Mich. inmate granted early release by Gov., suing prison officials

The inmate has filed a federal lawsuit against the current and former prison officials he alleges failed to protect him


Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. — During his 36 years in Michigan prisons, James Hicks worked with authorities to bring to justice both murderous cellmates and corrupt prison officials.

So extraordinary was Hicks' assistance that high-ranking current or former members of the FBI, Michigan State Police and other agencies — not to mention the prosecutor who sent him to prison — wrote letters urging his early release.

In December, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder granted the 66-year-old a rare commutation, shortening to time already served Hicks' 50- to 200-year sentence from Muskegon County for assault with intent to rob.

But along with the information Hicks provided came a barrage of prison beatings and stabbings. Hicks, branded a rat by both inmates and some prison officials, says they left him with permanent scars, nerve damage to his hands, constant headaches, and back pain.

His release now imminent, Hicks, in an unusual turn, has filed a federal lawsuit against the current and former prison officials he alleges not only failed to protect him, but sometimes knowingly and repeatedly put his life in danger.

"It's terrifying when you are trying to do what is right and you know everybody — not just the guards, but some inmates — want to harm you," Hicks told the Free Press in a telephone interview. "You have to be on your guard 24 hours a day."

Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz declined comment Tuesday, citing pending litigation. A spokeswoman for the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing corrections officers, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In the late 1980s, while housed at Western Wayne Correctional Facility, Hicks exposed a scheme in which a deputy warden accepted cash in return for transfers to other prisons or more favorable security classifications. According to the lawsuit, other crimes Hicks reported and helped solve included corruption and misconduct by nearly two dozen prison officials, a multimillion dollar telephone credit card scam run by prisoners, and in 2007, while held at Muskegon Correctional Facility, secretly recorded his cellmate confessing to the unsolved murder of a prison counselor.

Along the way, "I've been stabbed over seven times" by other inmates, Hicks said. "I've been poisoned. I've had fistfights — I can't even count how many times."

Grandville attorney John Smietanka, a former federal prosecutor and Republican state attorney general candidate who worked on Hicks' commutation case for seven years, said Hicks truly reformed in prison and reported wrongdoing without regard to his own personal safety.

"He suffered a lot," said Smietanka, who specializes in prisoner innocence and commutation cases and won't comment on whether prison officials adequately protected Hicks until he's released.

"He was told by any number of people, some of them guards ... that he had done the wrong thing in their eyes," Smietanka said of Hicks.

Hicks doesn't claim he was any angel as a teenager and young man. In addition to the 1986 conviction he is now serving time for, which involved the armed robbery of an illegal gambling house in Muskegon, Hicks also has convictions for manslaughter and larceny on his record.

"I went the wrong way at an early age in life," he said. "I wanted to be cool and hang around with the crowd. It led me down the wrong path."

Enter Hicks' name or prisoner number on the Michigan Department of Corrections website and nothing comes up. No photo, no record of why or even that he is serving time. It's a protective step the department took to shield him from scrutiny so his many enemies won't know where he is being held.

But in many other ways, Michigan prison officials repeatedly put his life at risk, Hicks alleges in his federal lawsuit.

There was the time in 2013 when officials transferred Hicks, over his objections, to Brooks Correctional Facility, which shares a fence that prisoners can talk through with Muskegon, where Hicks turned in his former cellmate.

Within three years, "the inevitable occurred; plaintiff was brutally attacked by two prisoners," the suit alleges. They came into his cell, one armed with a shank, the other with a lock or other hard object wrapped in a sock or pillow case. They also stabbed him multiple times in the face, arm, head and back, the suit alleges. Hicks blacked out during the beating and an officer later found him in a pool of blood.

Once he returned from the hospital, Hicks was transferred again, this time to Muskegon, where he was placed in a cell with a prisoner who had formerly plotted to kill him, the suit alleges.

"The next day, on March 2, 2016, two prisoners attacked Hicks and stabbed him multiple times," the suit alleges. "He required staples to multiple head wounds, among other injuries."

Northville attorney Nakisha Chaney is representing Hicks in his lawsuit, alleging officials violated his Eighth Amendment rights by failing to protect him and his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him, including after Hicks spoke to the media about his case in the past two years.

Chaney wouldn't quantify the damages she is seeking, except to say they will be substantial because of the injuries and emotional trauma Hicks suffered.

It's not uncommon to find retaliation in cases where either prisoners or prison employees have reported wrongdoing, Chaney said. She pointed to a past lawsuit involving sexual abuse of female prisoners by officers, an ongoing case alleging sexual abuse of young male prisoners by prisoners and staff, and a recent Free Press series about sexual harassment of female prison workers.

"Prison is this bell jar in which the abuse of power and misconduct is really allowed to fester," Chaney said.

There's a code of silence similar to what has been described in police departments, where reporting of wrongdoing can be systematically deterred and punished, she said.

The story involving Hicks, while extraordinary, is emblematic of these issues, and "just obscene," she said.

Chaney said she doesn't think most people who work in prisons are bad or abusive people, but "they participate in this culture of silence that allows those who are abusive to act with impunity."

Despite all the pain and fear he endured, Hicks said he asked for nothing in return for the crimes he helped solve and wouldn't change a thing about the work he did for police and prosecutors.

"I feel that it was the right thing," he said. "When you are working with God, he's got the say in this."

Hicks said he wanted to show his mom and dad that he'd learned from the mistakes of his youth and become a man they could proudly call their son. His mother died in 2001, but Hicks looks forward to soon embracing his father — now 97.

"All he wants to do is see his son come out of prison," Hicks said.

He said he was placed in "protective custody" after talking to the news media about his case in July 2018.

Chaney and Hicks said protective custody is essentially solitary confinement, in which prisoners are locked down 23 hours a day and don't enjoy privileges such as access to microwaves, toasters, prison stores, or email, and must get permission to take a drink of water.

"If the MDOC wanted to do what is right by inmates, they should, when a prisoner cooperates, they should have a facility just for them," Hicks said. Then "people would come out of the woodwork to do what is right."

It might be March before Hicks' commutation is fully processed and he is released. He's not sure what he is going to do next, but he said he'd like to work on prison reform.

Once he gets out, "I will never let my guard down," Hicks said. "I can't go on living in fear, but I'm always going to be cautious."

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©2019 the Detroit Free Press

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