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Rights fight for inmates 

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, says he plans to seek U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s opinion regarding the constitutionality of recent state legislation that excludes prisoners from Michigan’s civil rights laws.

Beginning March 10, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act will no longer apply to anyone detained in Michigan’s prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities.

In addition to wiping out any future prisoner civil rights claims under state law, the changes to Elliot-Larsen retroactively target a lawsuit brought against the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1996 by 32 female prisoners who allege widespread sexual abuse by prison guards. The U.S. Justice Department last year settled a similar federal suit against MDOC without bringing meaningful reforms, prisoner advocates say.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Michael Bishop, R-Rochester, was signed into law by Gov. John Engler in December.

"Although there’s been federal intervention, we’ve got to go to the top," said Conyers, D-Detroit, in reaction to the curbing of prisoners’ rights. "We’re bringing this to the attention of the Attorney General."

The state attorney general’s office threw its support behind the legislation in a Dec. 8 letter to state Sens. John Cherry, Dan DeGrow and William Van Regenmorter. The letter asserts that prisoners’ civil rights are "fully addressed by existing federal legislation."

However, critics say recent changes to federal law, including the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, make it difficult for federal courts to enforce prisoners’ rights. Given the state and federal restrictions, Conyers asks: "What kind of meaningful civil rights remain for an inmate in this state?"

After hearing testimony against the new laws from the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics, the governor-appointed Michigan Civil Rights Commission announced last week plans to look into whether the body is still authorized to investigate civil rights violations in the state’s correctional facilities.

Meanwhile in Congress, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., has reintroduced legislation that would exclude state and county prisoners from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thurmond spokesman John DeCross says it is too expensive for state and local corrections departments to accommodate people with disabilities to the extent federal law requires. Similarly, the state attorney general’s office praised Bishop’s legislation for "protecting taxpayers’ wallets."

"If this is the real logic behind the bill," says Elizabeth Bauer, executive director for the disability rights nonprofit Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, "what’s to keep them from saying people in the state’s psychiatric hospitals, who are living off taxpayers’ dollars, aren’t protected – that you can abuse and neglect them?"

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December 2, 2020

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