Friday, February 27, 1998

More Michigan Prisoners May Get Cells in Other States

By Jennifer Bresnahan Capital News Service -- Lansing

More felons who commit crimes in Michigan could find their cell in another state. "We put people where the beds are," said Kenneth McGinnis, director of the Department of Corrections. "Our options are running out and there is a severe bed shortage in Michigan."

The Senate approved a bill last week simplifying the process to transfer inmates out of state. It would deny prisoners a hearing before relocation. "Severe overcrowding at Michigan prisons puts everyone at risk--correction workers, the public and even the inmates," said Sen. Loren Bennett, R-Canton Township, the sponsor of the bill. "If I had to choose between sending a convicted felon out of state to be housed and the safety of my daughters, I would chose the safety of my daughters."

The bill now awaits action in the House. Michigan's prison system, according to recent estimates, will be completely full as early as next year. The state has 42,000 prisoners, and is considering sending felons to prisons in states such as Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. "I'd rather see prisoners sent out of state than let out of prison," said Sen. Joanne Emmons, R-Big Rapids.

According to McGinnis, shipping a prisoner out of state is little different than sending a student to college or an enlistee to the military. However, Penny Ryder, director of the Criminal Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee based in Ann Arbor, believes differently. "It's too expensive for the prisoners and their families. Long-distance phone calls and long road trips make visiting harder. In turn, families don't visit as often, which can be a problem for some inmates." But McGinnis said, "people don't realize that some places out of state are closer than some prisons in the Upper Peninsula. It would take a family from Detroit longer to get to the U.P. than to the prison is West Virginia."

According to the Department of Corrections, about 40 prisoners were housed in a federal facility in West Virginia. However, many of those were recently sent back to Michigan due to lack of space there. The department may send them to a different state. Gov. John Engler wants to build two new prisons and expand eight others, adding 5,400 beds. The new prisons would be built in Ionia and Caro. The Legislature's expected to act on the proposal by this summer.

"This is a great thing for the Ionia community," where there already are four corrections facilities, said Sen. Emmons. "It provides good paying jobs, it's non-polluting and it's a quiet neighbor."


August 14, 1998

U.N. Official Barred from U.S. Women's Prisons

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations is caught in the middle of a human rights dispute between the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Michigan over the abuse of women inmates in its prisons.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, has been barred from visiting three Michigan prisons accused of widespread sexual misconduct against its women prisoners.

The Governor of Michigan, John Engler, has stated that the federal government has filed a ''baseless lawsuit'' in charging his State with violating the rights of women prisoners and is facilitating the U.N. probe motivated primarily by political reasons.

''I view the United Nations as an unwitting tool in the Justice Department's agenda to discredit the state of Michigan in spite of the objective evidence that the state of Michigan has not violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates,'' Engler said in a letter to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Coomaraswamy, who has just completed visits to both federal and State prisons, as well as Immigration and Naturalisation detention facilities, in the States of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, California and Minnesota, was prevented from visiting women's prisons in Michigan.

Although she had made extensive preparations to interview inmates at three prisons in Michigan- the Florence Crane Women's Facility and Camp Branch Facility for Women in Coldwater, and the Scott Correctional Facility for Women in Plymouth - Engler barred Cumaraswamy on the eve of her visit.

The Special Rapporteur said she ''regrets'' she was not able to have a constructive dialogue with Michigan State authorities because of ''very serious allegations of sexual misconduct'' in all three prisons. Coomaraswamay was also prevented from meeting with State representatives in Michigan.

In his letter, Engler said that Coomaraswamy obviously was unaware of the lawsuit filed against his State by the Justice Department and the political motivations behind it. ''They filed this lawsuit despite extensive efforts on the state's part to document that the allegations that the Justice Department has made are without merit,'' he said.

''Under these circumstances, I am sceptical of the federal governments' motivation for inviting the Special Rapporteur into Michigan to study the issue of violence against women in prison,'' Engler said.

