‘They are really killing me in here’—Michigan women’s prison under scrutiny
Photo: Lwp Kommunikáció via Flickr /

DETROIT—Michigan’s Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township near Ypsilanti, Mich. has approximately 60% of the state’s COVID cases of incarcerated people. These dangerous health conditions and other ongoing human rights abuses led to a protest in mid-January by local anti-mass incarceration organizations. Witnesses in the prison described instances of rape as a form of retaliation and distribution of opioids by staff despite significant instances of addiction.

Incarcerated people at the prison, along with former Department of Corrections employees, described a culture of “rape punishment” at Huron Valley. Those employees were fired for exposing retaliatory violence at the prison, according to prisoners’ rights lawyers who attended the protest.

Michigan Department of Corrections

Huron Valley has a terrible history. One blogger in 2019 described Huron Valley Prison as a “special hell” after an ACLU investigation of human rights atrocities first surfaced. Incarcerated people and staff reported incidents of “hog-tying” apparently mentally ill inmates in the nude. Witnesses also reported the denial of water as punishment for incarcerated persons. It has been at the center of several lawsuits demanding the protection of human rights.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has admitted that in the three years before 2019, 146 women in prison reported sexual assaults.

Last November, a Prison Radio recording of Huron Valley inmate Krystal Clark indicated that abusive conditions had not stopped. “They are really killing me in here,” she reported. “And no one here, [inaudible], I had so many people, I talked to so many people about this. It’s like no one cares, like people talk about it one time and mention it one time and it’s done.”

Days later, Clark and other inmates, through their lawyers, filed a lawsuit against the state for allowing “perilous” environmental and health conditions that violate human rights. Untreated mold, overcrowding, and abusive staff are just some of the dire conditions they raised.

The Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration’s goals for 2030. | MCEMI

Over 1,000 incarcerated people at Huron Valley have tested positive for COVID since March 2020. Overcrowding denies the social distancing needed as a basic step to protect incarcerated people from the virus. The denial of medical attention is an ongoing and common problem in all of Michigan’s prisons, as policies allow guards to deny care arbitrarily.

A second protest at the Huron Valley Corrections facility is scheduled for Feb. 12.

Some Democratic lawmakers in the state have responded to the complaints not by demanding a review of abusive conditions and human rights violations. Rather, they want to increase funding and staff for those toxic facilities. Such proposals offer little difference in outcome from the Republican Party-controlled state legislature’s plan to criminalize and punish.

The Michigan Poor People’s Campaign is promoting a 10-point plan for prison reform. While that plan does not call for prison abolition, it does demand several decarceration strategies, rehabilitative interventions prioritized over punishment, and an emphasis on protecting human rights.

Decarceration strategies, according to the Michigan Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration, include reduction of sentences for non-violent offenses, protection of young people from imprisonment, and what are called “diversionary” steps.

Diversions seek other solutions to individual violations of laws or harms. Those strategies typically stress public or mental health solutions, such as treatment for drug or alcohol abuse rather than interactions with cops, courts, and prisons.

Main photo is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.


CONTRIBUTOR

Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.

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