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Confidential Settlement in Case Involving Alleged Pattern of Racist Misconduct in Michigan Prisons

Hizam Yehia worked at PCF for four years before he resigned in 2019 and filed suit against both MDOC and his former supervisor, Frank Sawyer, now a guard captain. Yehia, who is Muslim, claimed he was subjected to extraordinary mistreatment by Sawyer, who was then a lieutenant and Yehia’s supervisor.

This is not the first time allegations against Sawyer have been reported. In a separate federal lawsuit also filed in 2019, PCF Lt. Michael Doss — who is Black — claims he was demoted after he complained that Sawyer called him the N-word.

Doss provided testimony in Yehia’s case that Sawyer was overheard repeatedly using the N-word at a 2017 MDOC Christmas party. Sawyer was also deposed for Yehia’s suit, admitting using the word as many as 100 times in his life. 

MDOC did not conduct an internal affairs investigation into Sawyer’s 2017 conduct, but it did hand down a five-day suspension. Sawyer did not miss one day of work time, however, nor did he lose a single dollar in pay. The time was simply deducted from accrued vacation time — in effect, there was no meaningful punishment. Doss’s suit alleges that Sawyer “laughed and bragged” about the inconsequential punishment he received in 2017, saying he “would drink one beer for each day” of deducted vacation time.

In his suit, Yehia argued that by allowing Sawyer to avoid any true accountability, while also promoting him from lieutenant to captain, MDOC contributed to the very issues for which he suit sought to make the agency legally liable.

Chris White, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, believes that MDOC’s handling of Sawyer’s N-word incident demonstrates that the state does not take the issue of racism seriously. In a prison system where 55% of the prisoners overseen by staff like Sawyer are people of color, this raises serious issues about their treatment. If this type of misconduct is directed toward other staff, he wonders, how much worse might it be for the prisoners? Many issues which validate that concern were raised in the Yehia lawsuit.

Yehia asserted that within the meaning of Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he possessed a right to employment free from discrimination based on national origin, religion, weight, and race. Yet his suit contained many allegations depicting a culture of racism that was ignored, perpetrated, and cultivated by MDOC employees. The lawsuit further alleged that these acts were even more egregious due to the very limited number of minorities employed by MDOC.

Yehia’s suit argued that there was no legitimate reason for the alleged conduct and that it created a hostile work environment, resulting in disparate treatment of him based on unlawful reasons. While Yehia was on the job, Sawyer allegedly called Yehia a “terrorist” because he is Muslim and also called Yehia a goat- f**er or cow-f**er; asked if Yehia rode his camel to work; stated he would “never go to the Middle East because they ‘beat their women,’ ‘blow themselves up,’ and that the women cover their faces like ‘ninjas’.”

Similar comments were also alleged against other named MDOC staff, but as Yehia’s superior, Sawyer was the most culpable, he argued. Yehia described a chili cook-off at PCF held to raise money for U.S. military veterans where lids on pots were intentionally switched in a deliberate effort to get him to consume pork, which he unwittingly did, violating one of his religious practices as a Muslim. When he discovered the truth, Yehia said he felt like he had sinned. His co-workers laughed about it, asking if he would be “going to Hell right away.”

“I was very stressed out,” Yehia said. “I remember that day, going home, I couldn’t breathe. I was very angry at what happened.”

To make matters worse, he added, he couldn’t go to his supervisors because they were in on the prank, too.

“It’s just very mind-boggling,” he said.

His allegations were supported by testimony of three co-worker’s. Anthony White, Mike Herman, and Arnold Koribelli all stated that the abuse Yehia suffered was ongoing.

“The harassment was regular, consistent, and pervasive, and I personally observed it at least once a week,” Herman testified.

After resigning from MDOC in 2019, Yehia went to work for the Federal Protective Service in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, his suit was brought before U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox, who ruled in November 2020 that a jury should hear the evidence to determine whether MDOC had tolerated a hostile work environment at PCF. That led three months later to the settlement, the terms of which where confidential, according to Yehia’s attorney, Jon Marko.

White said that racism is likely a major issue not just in prison systems, but also in police departments and across the entire justice system. He believes that these types of cases are very troubling, but it is more concerning to consider the number that never get reported.

See: Yehia v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr., Case No. 19-12019, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.). 


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Related legal case

Yehia v. Mich. Dep’t of Corr.