In October of 1977 Michigan circuit court Judge Alton Noe sentenced Henry Fante to life in prison for convictions of armed robbery and criminal sexual assault. In imposing the sentence, Noe informed Fante and the court that:
“Depending upon your behavior in prison, (the sentence) probably will be cut down to maybe ten or twelve years.”
Neither Judge Noe or Henry Fante could have predicted the wave of law and order, lock ‘em up and throw away the key practices that would soon become the order of the day. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, Michigan state policy in regard to granting parole to people with life sentences grew increasingly harsh. At one point a person with a life sentence would come before a parole board review after serving four years, then possibly qualify to return every year. By the end of the 90s, an individual’s first appearance only came after serving ten years. And after that meeting at the ten year point, the parole board had the option of permanently denying the possibility of parole. Predictably, the increasing harshness of the parole board’s practice reduced the number of people granted release. Henry Fante was caught up in the maelstrom of these changes. The twelve years suggested by Judge Noe turned into 34. He wasn’t paroled until 2011.
While Fante’s delayed parole date was part of the process of change of that period, he had another factor working against him: he fought for his rights and those of others. Over the years, Fante became a respected jailhouse lawyer, filing writs, appeals and assisting others in addressing their legal issues. At least two of his cases landed in the court. In Fante v. Stepek (1996) he alleged that his lawyer in 1977 had given him incorrect advice about his possibilities for parole. By that time Fante had already served nearly twenty years. He lost the case.
When Fante finally gained parole in 2011 he took up residence in Monroe, Michigan, near his home town. At the time he thought his travails with the Michigan Department of Corrections were winding down. He envisioned finding a job, spending time with his daughter and grandchildren. Instead, he discovered there was one more excruciating chapter in his journey through the criminal legal system: electronic monitoring with house arrest.
Four Years of Solitary Confinement-E-Carceration Style
Instead of enjoying his freedom, Fante was given four years of electronic monitoring with stringent conditions of house arrest. He began this stint by staying at his brother’s house but his sister-in-law quickly grew tired of Fante being around the house all day. “You’re turning my house into a jail cell,” she told him. To avoid excessive conflict, Fante retreated to an apartment complex where the Michigan Pre-Release Initiative (MPRI) housed people on parole. This would become his cell block for the next four years.
I spent a day with Henry Fante in his apartment in 2013, when he was halfway through his term on house arrest. At that time, he seemed to be bordering on despondent. “After two years of house arrest,” he told me, “I don’t know if I can live with another person to be honest with you. It’s gonna be a hard adjustment that way once I’m off parole. There is no socialization, that means there is no life.” He was particularly concerned at his inability to find employment and the ways the parole authorities often intervened at the workplace. “What employer then is going to trust you because he’s putting his business at risk hiring you as it is…then you got your parole agent calling them and telling him ‘understand,sir, we don’t want him working around children’ and you haven’t been convicted of a crime against a child. That is an unnecessary false signal that just sets people like me up for failure.”
Fante’s isolation was further intensified by other rules laid down by his parole officer: he couldn’t talk to anyone else in his building because they were all on parole. Plus, he was forbidden from having the Internet in his house, though his original offenses had been committed long before the Internet was in use. His two main activities seemed to be eating junk food (he claimed he had gained 50 pounds on house arrest) and rolling cigarettes on a little manual rolling machine.
When I left Fante’s apartment in 2013, I was fairly certain Henry would not make the full four years. I was convinced he would break one day, snatch a car or hitch a ride and head for the hills. But he didn’t. He did the four years, no job, no Internet, just lots of TV, roll your owns and potato chips. He had a determination to enjoy some semblance of freedom and the self-discipline to keep his eye on the prize.
I caught up with him in June of 2017 and recorded the interviews which appear here. As I listened to his story and shared it with a couple of friends who had also been incarcerated, we realized that the Michigan Department of Corrections had replicated an administrative segregation unit in this apartment building-isolating people from each other, not allowing any visitors to come to their apartments. Even when Henry did get permission to spend time with his daughter and his grandkids, they had to meet at a restaurant that was approved by the parole officer. Such visits were limited to two hours, very much like the conditions in a prison visiting room.
The videos are presented in four clips.
In clip one (above), “My Four Years of House Arrest“- Fante details the stringent conditions of his parole and how his efforts to get outdoor exercise instead of bringing him fresh air and fitness, landed him with a broken foot.
In clip two, “The Psychological Impact of Isolation,” Fante discusses the mechanisms he used to cope with the isolation of house arrest, like washing all the walls and ceilings of his apartment every week-a routine very similar to what people do when they are in isolation blocks in prison.
In clip three, Finding Work, Henry talks about his futile quest to find employment in a town where he knows few people and carries the stigma of living in a building so notorious that they won’t even deliver pizza to the residents.
In clip four, Life Post-Monitor, Henry discusses life after getting off the monitor. He did manage to find a job fairly quickly but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Fante’s story, as he tells it here, is a nightmarish futuristic vision of how incarceration can be reproduced in communities via electronic monitoring and house arrest, with family members and individuals covering the costs and participating in administering the punishment. When Henry’s daughter-in-law refused to have her house turned into a “jail cell,” in prison parlance, Henry was taken out of general population and sent to the “hole,” with the rent being covered by his family and his own benefits checks.
These short clips tell an incredible story of the potential harm that can be done with electronic monitoring regimes that are devoid of any consideration of the rights of the person on the monitor and are not connected to a set of services that enable a person who has spent more than three decades behind bars to transition into the community. This form of E-Carceration cannot be allowed to proliferate.