For some people, prison is temporary. At some point, they get released, they go home, and they move on with their lives.

But for those serving a life sentence, prison is their home. And whatever meaning they can find in life will have to be found behind the barbed wire and prison walls.

That is the reality for a large percentage of the inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility. More than 45 percent of the men there are serving life sentences. That’s the highest concentration of lifers in any Michigan prison.

This fall, a dozen Michigan Radio and Stateside reporters and photographers spent the day at Lakeland. The team was given unprecedented access.

Below, you’ll hear the stories of the men serving life in prison there, and what life on the inside is like for them.

Behind the barbed wire

The Lakeland Correctional Facility doesn’t look like the prisons you see in movies or television shows. If you ignore the barbed wire fences surrounding the facility, it looks more like a college campus. There are flower and vegetable gardens, green lawns, walking paths, and even goldfish ponds built by the inmates.

Many of the prisoners at the minimum security facility have been in the system for decades and told us that Lakeland is a prison that’s better than most. Acting warden Bryan Morrison agrees.

“I think this facility does a good job of instilling a purpose in prisoners, gives them meaning,” Morrison said. “The reason that they want to continue to do better and reward it with a lot of positive atmosphere of things that other people can’t see while incarcerated. And it prepares them better for going home.”

Of course, many of the prisoners there are never going home. That includes 57-year-old Vincent Bridges. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1994.

“I’ve been locked up for 25 years this time,” said Bridges. “And out of all the prisons I’ve been to, this prison had more to offer guys with life than any other prison. A lot of prisons just got small programs, but this prison has a lot to offer.”

Sowing seeds

The sheer amount of green space is what makes Lakeland’s campus so unique and inviting. Vegetable gardens, flower beds, and rows of greenhouses are spread across the grounds. They’re all part of the prison’s horticulture program. But before inmates can get their hands dirty, they need to have enough points for “good behavior.”

Some of the produce grown is for the prisoners’ own use. Many of the inmates complain about the poor quality of the food served at Lakeland and say there’s not enough of it. Having access to the gardens gives participants an opportunity to supplement their diets with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Most of what’s grown at Lakeland, however, goes elsewhere. Some of it ends up as ingredients for the food tech culinary course that trains participants in high-end culinary skills. There’s also a donation garden that grows produce for the local food bank. They donated almost 20,000 pounds of vegetables to the organization this year, said inmate Fred Proctor.

“I’m proud of the fact that I did it myself. And it gives you an incentive to stay good, you know? I eat the best when I got my own garden.” – Larry Creslaw

“I like working in a garden. I did have a lot with my mom and my dad when I was a young kid in Oklahoma. And, you know, it just kinda is something to do. It’s productive instead of counterproductive, which a lot of people do a lot of counterproductive things in here, you know.” – Jason Ward

“This is kind of like my life here. You know, I really enjoy doing this. When I have younger guys come down, [I] kind of mentor them, teach them how to garden and stuff like that with the horticulture program.” – Fred Proctor

Lakeland prison blues

The old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” rings a little more true in places like Lakeland Correctional Facility.

That’s why recreation director Mike Gallop works hard to keep inmates busy. Softball leagues, weightlifting competitions, even pinochle tournaments are among the dozens of activities he organizes for the inmates.

Perhaps one of the most cherished programs among the guys, however, is the music program.

There are seventeen active bands, ranging in style from country and rock to hip hop and R&B. They all share instruments and equipment, and they rotate in and out for rehearsal.

One of those bands is called the Lakeland Cavaliers. It’s made up of guitar player Daryl Wagner, bass player David Ward, and Herbert Dunnings on keys.

“I’m a guitar player since I was four years old. It’s my life and without music, I would just cease to exist.” – Daryl Wagner

“I used to watch this young lady named Angela and she was our organist [at church]. And I was always fascinated by the organ and keyboard and piano, and she played and I used to watch her play and stuff. I play by ear, and anything I hear as far as commercials and stuff like that, I be playing it.” – Herbert Dunnings

“It doesn’t matter how bad you can feel or how upbeat you feel, when you start playing, it’s just that flow of emotion, and you just really, it’s a balm is what it is. It really is just comforting to the soul.” – David Ward

Sit, stay, heal

Learn more about the dog adoption programs: Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan and The Greyhound Inmate Experience

To be or to be better

Hard skills like the ones inmates get in the food tech program are no doubt useful. Especially for the guys who are going to be released someday.

