Women call conditions at crowded Mich. prison 'cruel and unusual'
Inmates filed a report accusing the prison of being "severely overcrowded and lacking proper ventilation"
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
LANSING, Mich. — Getting locked up in Michigan's only women's prison amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, say two experts who have studied the facility near Ypsilanti.
The reports filed in federal court in Detroit say Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility is severely overcrowded and lacks proper ventilation and adequate space for recreation and exercise. Those deficiencies are contributing to mental health problems such as depression and helping to drive an increase in suicide attempts and violent incidents, according to the reports.
The reports were filed by plaintiffs' attorneys in a proposed class-action lawsuit that alleges many of the the prisoners are "packed into former closets and other converted rooms," lack adequate clothing and medical treatment, and are confined to their overcrowded cells most of the time because of a lack of recreation areas.
The Corrections Department says the population of Women's Huron Valley,which is about 2,100 today but climbed as high as 2,257 in 2015, remains below the prison's capacity of about 2,400.But attorneys for the prisoners say that capacity has been artificially inflated by more than 500 since 2010, all by adding more and more cells within the existing walls and taking away space formerly used for prisoner day rooms, programming, recreation and storage.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy is expected to rule soon on whether to dismiss the lawsuit or certify it as a class-action, after hearing arguments Aug. 1 from lawyers for the prisoners and the Michigan Department of Corrections.
The Free Press has reported extensively on overcrowding at Women's Huron Valley, as well as problems with leaking roofs, restricted access to day rooms, and a mysterious and persistent rash afflicting some prisoners. Though MDOC Director Heidi Washington has denied, through a spokesman, that overcrowding is an issue, an official in Gov. Rick Snyder's office said in a December 2015 letter, introduced as evidence in the lawsuit, that "the department is aware of the overcrowding issues ... and is working on resolving this."
The state's overall prison population has declined by more than 12,000 since 2007, prompting the state to close a series of men's prisons over the objections of local communities that need the associated jobs. But the number of inmates at Women's Huron Valley has increased over the same period amid a national increase in women's incarceration rates. Though the department says today's population of 2,080 has declined from 2015, it is still "bursting at the seams," said Lynn Shecter, a Birmingham attorney representing the prisoners.
Randy Atlas, a Florida architect who specializes in prison design, said in a report that when the Michigan Department of Corrections converted offices, storage rooms and recreation rooms into cells so the Ypsilanti-area prison could hold more women, it didn't obtain building permits or ensure the new cells had adequate ventilation, or in some cases even use architectural plans. The department also violated standards for the minimum amount of space required per prisoner set by the American Correctional Association, he said.
The prison conditions "deprive WHV inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities," wrote Atlas, who has a doctorate in criminology and has worked for the Florida Department of Corrections and as a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections.
Ellen Koch, a clinical psychologist who interviewed several female inmates, said the overcrowded conditions are aggravating mental health problems such as depression and contributing to a documented surge in suicide attempts and violent incidents in a prison that unlike Michigan's prisons for men holds the full range of prisoners in terms of security risk. Violent incidents increased from 21 in 2010 to 74 in 2015, according to the report from Atlas.
"The current overcrowding situation is creating significant mental health problems for the prisoners based on the lack of access to materials, space, classes and food, as well as the constant and excessive noise level," wrote Koch, who, until recently, was director of clinical training for the Eastern Michigan University doctoral program in clinical psychology.
Though the Corrections Department rejects the idea that overcrowding is severe enough to infringe on the prisoners' constitutional rights, it has not introduced expert testimony to rebut the reports submitted by Atlas and Koch, which were filed with the court in January.
Department spokesman Chris Gautz said the department follows strict standards for internal construction projects at prisons and all required permits were obtained.
State law for county jail cells — there is no relevant Michigan law for state prisons — requires that cells provide a minimum of 52 square feet of cell space per inmate, plus additional space in a nearby day room.Those standards for multi-prisoner cells are in line with standards set for state prisons by the American Correctional Association, which call for 60 square feet per prisoner of cell space and nearby day room space, combined.
Atlas, which examined blueprints and also visited the prison, identified at least 14 units housing close to 1,100 prisoners that he found to be "overcrowded and constitut(ing) cruel and unusual punishment."
He said a former recreation room that was converted into a 16-person housing dorm has less than 18 square feet per inmate. It is part of a larger, 186-prisoner unit for which there is only 6½ square feet per prisoner of nearby day room space.
