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- Just Call THEM

John Bussey

Gail Dawson is one bureaucrat people trust to fix things. Every week strangers ask her to correct all sorts of errors, big and small, momentous and mundane. Ms.Dawson, you see, answers the phone at the Michigan Department of Corrections.

From Maine to California, people with problems and nowhere to turn are reaching out to departments of corrections. The state agencies regularly field questions about bum social security numbers and wrong ages on driver’s licenses. “We get quite a number - “Can you correct this, can you correct that?’’ says Patti Kansas’ Department of Corrections. Says Robert Gore, assistant director of corrections in California: “The man on the street, at least according to our unscientific study, is confused.’’

Progressives’ Fault

The confusion is largely the fault of a well intentioned progressive movement that flowered in the 1900s. Reformers cast off the notion that prisons were merely warehouses for criminals and argued instead that bad attitudes should be “corrected.’’ States latched on to the term.

In 1954, the American Prison Association, a professional group, even changed its name to the American Correctional Association (its annual meeting is called the Congress of Correction).

So, while incarceration became more humane, public perception became more befuddled. Perry Johnson, deputy director of corrections in Michigan, discovered this 15 years ago when he spoke to his daughter’s fourth grade class on Career Day. “I wanted to find out where these kids were,’’ he recalls,” so I said, “I work with the Department of Corrections. Do you know what the Department of Corrections does?’’ One little guy popped up his hand and said, `Yes. You fix snowmobiles.’ I knew that I had a long way to go.’’

Many Unenlightened

Mr.Johnson may have straightened out fourth graders, but many Americans remain unenlightened. In New Jersey, one caller wanted a housing code violation corrected, another a hitch with the rent taken care of. “Omniscient we’re not, ‘ cautions Jim Stabile, public-information officer in the department.

In Maine, newlyweds call asking that their names be corrected on legal documents. One woman phoned when she found her walkway clogged with burdock plants. “She wanted to know whether we could correct the problem, whether we could come down there and trim those plants back,’’ says Kimberly Ellis, assistant to the commissioner of corrections.

In California, the agency’s headquarters in downtown Sacramento is emblazoned with two foot high lettering that reads: Department of Corrections. That, for many, is an answered prayer. “There’s a certain amount of people wandering through the front door wondering if we fix things,’’ says Mr.Gore. When the department conducted a survey of public attitudes toward the agency, Mr.Gore recalls, “every fifth response was, Isn’t that where they correct mistakes?”

Correcting that mistake can prompt a tongue lashing. In Michigan, Valarie McClain, another worker at the corrections department, says people sometimes rage when she says she knows nothing about birth certificates or liquor licenses.”You get rude language,’’ she says, ‘‘and the usual speech about `taxpayers’ money going to people like you.’’

Ms.McClain transfers the calls to the right department. Asked how he would handle them, Terry Dyer, the type of customer Michigan’s corrections system was meant to serve, says he might not always be generous. “You could probably come up with a sarcastic answer or two, depending on what type of a day you were having,’’ says Mr.Dyer, an inmate at the Ionia reformatory doing time for armed robbery.

Things may be too far gone for sarcasm. The Michigan department is listed in the phone book as being in the Stevens T.Mason Building, a structure named for the state’s first governor. Now and again, says Ms.McClain, irate callers pound the table and demand to talk to the long dead Mr.Mason.

Is there some deep significance to people’s turning to corrections departments for help? Robert Trojanowicz, the director of the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University, thinks there is. “The vast majority of people are looking for answers -technical answers but also more profound, symbolic answers to their lives,’’ he reasons. “People say, ‘I’m frustrated. I’m wandering. Where can I get some reference point?’ So they look in the phone book.’’

Prof. Trojanowicz may be right. Then again, maybe not. Any deeper meaning eludes John Graydon, the Chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Michigan medical school. “I’m struggling to think of something shrinky,’’ he says, “but I can’t. It’s probably just a term that is not good.’’

Meanwhile, people continue to search longingly for corrections. A short time ago, a building contractor called the Michigan department asking for a “corrected’’ list of homes slated for remodeling in downtown Lansing; another man phoned with a question about his income tax refund. Ms.McClain sighs and says, “With the new tax law, we’ve had a lot of calls lately.’’

John Bussey
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal


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