The Governor pointed out he was also sceptical that such a review, done at the invitation of the Justice Deparrment and the federal government, ''can reach an objective outcome.''

''I must conclude that the Justice Department hopes to use the Special Rapporteur as a sword against the State in this unncessary litigation,'' he added. ''I cannot permit, as a matter of both sound legal strategy and good common sense, the State to participate in such an effort,'' he declared.

Coomaraswamy said that preliminary investigations pointed to the fact that ''sexual misconduct by prison staff is widespread in American women's prisons.''

''Sexual conduct appears to be pervasive particularly in the state of Michigan,'' she said. On the other hand, some States have taken positive initiatives to combat this problem.

Coomaraswamy said the state of Georgia which has inaugurated a comprehensive programme to combat sexual misconduct in women's prisons. The state of Minnesota, she said, also had an exemplary prison for women that can serve as a model for best practices but she was critical of the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla in the state of California where there have been serious allegations of sexual misconduct.

Whitney Brown of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told IPS that as far as women's prisons were concerned ''Michigan was one of the worst.'' She said she knew that Coomaraswamy had been barred from visiting these prisons. The situation, she said, was ''bad'' and ''very upsetting.''

Brown, one of the authors of a detailed 1996 study of sexual abuse of women in U.S. State prisons, is doing a follow-up study to be released in September this year.

The study charged that in U.S. State prisons - from Georgia to California - male officers are sexually abusing female prisoners with total impunity. ''State and federal officials in a position to address such misconduct often deny that it exists or fail to take adequate steps to prevent it. As a result, sexual misconduct is U.S. State prisons for women is emerging as an explosive national problem,'' Human Rights Watch warned.

The study said that the United States had the dubious distinction of incarcerating the largest known number of prisons in the world, of which a steadily increasing number are women. Since 1980, the number of women entering U.S. prisons had risen by almost 400 percent, roughly double the incarceration rate increase of males. The study also said that 52 percent of these prisoners are African-American women who constitute only 14 percent of the total U.S. female population. According to current estimates, the study said that at least half of all female prisoners have experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to incarceration.


Monday, October 11, 1999

Prison Sex Could Draw Prison Term

Lawmakers debate bills making it a felony for guards to have sexual contact with inmates

Incidents involving guards and female prisoners prompted the Legislature to consider tougher laws. The Crane's Women's Facility in Coldwater is one of three women's prisons.

By Gary Heinlein / The Detroit News

With allegations of shameful behavior by state prison employees as a backdrop, Michigan lawmakers are considering tough new penalties against Corrections Department workers who have sexual relations with inmates. Proposals now in both chambers of the state Legislature would make it a 15-year felony for a Corrections employee to have "sexual contact" with a prisoner -- including consensual sex.

Under current Michigan law, it is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than two years' imprisonment. The bills haven't yet come up for debate in committees -- the first step in the legislative process. But it will be hard for lawmakers to ignore the embarrassing publicity the state already has received about treatment of women prisoners.

"Women in Michigan prisons have been raped, forced to perform oral sex, subjected to unwanted sexual touching and retaliated against for reporting these acts," Ann Arbor attorneys Deborah LaBelle and Molly Reno charged in a recent statement about state and federal lawsuits filed in 1995. LaBelle and Reno have a class action suit on behalf of women prisoners that began in Washtenaw County Circuit Court and is now on appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court and a lawsuit involving 31 women prisoners in federal district court in Detroit. Some of their clients were prominently featured in a recent report by national TV journalist Geraldo Rivera about sexual abuse in women's prisons around the country. The telecast was cited several times last week during a House debate about other prison-related legislation.

Proponents of harsher penalties for sexual misconduct by prison workers say the change is overdue and will protect the integrity of the state's prison system. The theory is that even consensual sex is wrong, because a prison worker holds authority over an inmate. "It will help reinforce the message that prison guards are not above the law." said Rep. Jennifer Faunce, R-Warren, chief sponsor of the House bill.

