most of the work, and were exposed to the most risk at the hand of the state. It pays well, better than most legal work; but by the time a stamp of heroin or a dime bag of weed has been sold on the streets of New York or Philadelphia, only about 1% of the total profits find their way back to the farmer.

The real profits, the billions of dollars that flow from the street sales to the money launderers to the front companies and bank accounts of traffickers, don’t trickle all the way down to little villages nestled in the mountains of Sinaloa or Guerrerro, or to the streets of the border towns through which the drugs pass on their way north. But it’s on the heads of these small-timers that most of the violence of the drug war falls.

Origin stories of the drug trade in Sinaloa often highlight the region’s legacy of upheaval, banditry, and rebellion. But early drug-trafficking clans of Sinaloa were hardly treated as outlaws.

The Mexican sociologist Luís Astorga writes that early Mexican drug traffickers emerged from within the state power structure, rather than as actors outside of it. They came along at a time when that power structure itself was just taking shape, and managed to negotiate for themselves a cozy little cubby within it, one that worked for the state, for the wealthy elite, and for the drug traffickers and cultivators. To a more limited extent, it also worked well for the poor peasants living in areas like Sinaloa.

There is a proud tradition of independence and autonomy in the Sierra, and the drug trade allowed the people of the Golden Triangle to continue to fend mostly for themselves without posing a true threat. The drug traffickers who came before El Chapo acted as local power brokers, playing a key role as unofficial intermediaries between the government and the people of the Sierra. The government allowed them to get rich trafficking drugs as long as the traffickers kept a relative peace in rural areas and made sure the local peasants showed up to vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

A man faces the camera wearing a black button-down short.
The author Noah Hurowitz

José and others in the highlands of Sinaloa talk of those years right after El Chapo’s escape as something of a Golden Age, when you knew who ran things and you could look the boss in the eye, make a deal with him, and then have a pleasant chat. As this went on, El Chapo would often pay José, who played in a band in his spare time, to perform at his parties. It felt good to hang out with a guy like El Chapo, José said, to be in the presence of someone regarded in these parts as a great man.

“He is a legend, truly, a legend,” José said. “It was a privilege to speak with him, to have a friendship with him like I did.”

Even if José was giving the sanitized-for-gringo-reporters version, many people in the mountains of Badiraguato knew only this side of El Chapo, the magnanimous local chieftain. This area of Sinaloa was, for many years, spared the violence that the drug trade-and the war on drugs-wreaked on other areas of Mexico. And when violence did arrive, it usually came in the form of the heavy hand of the state, rather than the cruelty of narco hit men.

But even as El Chapo was spreading his goodwill around his hometown and surrounding villages, he and his allies were inflicting violence elsewhere. For when El Chapo arrived back in La Tuna in 2001 and began to rebuild his empire, he was a man hell-bent on revenge.

* * *

Excerpted from El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord, published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Noah Hurowitz.

Noah Hurowitz is a journalist based in New York City. He covered the trial of El Chapo for Rolling Stone.

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I’m a formerly incarcerated person who luckily found success. It’s time to expunge the records of former prisoners and end their perpetual punishment.

rikers island
Inmates file out of the prison bakery at the Rikers Island jail after working the morning shift, in New York. Nearly a third of Rikers Island inmates who said their visible injuries came at the hands of a correction officer last year had suffered a blow to the head.

  • The economic toll of a conviction is especially devastating for Black and brown people, who represent 80% of those who have a conviction.
  • A conviction can lead to a loss of half a million dollars over a lifetime.
  • New York State has the chance to reset the lives of more than two million of its residents by passing the Clean Slate NY Act.
  • Ashish Prashar is the Global Chief Marketing Officer at R/GA and a justice reform activist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I am extremely lucky to be where I am.

I am the Chief Marketing Officer for a global company. I have worked for elected officials in the UK and the US with their press corps and campaign operations. I own a home in Manhattan. And, by the way, I was incarcerated for a “crime”.

