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Michigan Hit with Multiple Lawsuits Related to Women’s Prison

by Douglas Ankney

The State of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) have been named defendants in three separate lawsuits concerning the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV).

In August 2018, the state agreed to pay almost $750,000 to settle a complaint that was brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on behalf of female guards at WHV. The suit was filed in federal court and alleged that, due to the overwhelming number of duty assignments at WHV unnecessarily designated for women only, female guards were forced to work excessive amounts of overtime that jeopardized their health and safety. They often worked in excess of 12 hours per shift, and the state paid $5.2 million in overtime at WHV in 2014-15, not including holiday pay.

Additionally, the lawsuit claimed that female guards were denied transfers to other facilities in order to accommodate the female-only post requirements at WHV. The denial of transfers resulted in fewer job opportunities and promotions. The DOJ argued that the state “cannot lock workers in or out of a job because of their sex.” MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz said the state “will lift a freeze on female officers transferring to other prisons.” See: United States v. Michigan, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:16-cv-12146-PDB-MKM.

In a separate but related lawsuit filed in state court, male guards at WHV complained of a lack of opportunities at the prison. In 1997, the DOJ had sued the state and MDOC on behalf of women prisoners for failing to protect them from sexual assaults by male guards. As part of that settlement, prison officials designated 267 duty posts female-only. Most of those assignments were in the housing units. Since then, the MDOC has unnecessarily applied the gender-based designation to other duty posts, including food service, library and security camera monitor. Gautz said the state will examine whether more positions at WHV can be opened to male guards. 

In a third case, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Murphy allowed a lawsuit filed by women prisoners at WHV to proceed, though he denied class-action status because the diverse claims required individualized fact-finding. That lawsuit alleges WHV is overcrowded; prisoners are packed into former closets, offices, classrooms and recreation areas that have been converted into housing areas. They are denied classes which are required before they can be released on parole. They are deprived of adequate recreation, clothing, medical treatment, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. 

MDOC Director Heidi Washington denied overcrowding is an issue, but a letter from an official in then-Governor Rick Snyder’s office stated, “the department is aware of the overcrowding issues ... and is working on resolving this.”
In 2008, the MDOC consolidated its three adult women’s prisons into the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Randy Atlas, a Florida architect specializing in prison design, said when state officials converted offices, storage rooms and recreation areas at WHV into cells, they did not ensure the new cells had adequate ventilation and failed to provide the 60 square feet per prisoner required by American Correctional Association standards. Some areas had less than 18 square feet per prisoner.

Ellen Koch, a clinical psychologist who interviewed several women at WHV, said the overcrowded conditions aggravated mental health problems and led to an increase in suicide attempts, as well as more violence. There were three suicide attempts in 2013 and a dozen in 2016. There were 21 violent incidents in 2010 and 74 in 2015. According to Atlas, those findings are typical for an overcrowded facility.

Further, in late 2018 and early 2019, a scabies outbreak at WHV affected hundreds of prisoners and persisted for months due to the failure of the prison’s medical contractor, Corizon Health, to properly diagnose the problem. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.58].

The overcrowding case and the lawsuit filed by male prison guards remain pending. 

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Additional sources: usnews.com, freep.com, apnews.com