Focus on prisons

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An upcoming congressional hearing will throw more light on a Michigan prison system that continues to be criticized for its treatment of women prisoners.

U.S. Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, both Detroit Democrats, will hold a hearing to address prison conditions and related issues Monday, Nov. 8, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit.

The hearing follows a report on NBC television in September that brought alleged sexual abuse in Michigan’s women’s prisons to national attention.

Following the program, which featured the reporting of Geraldo Rivera, the Michigan Department of Corrections announced that it would both further restrict media access to prisons and examine whether to require that prison staff be the same gender as prisoners.

MDOC spokesman Matt Davis says the request to change the media access policy had nothing to do with Rivera’s program. The Metro Times reported on the issues earlier this year in "Guarded secrets" (MT, March 24-30).

MDOC continues to face litigation over allegations that it allows widespread sex abuse of female prisoners.

Keenan Keller, an attorney on the House judiciary staff, says information from the upcoming hearing will help determine whether prison conditions have deteriorated nationwide since the 1996 passage of the Prison Conditions Litigation Reform Act, introduced by Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. The act limits the roles of lawsuits and courts in reforming prisons.

According to Keller, Conyers also plans to explore strengthening his proposed Violence Against Women Act. Introduced in January, it includes provisions for protecting incarcerated women against sexual abuse by correctional staff.

Representatives of Georgia’s prison system, which has been lauded for its reforms, have been invited to testify, along with representatives of the U.S. Justice Department and lawyers who represent prisoners. Other planned hearing topics include whether female inmates receive adequate health care and ways to protect women from retaliation for reporting abuse.

Gov. John Engler’s administration barred Rivera from the prisons, just as it has shut out other media, at least one human rights organization, the federal government and even the United Nations. MDOC officials maintain that they adequately investigate any problems reported in Michigan’s prisons.

Upon hearing of MDOC’s attempts to tighten its media access policy, NBC executive producer Susan Farkas said: "I’m startled they could make it any more restrictive than it already is. … I guess they’re just trying to formalize what they were operating under when we approached them."

Davis says for MDOC to have an open-door policy toward the media "would only serve to perpetuate an elitism. … The media cannot have any more access than any other members of the public."

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