Incarceration has the most profound effect on the person who is serving time, but the consequences reach far beyond the prison walls. When I recently shared my story of being a formerly incarcerated person who made it to the C-Suite, I was again reminded of the destructive nature of our justice system. I heard from colleagues whose loved ones struggle to find work; of friends losing out on dream jobs because of background checks, and the emotional and psychological toll of experiencing these disappointments time and time again. The emotional strain on those individuals and their families was all too familiar. “What will become of me, of us?” is a question that never goes away.

My success has been nurtured by providence from people who understood that my mistake would doom me to a Sisyphean challenge, unable to reach the top of that proverbial hill, unless they became determined to help me. That challenge? A criminal justice system that extracts a pound of flesh and, like the vengeful Javert, routinely returns to perpetually punish people like me for a mistake.

My good fortune though, is incredibly rare. I am blessed to have had family members with the means to support me and a prospective employer willing to give me a chance. Many people don’t have this kind of support. For most incarcerated people, once they are out they fall back into cycles of deprivation that usually got them there in the first place, doomed to steal that proverbial loaf of bread again because their criminal records carry a scarlet letter that allows society to treat them as “less than.” We must create an environment where more people can tell a story like mine.

A conviction’s enduring collateral damage can be wide-ranging – permanently barring individuals from basic needs like employment and housing. Even though people who are released are said to be free, they’re not. They are over-supervised, over-policed, pushed out of employment, housing, and school, and often harassed back into incarceration.

More than 70 million Americans have a record and five million are formerly incarcerated people who have an unemployment rate of 27%. Today’s general unemployment rate is around 6%.

The economic toll of a conviction record is especially devastating for Black and brown people, who represent 80% of those who have received a conviction. They experience higher unemployment and poverty rates, and estimates show that a conviction can cause a loss of nearly $500,000 in income over a lifetime.

We are not just causing further economic and emotional harm, we are also wasting potential that could be working to discover cures to deadly illnesses, designing cleaner and greener cities, or, like me, revitalizing Main Street brands. The economic benefits to both employers and the national economy are clear. It’s essential that our laws are changed because we can’t rely on individual acts of kindness or a company to do the right thing.

Wipe the Slate Clean

New York State has the chance to lead the way and give more than two million of its residents a second chance through “Clean Slate” legislation. Advocates and impacted people seek a new law that will automatically seal and expunge a resident’s conviction record once they are eligible.

Right now, the system we have for expungement in New York is broken. It is application-based, extraordinarily difficult to navigate and costly. In the three years since this system was created, less than 1% of eligible people have successfully had their records expunged.

The Clean Slate legislation proposed in Albany is designed as a two-step process to end the perpetual punishment of a conviction record. A conviction will be automatically sealed one year after sentencing on the individual’s last misdemeanor conviction and three years after sentencing on their last felony conviction, not including time incarcerated.

A conviction will be automatically expunged five years after sentencing on the individual’s last misdemeanor conviction and seven years after sentencing on their last felony conviction.

This is a common sense step that will make New York’s communities stronger. And we know that these types of systems work. A recent study found that within two years of clearing their records under Michigan law, individuals’ wages increased by an average of 25%. According to the same Michigan study, five years after benefitting from record clearance, individuals were less likely than members of the general public to commit crimes.

Our system punishes people unfairly. Millions of New Yorkers are needlessly unemployed or underemployed, homeless or without permanent housing, just because they have a conviction record.

Formerly incarcerated people are not a separate population; they are members of our society. They are our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and friends and must be treated as such. I may be the exception in this system, but I want my experience to become the rule. That’s why we need the Clean Slate NY Act.

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Education is the best way to fight prison recidivism, but correctional departments are failing incarcerated people and society

prisoners non descript anonymous
Prisoners at Oak Glen Conservation Camp line up for work deployment under under the authority of Cal Fire, during which time they are called and treated as firefighters rather than inmates until they return to camp, on September 28, 2017 near Yucaipa, California.

