Michigan Prison Plagued by Sewage Problems Despite Repeated Complaints
by Panagioti Tsolkas
The Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Michigan doesn’t have an official gas chamber. In fact, it’s considered a low-security prison. But recent conditions at Parnall have been poisoning prisoners through prolonged exposure to sewage gas.
Last year, Kevin Blair, Sr. watched his son, also Kevin Blair, a 40-year-old Michigan prisoner, deteriorate from a mysterious malady over a period of months before a test finally revealed what was wrong: he had unsafe levels of methane in his blood.
On January 20, 2017, Blair, Jr. filed a grievance complaining about long-standing air-quality problems and “toxic gases emitted from behind [his] cell” in Parnall’s 9 Block.
Another prisoner, Christopher Harvey, had submitted a grievance a week earlier after being woken by a guard telling him that his help was needed to clean sewage out of the facility’s basement.
“He stated that I would get paid,” Harvey explained. “I said no. My reason is that I’m not qualified to clean up such vast messes of human excrement. Hazmat or Servpro needs to be called. We are living in unsafe conditions. Soon we will get sick. There is human feces in the air, and the basement is flooded with sewage.”
Blair and Harvey weren’t the only ones to complain. The problem had been developing for months, with reported complaints of human waste and maggots rising through drains in the shower rooms. A report from the Detroit Free Press indicated that the sewage back-up coincided roughly with an outbreak of norovirus, resulting in a partial quarantine being imposed after dozens of prisoners came down with flu-like symptoms.
The Parnall Correctional Facility opened in 1926 as part of the former Michigan State Prison. The facility houses a Michigan State Industries program that includes meat processing and a creamery, as well as textile, metal furniture, shoe and sign manufacturing.
On February 5, 2017, the Free Press reported the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) was investigating an employee’s complaints about the poor air quality and raw sewage at Parnall. As of March the investigation was ongoing, but the Free Press was able to obtain records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request indicating that prison staff were not fully cooperating.
Although the investigation was spurred by a report submitted by prison counselor James Carr that confirmed the sewage concerns, FOIA records indicated at least one employee had refused to participate in the investigation. Another counselor, Tara Gerou, told an investigator with the state legislature’s Corrections Ombudsman via email, “I am fearful the MDOC ... will retaliate against me if I cooperate with you and your investigation.”
Prior to Carr’s report, there had been months of complaints from prisoners who were forced to live in the unsanitary conditions.
“I have several health problems due to this sewage spill,” Blair wrote in his January grievance. “Over the past couple of months, I’ve lost 30 pounds, headaches, lethargy, my eyes burn every time in my cell.” He said his parents “were horrified when they visited and seen me.”
Another prisoner, Michael Threet, 38, who was released from Parnall in early February, stated that he and others in 9 Block experienced the same severe health effects as Blair. Threet said some of the sewage was dumped in the prison yard where prisoners walked through it, tracking it around the prison, including the chow hall.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz denied Threet’s allegations, which was not surprising, as he had initially told a Free Press reporter that the whole sewage incident at 9 Block was false.
The FOIA request filed by the newspaper also showed that it wasn’t just the prisoners whose complaints were disregarded. Allegations of long-term sewage issues turned out to be consistent with complaints made to MIOSHA by an MDOC employee as far back as August 2016. Noe Alvarado, a special activities director at Parnall, had sent an email attempting to bring the issue to light, stating that “maggots come through drains and cracks that are not sealed,” and “The whole facility needs to be inspected by a professional licensed outside party to ensure the problems are identified so they can be permanently fixed.”
That initial investigation was closed quickly and quietly, with MDOC officials burying the complaint and claiming the problem was resolved.
Thanks to diligent reporting by the Free Press and grievances from persistent prisoners, the sewage problem at Parnall might actually get fixed. Blair has since retained an attorney, so there may even be some semblance of justice for his exposure to the conditions that resulted in his documented health problems due to methane exposure.
However, the broader problem of over-incarceration in Michigan remains. While overcrowded prisons have been a national trend for decades, Michigan’s prison population statistics have been uniquely troubling.
A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit public policy organization, determined that based on 2009 data, prisoners charged with violent crimes in Michigan served an average sentence of 7.6 years, compared with a national average of 5 years. The state’s property crime offenders that year served an average of 2.9 years compared with the national average of 2.3 years.
A 2016 report by Ted Roelofs of Bridge Magazine found that Michigan’s prison population was ballooning at an alarming rate, from just under 18,000 in 1985 to 41,000 in 1995 and peaking at more than 51,000 in 2006. The cost of operating prisons offered another indicator: prison-related spending in the state’s general budget soared from 3 percent in 1980 to 21 percent in 2013.
According to Michigan prison officials, around 1,900 prisoners who have served their minimum sentence have been denied release by the parole board even though they qualify as a low risk to reoffend.
With over 43,000 prisoners in the state, 1,600 of whom are housed at Parnall alone, how long until such high incarceration levels result in another massive sewage mishap?
Sources: Detroit Free Press, www.mlive.com