Last week was an eventful one for Michigan's prisons.
First the Michigan Department of Corrections announced that it would seek permission to stop using male guards in the housing units of its women's prisons. The decision comes amid lawsuits alleging that women prisoners are often sexually abused, harassed and intimidated by male guards.
At almost the same time, conservatives in the state Senate passed two bills that strip prisoners of state civil rights.
If signed by Gov. John Engler, the bills will exempt people detained in the state's prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities from the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act.
"There's a mean-spiritedness we can't overlook here," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit. Conyers says the passage of the measures is further evidence of the state's destructive, conservative-based philosophy in the area of corrections — a philosophy that has been gathering steam under Engler.
"I'm trying to figure out whether there's some political theory involved or if these people don't care what the majority of criminal justice experts say is important in terms of providing some sort of rehabilitation in corrections," Conyers says.
"We're trying to keep them from destroying the people in their custody."
Prisoner advocates had little time to react as the legislation swept quickly through both houses just before lawmakers left Lansing for the year.
"This effort by the state to shield itself from responsibility must be overturned immediately," said Regan E. Ralph, director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of denying prisoners their rights, Michigan needs to end the abuses in its prisons."
State Rep. Michael Bishop, R-Rochester, who introduced both pieces of legislation, recently told Metro Times the measures were not retroactive. However, the bills specifically name two current lawsuits against the state prison system that would be affected. One involves 32 female inmates who are suing Michigan Department of Corrections over allegations including routine privacy violations and sexual abuse by prison staff.
"This means that the women are without any redress for their injuries," says Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer representing the 32 women in Neal vs. Department of Corrections.
LaBelle says the legislation is meant to eliminate the Neal suit and Doe vs. Department of Corrections, which involves "HIV prisoners who were denied community placement and treatment."
According to LaBelle, Michigan prisoners are still covered by the American Disabilities Act.
Bishop says his legislation is meant to clarify for judges that the state civil rights statutes were never meant to apply to prisoners. Moreover, he says, inmates' lawsuits brought under those laws drag on for years.
Bishop adds his bills don't nix prisoners' civil rights because inmates can still seek relief under the U.S. Constitution and criminal and civil statutes. However, LaBelle says changes in federal law over the past few years make it impossible for prisoners to bring suits similar to the one the 32 women brought in state and federal courts in 1996.
The U.S. Justice Department settled the federal case earlier this year in a way that many prisoner advocates contend did little to help the plaintiffs.
LaBelle says the state suit was the only hope the women had of justice regarding the allegedly routine civil rights violations.
According to Human Rights Watch, the recently passed legislation means "current lawsuits against the corrections department will in all likelihood be thrown out."
Meanwhile, on Dec. 8 the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld federal contempt sanctions against MDOC for violating the constitutional equal protection rights of Michigan's incarcerated women.
The federal court affirmed the sanctions a district court issued MDOC for not providing female prisoners vocational opportunities in the case of Glover vs. Johnson. According to a statement issued by LaBelle's office, the appeals court stated that the $385,000 in sanctions was intended as "a punitive measure designed to force the Department finally to comply with the court's lawful orders after years of defiance and delay."
Also last week, state prison officials announced they are attempting to remove male staff from the housing units in women's prisons. MDOC spokesman Matt Davis says MDOC, with the help of the Attorney General's Office, is seeking an exception to the 1964 Civil Rights Act so that male staff will no longer be allowed to work in housing units at the state's three women's facilities: Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth or Crane Correctional Facility and Camp Branch, both in Coldwater.
Davis says the policy change is to protect the department from unsubstantiated claims of prison staff sexual misconduct, which "have a profound deleterious effect to the morale of our staff."
"It's the best way to protect innocent staff from false accusations and prisoners from anyone from staff who is going to misuse their position to seek to have a relationship with a prisoner that is other than professional," he says.
However, about 10 staff members from the women's prisons have been convicted of criminal sexual conduct since 1998. LaBelle says each of those convictions involved serious allegations including sexual assault. Several similar cases are still pending.
Although Conyers says he applauds MDOC's decision to ban male staff from working in incarcerated women's living quarters, compared to the prisoners' loss of civil rights under state law, he says, the department's intended policy change is a "small blip on the radar screen."
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