  • Education is the most powerful tool in reducing the chances an incarcerated individual will recidivate upon release.
  • Washington Department of Corrections claims to work toward reducing recidivism.
  • The educational opportunities offered in Washington state prisons are sub-par and can be difficult to access for some.
  • Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

People who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43% less likely to return to prison, which makes education the undisputed king of recidivism-reducing tools. Yet here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) in Washington state, of the courses offered, very few have been known to create pathways to employment, and access to them can be elusive.

The Washington Department of Corrections’ literature claims that its mission is, “to improve public safety by positively changing lives.” Though an ambiguous statement, its context implies that the goal is to reduce crime by rehabilitating those they house before releasing them back into society. Considering 68% of people who get out of prison end up returning, the logical plan of action – assuming the Department of Corrections (DOC) remains true to its mission statement – would be to employ the most effective tool, and emphasize a model that not only makes valuable education available to the entire population, but incentivizes incarcerated individuals to enroll in classes.

Educational assets

Having developed a resume in freelance journalism, I recently decided to spend the last two years of a 12 year sentence earning a degree that would allow me to pursue journalism school upon release, so I inquired of the education department about my options. The response came within days, and I learned that MCC, in collaboration with Edmonds Community College, offers a 1-year certificate in Computer Information Systems and a two-year Associates of Technical Arts degree in Business Management (ATA). As technical courses, neither provide transferable credits.

Still, I asked my wife to research both degrees. Neither are listed as requirements for employment anywhere she could find. We had floated the idea of creating a publishing company somewhere down the line, so I requested a meeting with MCC’s Dean of education to ascertain whether or not the ATA might at least teach me skills that would be applicable to such a venture.

The Dean promptly scheduled an appointment with me, and when the day arrived, I filled a legal folder with my published novels, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve written, and a copy of my résumé. I felt that, in order to get a useful answer, it was important for her to understand that my plans were more than just the pipe dreams of someone whose perspective has been warped by years in prison. I prepared my questions in advance, and speed-walked to the education building to find it dark, locked up, and empty.

Upon returning to my living unit, I received a message that she had sent at the last minute, stating she would have to reschedule. Then, the next week, it happened again. And again, after that. This pattern continued for months, until I finally requested, she just move forward and enroll me in the ATA Business course. It seemed like a major life decision to have to make uninformed, but what choice did I have? She responded that she would get back to me because the class might be too full.

Over the course of a few more electronic exchanges, I asked how people on her waiting-list were being prioritized and reminded her of how long I had been actively seeking to be advised on a college pathway. She ended up eventually enrolling me, and agreed, again, to sit down with me in order to finally answer my questions. I start class next week (Spring Quarter) and have still not been able to get a meeting with anyone resembling an academic advisor, or anybody from MCC’s education department, for that matter.

These hurdles can be even more pronounced for others. Until recently, the Department of Corrections considered prisoners with immigration detainers to be a low priority, even for basic education classes which American prisoners are required to take. All courses in MCC were taught exclusively in English, and of little value to individuals being deported to certain countries upon release.

Prior to COVID-restrictions shutting down all educational programming, the Latino Development Organization, a prisoner-led nonprofit, was collaborating with the Mexican Government to implement a basic education program that offers a certificate recognized in Mexico and hosting an array of bilingual classes.

The University Beyond Bars, another prisoner-led program, provided accredited AA and BA degrees in Liberal Arts. Even then, waiting lists were long, and DOC staff, a demographic composed mostly of White Republicans – at least in Washington – created masses of red tape around organizing classes, and aggressively banned teachings that didn’t conform to conservative ideology.

The issues around educational access here in MCC may stem from complacency – the lack of incentive to create pathways to success and remove obstacles from in front of potential students, or they could be financially charged – the result of non-accredited courses somehow allowing more funding to funnel into certain accounts. Either way, they’re arguably the most important and pressing issues affecting Washington state prisons.

