Hearing prisoners

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Prison reforms can’t come fast enough for Jamie Whitcomb. During her three and a half years at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, the 36-year-old woman says she was chained to a bed in a room alone for 20 days straight.

A videotape of her ordeal, including footage of Whitcomb being tear gassed while restrained, was recently shown on national television, making Whitcomb familiar to many who attended a Nov. 8 hearing in Detroit to examine potential changes in federal law to provide independent oversight of Michigan’s prisons.

At the hearing, convened by U.S. Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, both Detroit Democrats, Whitcomb urged officials to act quickly.

"Right now, someone has been chained down in prison for a week. ... I guarantee it," Whitcomb said.

Speakers at the hearing included current and former prisoners and prison staff, a U.S. Justice Department attorney, private attorneys who represent prisoners, state and local officials, and organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. A follow-up meeting is scheduled Nov. 29 at 5 p.m. in Room 115 of the federal courthouse on West Lafayette in Detroit.

House judiciary staff attorney Keenan Keller told Metro Times that Conyers is considering several reforms, including amending the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, to strengthen the Justice Department’s ability to bring litigation. Legislation to provide whistleblower protection for prison guards is also an option.

MDOC Director Bill Martin and Gov. John Engler were invited to the hearing, but neither they nor their representatives attended. Prison department spokesman Matt Davis says this wasn’t a formal congressional hearing, so "people could lie as much as they want and not fear justice."

Davis says MDOC supports proposed state legislation to make any sexual activity between corrections staff and inmates at least a 15-year felony. Currently, some sexual contacts between department employees or volunteers and prisoners or parolees are considered misdemeanors punishable by no more than two years in prison. "It would be nice if Conyers would hold Clinton to the same standards," said Davis. "He lied about sexual misconduct. That is a felony. If we’re willing to go after the criminals in our system, why isn’t Conyers willing to go after the criminals in his?"

Davis also contends that the Michigan State Police already provide adequate oversight by investigating allegations of misconduct at prisons. "We have an independent agency watching us, the Michigan State Police. They didn’t do a good enough job? Who is watching them? Next we get the Michigan super police. What are we going to do if they reach the same conclusion about them? At some point, you’ve got to trust the system."

According to former guards and prisoners who spoke at the hearing, the system is anything but trustworthy.

Whitcomb said, "I feel that if there was some type of monitoring, whatever it may be ... even if they had the sergeant on duty constantly walking around the housing unit – anything – that it would not have happened."

Attorney Deborah LaBelle, who represents a group of female prisoners alleging privacy violations and sexual abuse by prison staff, said at the hearing that several mechanisms for independent oversight of Michigan’s prisons have been eliminated or weakened over the years. At the same time, the state has routinely barred from prisons the media and other watchdogs including the United Nations and, initially, the U.S. Justice Department.

Litigation, she said, is one of the only ways incarcerated women can expose problems.

However, LaBelle said that since she helped bring the current litigation on behalf of the female prisoners more than three years ago, changes in federal law make it impossible to file similar lawsuits.

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996, prisoners must "exhaust ... administrative remedies" before bringing a lawsuit.

"That means in Michigan, you have to go first to the person who has abused you and try to work it out with him," said LaBelle. "That is an unreasonable request and certainly people are not going to do it."

Then there’s the grievance process.

"Right now, as the law stands, if you file a grievance and they do not believe you, you will be issued what’s called a misconduct. And a misconduct can mean many things in prison. It can mean the loss of your parole. ...

"In order to do what the federal law requires you to do, you have to be willing to give up almost everything and subject yourself to even more threats and retaliation."

LaBelle said you also have to prove you have been physically injured before bringing a lawsuit. The trouble is, she and other prison reform activists say, some judges don’t consider rape to be an injury.

Another problem, according to Widney Brown of Human Rights Watch, is the prison reform act’s severe limits on fees for lawyers filing suit on behalf of prisoners. The act also put a two-year cap on outside monitoring of prison conditions as the result of litigation or a settlement.

The state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules was to take testimony Nov. 16 concerning an MDOC request to officially curb media access, except in situations that, as Davis put it, "would result in a tangible benefit for the criminal justice system."

Said Human Rights Watch’s Brown: "The reason those doors are closed and the walls are so high is because if we got behind those walls we would see that we’re dealing with human beings just like you and me. But as long as we dehumanize them ... nobody’s going to care what goes on behind those walls, ... The Michigan Department of Corrections is absolutely committed to keeping the doors closed and keeping us out."

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