"The requirement is a minimum of 25 square feet for housing and 35 square feet for adjoining day room space, or a minimum of 60 square feet per inmate," Atlas wrote. "The housing figure is increased to 80 square feet if the inmate is required to be in her cell in excess of 10 hours per day," as many inmates say they are required to do because of lack of access to overcrowded day rooms and recreation areas.
Also, the 186-prisoner unit only has enough showers for 120 inmates, the report said.
Some units, Atlas wrote, do not have enough space for each prisoner to have a desk and chair, as required by American Correctional Association standards and departmental policy. A former activity room converted into a 10-person cell "felt cold and it was dusty" the day he visited.
In order to provide more cells, space historically used for prisoner services such as day rooms, grooming rooms and TV rooms have been eliminated," the report said. "This has overburdened the prisoner service spaces, so that opportunities for activities outside the cells are curtailed. The result is that inmates have to spend much more time in their cells," which is "particularly egregious" in the multi-prisoner cells.
Each unit has a small exterior yard, but it's not usable in bad weather.
The overcrowding has taxed the showers and toilets, the chow hall, where are there long outdoor lineups in all types of weather to eat, and programming, the report said. Prison officials confirmed "there was a significant problem with inmates unable to complete courses (in topics such as parenting and resisting violence) required by the Parole Board before their earliest release date."
There also has been a spike in both violent incidents and suicide attempts, Atlas reported.
There were 21 violent incidents in 2010, 45 each in 2011 and 2012, 49 in 2013, 78 in 2014, and 74 in 2015, according to the Atlas report, which was based on critical incident reports compiled by the department.
"We were not allowed in the day room unless we had a chair (or) were using the microwave," prisoner April Hutchison said in a signed statement introduced as evidence.
"When count was completed, the inmates would rush to the day room to obtain a seat. There were constant fights for use of the seats, microwave ovens and telephones."
There were three attempted suicides in 2013, three in 2014, 21 in 2015, and 12 in 2016, with one of the 2014 attempts and one of the 2015 attempts succeeding, according to the report.
"This is the type of finding that is typical for an overcrowded institution," the report said.
Atlas said in his report that the American Correctional Association "sets the standards of care" for state prisons in the areas of "safety, security, order, inmate care, programs, justice, and administration," but that Women's Huron Valley has never been ACA-accredited, even before the Department of Corrections dropped out of the ACA in 2012.
About 80 percent of all state corrections departments — but not Michigan — participate in ACA accreditation, the report said.
Koch, the clinical psychologist, did a full diagnostic evaluation of lead plaintiff Tracey August and two other female prisoners, interviewed four others, reviewed written declarations from 21 other prisoners and studied the report prepared by Atlas.
She said "the overcrowding is causing significant decreases in mental health functioning among the prisoners, resulting in inhumane and cruel treatment in violation of the prisoner's civil rights as well as their right to basic human decency."
Koch said August, who was paroled late in 2017 after serving about nine years for a Muskegon County robbery, reported experiencing panic attacks and "stated that she tries to stay in her room and avoids the big yard, chow hall line and showers because they are too crowded and (have) not enough officers to provide protection."
August "reported struggling with the overcrowding because it triggers other events from her past traumas and contributes to her anger."
Other problems cited by the women include insufficient lockers, desks, and/or chairs for all prisoners assigned to a cell, others invading their personal space, a lack of security and privacy in newly created cells, lack of ventilation, a lack of cleaning supplies, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products, and too few clothes and problems having clothes returned from the laundry.
"The prisoners reported that some cells are not secured and other inmates are aware of this,," Koch wrote. "This poses a threat to both their belongings, but also to their personal safety given that anyone can enter their cell," and "significantly interrupts their sleep from fear of their safety."
Also, "the women interviewed all complained about the quality and quantity of the food," Koch said in her report. "Specifically, the food is often not sufficient to feed each person and as a result some either are not provided food or the portion size is decreased. Additionally, the food is reported to often be undercooked and at times contains bugs."
Lawyers from the Attorney General's Office, representing the department, Washington, and former Women's Huron Valley warden Anthony Stewart, argue in court filings that to satisfy their claims the prisoners must show they are "subjected to deprivations so serious" that they lack "the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities," and that "prison officials acted wantonly, with deliberate indifference."
"Allegations of temporary inconveniences are insufficient to state a claim," and the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that "overcrowding is not, in itself, a constitutional violation," said Assistant Attorney General Mike Dean in a court filing.
Just as the claims about cell space fall short, so do those about inadequate clothing, Dean wrote. Prison officials confirmed "that in 2015 there was a period of time when there were limited shortages of new coats and pants due to a change in vendors by the state, but that it only affected the winter season in 2015," he said.