According to data posted on the Washington DOC’s website’s section on Offender Demographic Characteristics by Release and Recidivism, of the 22 prisoners released every day in the Evergreen state, 6 return. In order to remain true to its mission, DOC, it seems, is in dire need of an educational advisory board, consisting of members of the incarcerated community, and taxpayers alike, and centered around re-imaging its education department in prisons like MCC, which is failing. Until then, it will be clear that reducing recidivism isn’t high on their list of priorities.

Michael J. Moore is an author and playwright from Washington state.

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After months of torture and imprisonment, Hamas told a Palestinian activist that he would only be released if he divorced his wife

rami aman palestine gaza
Rami Aman, a Palestinian Gazan peace activist, holds note’s in which he recalled his ordeal, during an interview on the roof of his family house in Gaza City, Feb. 10, 2021.

  • Rami Aman was arrested for setting up a Zoom call between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
  • He received pressure from Hamas officials to divorce his wife – the daughter of a high-ranking official.
  • Aman eventually signed the divorce papers but remained in jail for two more months, AP reported.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Palestinian activist Rami Aman has said that he was forced by the militant group Hamas to divorce his then-wife in order to secure his release from a Gaza prison, according to the Associated Press.

Aman told the news agency that after months of pressure from Hamas officials, he eventually gave in to pressure and went ahead with the separation.

The demand that he divorce her is thought to be a move by the militant group to distant itself from Aman’s decision to engage in discourse with Israeli peace activists last year, AP reported.

His ex-wife is the daughter of a senior-ranking Hamas official, AP said.

She has since been deported from Gaza, against her will, and Aman told the news agency that he may never see her again.

Read more: People are being unjustly kept in prison because of bad software. It’s yet another reason mass incarceration should be a national outrage.

Aman was imprisoned following a backlash against him for helping set up a two-hour-long Zoom chat between Israelis and Palestinian peacemakers, Insider’s Anthony L. Fisher reported in April 2020.

He was one of over 200 people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide who participated in the English-language Zoom chat initiated by Aman’s organization – the Gaza Youth Committee.

Following a campaign on Facebook by a Palestinian journalist to shame those who attended and the subsequent social media outrage online, Aman was charged with the crime of “normalization” with Israel.

His former wife was also arrested, the Associated Press reported.

After Aman’s arrest on April 9, 2020, he said that he was interrogated and tortured. He claims he was blindfolded, taken to a prison cell, and was forced to sit in a tiny child’s chair for days or weeks on end, according to AP.

He was referred to by his prison number, only allowed to remove his blindfold for bathroom breaks, and could only leave his seat to be interrogated or pray, AP reported.

During his imprisonment, a police officer reportedly told him that it would be “better” if he proceeded with a divorce. He resisted the request for months, AP said.

In August, an Islamic judge asked him whether he felt coerced into separation. Aman said yes but the judge, the activist told AP, refuted this. “How are you being forced? Do you see me carrying a gun?” he says the legal official told him.

Aman, 39, eventually signed divorce documents, expecting to be released, but remained imprisoned for two more months.

“The deplorable treatment of Rami Aman by Hamas authorities reflects their systematic practice of punishing those whose speech threatens their orthodoxy,” Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told AP.

His ex-wife, who has been deported to Egypt, confirmed to the Associated Press that she was forced into the divorce and wants to reunite with Aman.

Aman is now banned from leaving Gaza and security officials are still holding onto his laptop, computer, and phone, the news agency said.

He is in frequent communication with human rights organizations, lawyers, and Hamas officials, AP reported.

But his priority is to be reunited with his lover.

“Now I have my personal battle: return to my wife,” the activist told the news agency.