Republican Sen. Shirley Johnson of Royal Oak is sponsoring a similar bill. Northville resident Katie Haines isn't sure how she feels about the proposed legislation, but said more of an effort to rehabilitate prisoners could reduce the number of incidents. "I think it's wrong to have any type of relationship like that between a man and a woman who aren't married, whether or not it's in prison," said Haines. "You have to have morals. You need that teaching. You need to reach people when they're put in prison, not just let them sit there."

The state has three women's prisons: Florence Crane Correctional Facility and Camp Branch in Coldwater; and Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth. State Corrections Director Bill Martin supports the proposed increase in penalties, even while defending his department and staff against allegations that he says are lurid and overblown. Michigan prison workers are well-trained and professional, but sexual misconduct by a few will not be tolerated, said Martin, who took over the Corrections system last January. Martin pointed out that the penalties would apply equally to female Corrections officers working in men's prisons, where there is a vastly greater potential for improper sexual relations.

Of the 46,000 inmates in Michigan prisons, 1,880 are women. "There is no such thing as consensual sex in prison, period," said Martin, a former lawmaker from Battle Creek. "I've always believed it's a felony. It's a huge breach of the public trust. It's also a breach of security. The officers might be subject to blackmail. All sorts of things could happen."

The correctional officers union, however, argues that the new law would require harsher punishment for prison staff than for other workers guilty of the same type of misconduct. The Michigan Corrections Organization also says corrections officers are unfairly being branded as untrustworthy.

Attorney LaBelle said the legislation is a step in the right direction but the state should do more to protect women prisoners. The state should go back to a policy in which, prior to 1985, only women officers guarded women prisoners, she said. "I'm preventive-oriented, rather than punishment-oriented," LaBelle said. Martin said he'd like to return to the old policy, but his department has been advised that would violate labor laws requiring equal opportunity for officers of both genders in all of the facilities.

About one-third of the state's 17,000 Corrections employees are female. Of nearly 9,000 Corrections officers, about 2,000 are female. "I think most male officers would tell you they feel more comfortable supervising male prisoners," said Martin. "But at the same time, it is possible for them to conduct themselves professionally and never abuse their authority in a women's facility."


Thursday, October 14, 1999

State May Revert to Old Same-Sex Prison Guard Rule

By Gary Heinlein / The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Corrections, stung by allegations that male employees have sexually assaulted female prisoners, is considering a same-sex policy. Only women would work as corrections officers or in other capacities at women's prisons and camps. Only men would work in men's prisons and camps. That would bring back the gender-segregated system Michigan had prior to 1985.

"We're in the preliminary stages of exploring what it takes (to do that)," Corrections Director Bill Martin told a House panel Tuesday. It's a crime and a violation of work rules for a corrections worker to have sex with a prisoner. Close relationships also are prohibited. Martin said the proposal is prompted by concerns dating back to his years as a state lawmaker in the late 1980s, and not the recent allegations.

But Mel Grieshaber, vice-president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said the proposal has "punitive implications" since workers would have to uproot families and might face more limited opportunities.

Rep. Charles LaSata, the St. Joseph Republican who chaired the hearing, said members wanted to discuss alleged "problems" in the prison system. State and federal lawsuits claim sexual abuse at the Scott and Crane correctional facilities in Plymouth and Coldwater -- Michigan's two women's prisons.

The charges were nationally aired by TV journalist Geraldo Rivera. Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, who filed the lawsuits, said she only seeks an all-women policy for about 240 corrections officers guarding female prisoners' living quarters at Crane and Scott. Martin said problems also can occur in men's prisons. "It's been my limited experience that it's more likely to happen in a kitchen with food service personnel, not officers ... or to happen in a school with school personnel, not officers," he said.


Tuesday, November 9, 1999

Female Prisoners Recount Attacks

Lawmakers promise stronger protections at women's facilities

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News DETROIT

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, promised to take action to protect women prisoners in Michigan after listening to former inmates and guards give graphic accounts of life inside the Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth.

