Visiting view: The unknown consequences of putting a criminal justice complex near the trash incinerator

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Digital rendering of proposed jail and criminal justice complex near I-75 and East Ferry Street.
Digital rendering of proposed jail and criminal justice complex near I-75 and East Ferry Street. Photo courtesy Rock Ventures

A few weeks ago, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans agreed to a complicated deal where the county would acquire city land to build a criminal justice complex.

In order to go into effect, the deal must be approved by the members of the Detroit City Council, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, and officials in the county land bank. So far, that first hurdle has been cleared, and other public officials appear ready to back the plan.

The problem is that, further down the line, those who approved that proposed location for the criminal justice complex might face criminal charges.

Under the proposed agreement, the site for the complex will be on the east side of Detroit on the intersection of East Ferry and the I-75 expressway.

As I noted in an opinion piece several years ago, a former head city planner, Hilanius Phillips, warned that if housing was built near that site, those living there would suffer many of the health problems Flint residents suffered in the Flint water crisis.

Phillips contended that air pollution from the nearby Detroit incinerator, the liquid waste plant, and the expressway's service drive could have similar effects as the water pollution in Flint. He specifically predicted residents could face sickness, breathing problems, and lead poisoning, while children growing up may develop learning disabilities.

Phillips sent two petitions on this issue to the Detroit City Council, numbered 109 and 711. Nevertheless, the housing was built.

Afterward, Phillips raised his concerns about the possible dangers to the residents at a public meeting organized by the president of the Detroit City Council, Brenda Jones. At the meeting, Jones claimed the city council never approved the contract and publicly promised to investigate the matter.

For several months, I made continuous phone calls to the council president's office. She was not available. After many attempts, I was finally referred to an aide, who said she knew nothing about the issue and that she could not speak for the council president.

With a criminal justice complex planned in the same area, the investigation that Council President Jones promised is more urgent than ever.

If Phillips was correct about the environmental dangers of that site and the Wayne County Criminal Justice Complex is allowed to be built there, everyone living or working within it or even entering it for a few hours may be at risk.

Phillips notes that, "As a disproportionate number of inmates are black, as are the residents of the newly constructed housing, it appears beyond policing, black lives do not matter, when it comes to environmentally racist land projects."

If the site of the criminal justice complex does indeed pose environmental dangers, it would appear that blue lives may not matter either. Since the complex will contain guards, a sheriff's administration office and a courthouse, law enforcement officials would have to be in the complex eight hours a day and would have to be at risk.

Since the complex would contain a courthouse, one might well ask what can happen to the prosecutors, the lawyers, the court clerks, the secretaries, and the witnesses. Even high officials, such as the warden, the judges and the sheriff would not be immune.

Phillips noted that the plight of the prisoners would be particularly unfair, because they are "confined to the jail" and unlike those in the houses he warned about, they "cannot elect to move."

Operating on a rigidly theoretical level but not necessarily a realistic one, some can argue that all the employees could abruptly quit their jobs. In one way or another, though, all would face serious hardship.

The city and county as a whole would face hardship.

In discussing the Flint Water Crisis, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said it came about because those in charge of the water system failed to place "the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens first" and had a "preoccupation with data, finance, and cost," and reducing costs, even at the expense of the citizens' health and safety.

Even if there should be any officials in the city and county who might have such grossly materialistic priorities, they should realize that those who were harmed would be able to sue and could collect enormous sums of money in settlements and awards, more than this financially troubled city and county could afford.

Furthermore, the very officials who approve a dangerous site could face some personal problems of their own.

In the Flint Water Crisis, the Michigan attorney general's office alleges that high state officials delayed in informing the public about it and prevented people from taking measures to protect themselves and their families. A number of these officials, including the chief medical examiner and the director of the Department of Health and Human Services are facing prosecution on the charge of involuntary homicide. If convicted they can face prison.

If the state prosecutors win their case, it can create a precedent, where public officials can be held criminally responsible if their policies risk, neglect, or destroy human lives.

This is clearly justified. It seems likely that those who wantonly allow the environment to be poisoned can endanger more Americans than a handful of terrorists.

However, it would be far better to prevent the suffering that may result than to heap punishments after the damage has been done.

For these reasons I have sent requests to members of the Detroit City Council and to state officials, including Attorney General Schuette, to investigate whether the proposed site for the criminal justice center is safe before it is allowed to be put there.

And while they're at it, one hopes officials will investigate the safety of the housing already built in the area.

A version of this column appeared first in the Detroit Legal News on Nov. 10, 2017. Ron Seigel is a longtime Detroit columnist whose work has appeared in various publications. He was also the founder and director of United Community Ombudsmen, an organization that helped community residents dealing with government institutions.

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