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In a rare show of solidarity, Republicans and Democrats are working together to pass sweeping criminal justice reform in Michigan as the state’s jail population grows

Michigan's Electors Meet
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist opens a session at the state Capitol

  • Michigan lawmakers will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills when they close the current session this week.
  • Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission in 2019 to look at jails across the state to better understand the problem. Much of the reform effort is modeled on its recommendations.
  • The overhaul aim to reduce the state’s jail population, which has tripled over the past 3 decades even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low. 
  • Supporters spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For years, Michigan courts have been taking away peoples’ drivers licenses for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior behind the wheel.

Instead, suspending the right to drive has been used as a cudgel to get people to pay traffic tickets, court fines, or child support. But because people need to work in order to afford to pay these fees, thousands thousands of them have been driving on suspended licenses in order to get to work. And if they got caught, they wind up in jail. 

Today, driving on a suspended license is one of the leading reasons Michiganders wind up in jail, and the system often appears more designed to squeeze money out of the state’s poorest citizens rather than as a tool to ensure public safety. It’s part of the reason the state’s jail population has tripled over the past 30 years even as crime rates have fallen to a 50-year low.

No one knew how seriously out of whack the jail system had become until earlier this year, when a first-of-its-kind commission took a look at who was going to jail and why. And now, when Michigan has become emblematic of just how broken our political system has become – with right-wing terrorists plotting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor and some Republicans working to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state – lawmakers who are often at each others’ throats are determined to make big change before they adjourn for the year. By the time the state legislature wraps up this week, it will have advanced more than two dozen criminal justice reform bills.

“Right now, America is kind of at a reckoning,” said Pastor Kevin Harris, who served 14 years in prison for drug-related offenses and is now a community organizer who chairs the board of the group Michigan Liberation. “Even the most corrupt system has to recognize that we went overboard.” 

Detroit BLM
Detroit Activists March, Nov. 7th, 2020.

This session, Michigan lawmakers have already enacted legislation that automatically wipes people’s criminal records clean of most misdemeanors – and some felonies – after several years. It is the most progressive law of its kind in the US. They’ve also passed legislation that makes it easier for those with a criminal record to get an occupational license to work as a barber, roofer, or cosmetologist. 

This week, lawmakers are scrambling to pass a package of 20 more reform bills before their session ends, including one that will stop courts from suspending people’s licenses for reasons unrelated to their driving records. That alone could lift the risk of arrest from over the heads of hundreds of thousands – more than 350,000 people had their licenses suspended because they failed to appear in court for other reasons or because they had unpaid fees or fines in 2018 alone, according to a recent audit. That’s equal to around 1 in 20 drivers in the state.

House Judiciary Chair Graham Filler, a Republican from just north of Lansing whose website describes him as “pro-law enforcement” and “not politically correct,” coordinated the effort in the House. 

Even if lawmakers “start at different places, [we] end at the same place,” Filler told Insider. “Can we have a justice system that is proportional and fair and at the same time does not impact public safety?”

NOT A “PARTISAN ISSUE”

In a month where some Republican politicians attempted to overturn Biden’s election victory in the state, criminal justice is one of the only issues where both parties have been able to work together. The coalition that has advanced criminal justice reform in Michigan spanned the progressive ACLU to the right-wing, Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. A similar alliance of strange bedfellows was also instrumental in passing national legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, which overhauled mandatory minimum sentencing laws and made other changes to the federal prison system.

“We need to reject the idea that this is a partisan issue,” Democratic Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who co-chaired a bipartisan commission on criminal justice reform, said in an interview. 

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist with Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, right, April 17, 2019.

In Michigan, supporters of this legislation spanned grassroots racial justice organizations to Amway co-chairman Doug DeVos, the brother-in-law of education secretary Betsy DeVos and a major conservative force in Michigan. The politics are good for both the right and left: Progressive ss can tout the reforms package as a win for racial justice, while conservatives can say they managed to shrink the reach of government and bring savings for tax-payers. The state jails cost Michigan’s counties around half a billion dollars each year, eating up around one-quarter of their public safety budgets.

The system “is not actually promoting public safety,” Gilchrist said. “It’s just disrupting people’s lives in dangerous ways.”