Conyers and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, called a public hearing Monday to learn more about allegations of misconduct by employees at Scott, one of two women's prisons in Michigan. Several former inmates gave accounts of sexual and physical abuse, intimidation and improper health care. "Michigan has to stop this right now," said ex-Scott inmate Jamie Whitcomb. "This abuse that goes on is not pretty. It's the kind of stuff other countries do and get condemned for."

Former prison employees said guards who spoke up about the abuse were harassed and intimidated into silence by the prison administration and guards. Conyers praised the speakers for coming forward. "It's your courage that gives us the steam that we need to get something done," said Conyers, who is planning to push for stronger federal laws protecting women prisoners.

The state has been flooded by lawsuits and bad publicity stemming from the allegations. Class-action sexual harassment suits by 32 inmates are pending in U.S. District Court in Detroit. Several former Scott inmates were featured in a recent TV report on sexual abuse in women's prisons.

In May, the Michigan Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department alleging abuse of women prisoners.


Thursday, October 7, 1999

Prison advocates assail phone fees State charges prisoners $3 for each call they place that receiver pays

Associated Press MARQUETTE -- It should not cost an extra $3 to reach out and touch someone from a state prison, one corrections reform group says. Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants says the $3 surcharge the Michigan Department of Corrections collects on each call a prisoner makes unnecessarily limits many inmates' ability to keep in contact with their loved ones.

"We're not excusing what they did to get into prison. That's not what this is about at all," said Barbara Budinger of Marquette, a member of CURE, a national nonprofit prison and jail reform group dedicated to the reduction of crime through reform of the criminal justice system. "It's the families who have to pay these surcharges ... and it's not fair. It adds up to big bucks." All inmate telephone calls to the outside, even local connections, are collect calls, said Kay Perry of Kalamazoo, CURE's state director.

The Department of Corrections collected about $15 million from prisoner telephone calls last fiscal year. Michigan, which started accepting assessments in 1993, is one of several states that levy such charges, according to corrections officials. New York, for example, collects about $25 million each year. In Michigan, the money is funneled into a state reimbursement program that provides funds to house some nonviolent offenders in county jails instead of distant state-operated penitentiaries. CURE's Michigan chapter claims the surcharges isolate some prisoners and contribute to a deterioration of family relationships, she said. Family contact and support are important to reducing inmate recidivism, the group claims. "It takes a lot of courage for prisoners to keep in contact with families," Perry told the Mining Journal of Marquette. "What the corrections department has tried to do over the years is isolate prisoners. I think that's pretty clear."

The Department of Corrections doesn't agree with CURE's contention that closer contact between prisoners and families helps reduce crime, department spokesman Matt Davis said. "It appears that close contact (with families) didn't keep them from going to prison in the first place," he said. Families on the outside "don't have to accept the calls when they come in," Davis said. "They can write to each other."

Using the money for the county jail program helps keep inmates who otherwise would be sent away closer to their families, Davis said. But maintaining close contact makes good sense to Marquette psychologist Scott Matthews, who said keeping strong family ties is "a common sense thing, even a Christian thing." "It seems like we want them to be able to ... function when they get out of prison," Matthews said. "It makes sense that closer contact with families on the outside would help that to happen for inmates." To address the issue, CURE wants prisoners be able to use prepaid calling cards, Budinger said. Also, prisoners should be allowed to call approved toll-free numbers, and in the case of collect calls, there should be no surcharge, she said.



Is that a band-aid on his thumb? We surmise that his thumb is into too many things. The man is known for his dictatorial policies and is refusing to let the U.N. investigate his prisons. What is he afraid of? This is a "human rights" issue, not a Michigan citizen, prison inmate, or even U.S. citizen rights issue. Remember Kosovo? Didn't they protest U.N. intervention and investigations? And what was found?

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