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Michigan’s Wayne County Jails Plagued with Inhumane Conditions

The jails in Michigan’s Wayne County are “inhumane for everybody,” according to one law enforcement official. The outmoded and dangerous jails were supposed to be replaced, but cost overruns at a new state-of-the-art facility forced the county to discontinue the project.

As previously reported in PLN, the replacement project was shut down in 2013. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.58]. Yet the county continues to pay $1.2 million every month for costs incurred by the project. This running faucet of county revenue has caused a squeeze on its budget, resulting in fewer funds to spend on its three existing aged jails – the oldest of which is the 86-year-old, 770-bed Wayne County Jail.

Then there is the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility, built in 1984 with a current capacity of around 1,285 beds, followed by the William Dickerson Detention Facility, built in 1991 with a capacity of 896 beds.

The plan was to close all three jails and replace them with a modern facility. With the prospect of a new replacement facility on the horizon, the county quit spending on preventative maintenance at the old jails – leaving them in even worse shape than they were prior to the replacement project.

“There’s no dispute,” said Jeriel Heard, chief of jails and courts for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re constantly dealing with issues involving our elevators, fire alarm panels, and other health and safety equipment” at the existing jails.

Things were so bad that in January 2015, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, a Wayne County Circuit judge ordered the county to develop a plan “for preventative maintenance that would presumably fix a slew of problems at the jails, including a crumbling kitchen floor, drain fly larvae, organic matter in inmate showers and malfunctioning equipment.”

The outdated facilities at the Wayne County Jail have resulted in attorneys being assaulted by clients while locked in closet-size rooms. The fire alarm panel had a glitch the day of a Free Press reporter’s visit, and living conditions are overcrowded and lack privacy.

At the Baird detention facility, summer temperatures soared when a ventilation network failed. In addition to the heat, the air was filled with the smell of urine and body odor.

“It’s just inhumane for everybody,” said Heard. “It was literally a hothouse. We could have grown vegetables.”

Baird is used to house juvenile offenders, women detainees, and prisoners with medical and mental health issues. The facility is not equipped for the task.

“We’re as antiquated as it gets,” said Josephine Woods, Baird’s director of nursing.

The control room at the Dickerson jail, the Free Press reported, “looked more like a flashing Christmas tree.”

According to Heard, the master control panel at the facility was “jerry rigged” years ago. While the switches to control cell doors worked, the lights pinpointing open and closed doors blinked without apparent cause.

The most concerning issue was the fire alarm control panel. “We’re completely off­line,” said Cpl. Ronald DiPaola. “It’s a huge safety problem.”

Additional problems at the existing jails include structural problems with plumbing as well as understaffing. For example, in regard to the latter issue, in a domestic violence pod holding 64 prisoners there was just one supervising female guard on duty.

The failings of Wayne County’s jails have taken their toll on the prisoner population; four suicides occurred from April through July 2016.

Paul Kendall, 24, killed himself on April 20; Jerome Yarbrough, 49, took his own life on June 15; Robert Martindale, 52, committed suicide on July 20; and Darryl Lewis, Jr., 21, killed himself on July 24, 2016.

All were being held on serious felony charges.

According to Wayne County Sheriff’s Office Chief Robert Dunlap, three of the prisoners hanged themselves and one leapt off an upper tier head-first.

Speaking with the Free Press, Dunlap indicated that while guards had performed their requisite rounds at the times of the suicides, much of the blame for the deaths could be placed on the antiquated nature of the jails – including problems with security video cameras.

While Dunlap did state, following the spate of suicides, that jail staff would receive additional training in identifying suicidal behavior, it seems the Sheriff’s Office may be out of its depth. As reported by the Free Press in September 2016, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny noted that, with the recent closure of Michigan state mental hospitals, more and more mentally ill people are ending up in Wayne County’s problematic jail system.

“[I]t’s embarrassing to say the single biggest mental health treatment facility in the state of Michigan is the Wayne County Jail,” said Kenny.

The judge, who has had an oversight role over the jails through litigation related to poor conditions at the facilities, observed that as of September 2016 there would be no full-time staff psychiatrist in the county’s jail system, and that the Dickerson facility had no mental health or social workers.

This state of affairs has caused Wayne County, which was teetering on bankruptcy as recently as late 2015, to consider outsourcing its jail medical care to a private contractor, Nashville-based Correct Care Solutions – which has its own dismal record.

As for the planned replacement facility, which was intended to alleviate the inhumane conditions in Wayne County’s decaying jail system, there is little hope the project will proceed. According to September 2016 news reports, the county was considering allowing private investors to purchase the property intended for the replacement jail. The investors planned to convert the site into a professional soccer stadium.

Sources: Detroit Free Press, Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office,

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