Donald Talley knows this cycle first hand. Talley, a 65-year-old who lives west of Detroit in the city of Inkster, first lost his license in 1985 because he had unpaid traffic tickets and child support. He was homeless at the time, earning some money here and there as a mechanic, so he had little choice but to keep driving. 

He was arrested repeatedly over the next 20 years as his fees continued to mount. The arrests became so predictable he even figured out how to use them to his advantage: getting put away in the winter meant he could have a warm place to sleep. Then, through a chance encounter at a soup kitchen, Talley connected with pro bono attorneys who helped him get his fees set aside. By that time, Talley said, he owed well over $180,000 in child support, traffic tickets, and other fees and fines.

Getting out from under the threat of arrest turned his life around, Talley said, and he hoped this legislation would do the same for thousands of others.

“Once you get a smell of victory, you can see the light as far as your life getting better,” Talley said. 

Whitmer jail task force
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, announces the creation of the bipartisan task force, April 17, 2019.

No one had really conducted a comprehensive study of who was in jail and why until February 2019, when Governor Whitmer created a bipartisan commission to look at jails across the state co-chaired by Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist and Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. This week, lawmakers are working on a package of 20 bills modeled on the report recommendations, including the one that reins in drivers license suspensions. If passed, Chief Justice McCormack told Insider, “it would really make Michigan a national leader.”

The commission took aim at the state’s jails. On average, Michigan’s jails hold more than 16,000 people, usually for stays of less than one week. Jails are often described as the “front door” of the criminal justice system, since people go there to await trial or to serve short sentences. But far more people spend time in jails than go to prison – nationwide, seventeen times more people cycle through jails than prison.  Even a short stay in jail can mean lost jobs, lost custody of children, and fees that can prove hard to escape.

The commission’s work was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided a team of technical advisors who have staffed lawmakers as they turned the panel’s recommendations into legislation.

“There are not [other] states, as far as we know, that have tried to understand statewide what’s driving jail populations and what’s contributing to jail growth. This is new and pretty exciting,” said Pew’s Terry Schuster. “With increasing partisanship, criminal justice issues remain one of the few areas where we see continued bipartisan consensus.”

A “KUMBAYA MOMENT”

It took a lot of work to get to this point, especially on the right, said Joe Haveman, a Republican from the Western Michigan city of Holland who tried to advance criminal justice reforms while serving as a state representative between 2009 and 2014. Haveman said his efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system ran into “brick walls” from “old-school Republicans” during the administration of the Republican Governor Rick Snyder. 

But Michigan has strict term limits, sweeping in a younger crop of lawmakers who look at criminal justice reform through a more libertarian lens. And the opioid epidemic, which hit rural and white communities hard, have also changed attitudes about the role of law enforcement in Republican areas. 

“When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have known anybody who had a problem with the law – I think that was true for a lot of Americans,” Haveman said. “When the opioid epidemic exploded it became somebody we knew… It’s not just a ‘bad person’ – that stereotype that I may see on TV, somebody from a big city.”

Several lawmakers also credited the evangelical community for building support for criminal justice reform among Republicans. Judiciary Committee Chairman Filler said this was an issue of special importance to Speaker Lee Chatfield, son of an evangelical minister who was involved in a prison ministry. (Chatfield declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Lawmakers don’t plan to stop working on criminal justice reform after this session ends. The commission co-chaired by Gilchrist and McCormack made recommendations that the legislature did not act on this year, including provisions to divert people with mental illness away from jail. Lawmakers from rural areas also want to make it easier to wipe arrests for driving under the influence, a common offense outside major cities, from criminal records.

“You’ve had this left-and-right Kumbaya moment on criminal justice reform for the past couple years,” said David Guenthner with the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “The objective should be to use prison for those we are scared of, not those we are mad at. And when someone’s coming out of prison, they should have sufficient training and opportunity to earn a living and be a success.”

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