Tweaking prison justice

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Officials on both sides of a federal lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of Michigan’s female prisoners declared victory after the suit was settled last week, pending its approval by a U.S. District Court judge.

Meanwhile, prisoners panicked.

The U.S. Department of Justice settled with Michigan officials May 25 in federal court, where the department’s lawsuit had been temporarily combined with a federal civil rights suit filed against the state on behalf of 32 female prisoners who claimed sexual abuse.

"Female inmates housed in Michigan prisons will now be protected from sexual assaults, sexual harassment, and unnecessary invasions of privacy under an agreement reached today between the Justice Department and the State of Michigan," the Justice Department said in a press release.

Since the settlement, attorneys for the women said they have fielded tearful phone calls from prisoners who, having cooperated with the federal officials, now feel betrayed.

"It’s a very weak settlement," says Molly Reno, one of the prisoners’ attorneys. "It is clear that the Department of Justice does not represent the interests of women prisoners from this settlement agreement."

Justice Department attorney Mellie Nelson says several features of the settlement should reassure the prisoners.

The settlement requires a six-month halt to cross-gender pat-down searches, absent exceptional circumstances. It also requires increased sex abuse education for corrections officers and prisoners; the prohibition of male staff being alone with female inmates in hidden areas; and screening of employees for a history of domestic violence. The state also agreed to appoint a special administrator to handle complaints regarding sexual abuse and related issues.

Under the agreement, the Justice Department is free to resume litigation if Michigan is determined not to be complying with the agreement within six months of its implimentation.

Deborah LaBelle, another of the prisoners’ attorneys, expressed concern over vague wording in several parts of the agreement. She points to statements from the Michigan Department of Corrections to the press as indicators of how prison officials are interpreting the settlement.

Corrections spokesman Matt Davis told the Metro Times the settlement merely requires Michigan to "tweak" its prison policies and procedures. That attitude reinforces the state’s original position that the corrections staff in general conducted themselves properly and that sexual abuse of female prisoners has been limited to a handful of isolated and promptly resolved instances.

Justice’s Christine DiBartolo says the department maintains it found "systemic" problems of sexual abuse in the women’s prisons, and that the settlement addresses those issues sooner than a lengthy trial would.

The prisoners’ lawyers say they still intend to push their federal lawsuit. A state class action lawsuit remains on hold while Department of Corrections challenges an appellate court’s decision that the state’s civil rights law applies to female prisoners.

Last year, the Justice Department dropped charges that MDOC was not providing adequate mental and other health care for female prisoners. Earlier this month, DOJ began the intense negotiations with state officials that resulted in the final settlement.

"Don’t tell me they did it for the women," replies LaBelle when asked what motivated the Justice Department to settle the case. "Don’t tell me they did it on behalf of the women when it’s hurting them."

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