But for the lifers at Lakeland, what they need is food for their minds – and their souls. That’s where the Prison Education Outreach Program at Western Michigan University comes in. The program teaches a philosophy class at Lakeland.

Dale Brown is one of the teachers. He’s a doctoral student at WMU.

“I think the parts of the course that engage the students the most are those that deal directly in their life experience,” Brown said. “We’re all making choices. Some good, some bad. And that’s of direct consequence, not just to these folks in particular but to everybody.”

This semester’s course is called “Education and Human Flourishing.” It’s 15 weeks long and taught just like any other undergraduate offering at WMU. The same level of difficulty. The same teaching methods. The same reading and writing requirements.

One of the students, Roger Ward, said that the class has really made him consider his past.

“I absolutely do deserve to be in prison for some of the acts that I committed,” he said. “I deserve the sentence that I got. I pull no punches behind that. I accept responsibility. I took a man’s life.”

Ward said the class is an important part of his transformation.

“For me to be successful, if I’m ever to be released from prison or if I die here, it’s important that I am a different individual than I used to be,” he said.

A side of confidence

Letting guards down

Even though inmates and staff say Lakeland Correctional Facility is the best place to be in the state correctional system, it is still a prison.

Local news coverage in the Coldwater area includes stories about drug overdoses and death, stabbings, and assaults on corrections officers.

Between all of the violence, the need to constantly be on guard, mandatory overtime due to a statewide officer shortage and physically taxing duties, the job can take an emotional toll on corrections officers.

There have been several CO suicides in the past few years.

“I have seen a lot of suicide,” said officer John Hoath. “A lot of stress-related issues with divorce and even stuff further down the road than suicide.”

For some officers, the hardest part can be leaving work behind at the end of the day.

“You’re always running scenarios in your head, you know, it’s kind of hard to shut off sometimes,” said Officer Chad Poynter. “You go to a restaurant and we all sit the same way. We all sit facing towards the door.”

Acting Warden Bryan Morrison agreed the stress can get bad.

“I [was] hired in roughly 20-some years ago, you were taught to kind of bottle your stuff up and just move on,” he said. “We realized that that is not the best.”

With pressure from the corrections officers union, the Department has begun taking more active steps to address officer’s mental health.

“We realize that we need to have some staff wellness,” Morrison said.  “We need to be able to talk and discuss and care about ourselves.”

Around the state, prisons are short-handed. It is hard to hire new corrections officers and it is hard to keep them. Lakeland is short 38 staff members, the acting warden said.

That has led to a lot of mandatory overtime, even for senior staff like officer Kurt Brecheisen, who are not usually on the mandatory call list.

“I’ve been mandatoried more this past year – being off the mandatory list with seniority – than I ever got mandatory when I when I was on it for the previous 20 years,” he said.

Caring about care

The inmate population at Lakeland Correctional Facility is notably older than it is at other prisons. The facility has a geriatric care center because men sentenced to life in prison are there until they die.

But not everyone thinks they’re getting the care they need. Inmate Kevin Ragland, 60, said he “wakes up in pain and goes to bed in pain.” He was shot 30 years ago and eventually started having back problems that required lumbar fusion surgery.

“My problems started about five years ago, and I had surgery two years ago in 2017,” Ragland said. “And I’m still experiencing excruciating back pain. I can’t get the proper pain medication.”

Ragland’s is one of several complaints about access to medical care at Lakeland. Some of the prisoners Stateside spoke to are very ill. They would likely be in nursing homes if they weren’t incarcerated.

Christine Pigg is the acting director of nursing at Lakeland. She said it can cost “tens of thousands of dollars a month” to care for some of the most critically ill inmates.

The Michigan Department of Corrections contracts out for primary care, psychiatric care, pharmacy, and off-site coverage. It uses a company called Corizon Correctional Healthcare. The department signed a five-year contract with the company that amounts to more than $715 million.

There have been more than 1,000 lawsuits filed against Corizon nationwide, with at least 89 cases in Michigan.

Marti Kay Sherry is the director of the Bureau of Health Care Services for the MDOC. She admitted the department has “had some issues” with Corizon. That is what prompted the department to establish a contract monitoring unit to review the medical care the company provides and implement “corrective action plans.” Since then, the department has seen “some resolution” in terms of those issues.

Archie Baker is a 70-year-old inmate at Lakeland. He is serving a life sentence and has been in prison for 42 years. Baker said after a visit to the University of Michigan’s hospital, doctors recommended he get an MRI to determine the cause of an enlarged prostate, a painful condition that makes it “almost impossible” for him to urinate.

“I’ve been waiting for an MRI for two years now. They won’t give me one,” Baker said. “They think I got prostate cancer, but they still haven’t approved an MRI.”

Sherry said cases like Baker’s are usually reviewed by the department’s chief medical officer, who can then determine whether tests such as an MRI are necessary and request that Corizon administer them.

“I do think we have a checks and balances system in place where we would catch these [cases,]” Sherry said. “We have a grievance process too where the prisoners can grieve these issues, and we review those as well and provide responses.”

The Michigan Department of Corrections used to administer a state-run healthcare system, but acting Lakeland nursing director Christine Pigg said it was impossible to offer competitive salaries to retain doctors and psychiatrists. Those positions are now filled by Corizon, but the state still employs the nurses who work at Lakeland.

“Through our monitoring, through our clinical oversight, we ensure to the best of our abilities that people are providing appropriate care,” Pigg said.

Those nurses are often hard to recruit and retain, however. According to a Crain’s Detroit Business article published in February of this year, there were 86 vacant nurse positions and 44 vacant licensed nurse positions with the MDOC.

The old-timer

Lakeland, like the inmates who have been here for decades, has changed over the years.

Richard Thompson first came to Lakeland in 1988. He’s been at the facility longer than any other prisoner there.

“It was very nice back then. There was 600 people here,” Thompson remembered. “We had a store that you could walk up anytime the yard was open. We had tokens that we used, walk up and buy anything that was in the store seven days a week.”

Even then, it was a very different place than the Jackson prison where Thompson was first incarcerated.

“I mean, there you were in a cage all day unless you had a job. Here, you got the wide open space,” said Thompson. “You can go out and walk around anytime the yard’s open. Like you see no bars on my window. My door doesn’t lock, so I come and go outta here as I please, except for count time.”

Thompson said he has a few close friends here, but not many. Right now, he keeps an eye on one of his fellow inmates who is dealing with dementia. Thompson makes sure his friend stays out of trouble.

“He doesn’t understand even that he’s in prison. His mind is just going on him,” said Thompson. “And I’ve been friends with him for about four years now, I guess. And I’ve seen him get worse and worse, and I just try to help him the best I can.”

Discharge date

Thompson recently lost another of his close friends, a guy named Dave Ptak, who slept in the bunk next door.

“He was a quiet person. He loved his garden. He loved the animals,” said Thompson. “I don’t know what else to say about him. He was a good friend, that’s all I can say.”

There’s a bench next to one of the flower gardens tucked away in a corner of Lakeland’s sprawling campus. This was Dave Ptak’s garden. It was pretty much his bench too, which is where he was sitting when he died on August 28, 2019. Edward David Ptak was 80 years old.

“He took care of all this area here,” said Ptak’s friend James Wilson, gesturing to the garden around him. Landscaping stones were stacked neatly in the patch of grass next to Dave’s bench. Three images had been painted on the top one.

“He liked birds, he liked cats, and he liked flowers. So that’s what I had put on.”

When an inmate dies in prison, it’s listed in their official record as their “discharge date.” Wilson took it upon himself to make sure there was something to mark his old friend’s time at Lakeland.

“He was a good guy,” Wilson said. “Real kind to everybody. He never had anything bad to say about anyone. He was just a real decent guy.”


No matter how nice the Lakeland Correctional Facility seems, all prisons are designed, built, and staffed to keep people from leaving, to keep them on the inside. The high fences, the locked and guarded doors, the correctional officers patrolling the grounds are all reminders of that.

For most of the men we met serving life sentences, those fences are stark reminders of the limits placed on their lives. Many of them are never getting out.

But there is nothing – no locked door, no guard tower, no razor wire fence – that can stop their minds from wandering wherever they want to go. From dreaming whatever they want to dream.

A guarded trust

Prisoners make Lakeland what it is. Able-bodied prisoners assist in the care of sick and elderly inmates. The prisoners cook. They’re given knives. Inmates working in the gardens have scissors and shovels.

And that means there’s a certain level of trust between the corrections staff and the prisoners.

One officer said he respects the men in the prison, and expects respect in return.

The balance might be precarious. But for the most part, it appears to the outsider that inmate and officer are part of the same community.

The prison is that community.