In March, the population at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison, stood at 2,287, an increase of more than 400 inmates in five years.
The prison, in Ypsilanti, is so full that offices and common rooms have had to be repurposed as inmate housing. A new unit opened last December, adding 85 beds to the facility, but prisoners are still feeling the squeeze, legal advocates say.
“Complaints have gone up,” said Natalie Holbrook of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people. Women may not be able to get daily showers or time out of their cells because of the crowded conditions. They may wait in long lines for meals or medication. A former warden even rationed toilet paper and sanitary napkins for budgetary reasons. (A spokesman said inmates are issued more if they have a need.)
Legal advocates for the women and prison officials agree on the chief cause of Huron Valley’s overcrowding ‒ a rising heroin epidemic. And they agree on the solution ‒ expanding drug courts in Michigan, which ensure addicts receive meaningful drug treatment while making restitution or serving other sentences short of imprisonment. Beyond that, drug courts will also save the state money, if Lansing agrees to fund them.
“We need more drug courts,” said Deborah Labelle, an Ann Arbor lawyer who has successfully filed lawsuits against the state prison system. “We need more alternatives like home detention and tethers. And we need more discretionary and sane sentencing.”
Holbrook said the persistence of the crowding problem now puts the organization, a Quaker group, in the position of advocating for possibly opening another women’s facility, a request that’s “really out of character for us,” Holbrook said, given the Quakers’ general support for alternatives to incarceration.
At one point in the mid-2000s, in response to budget constraints, the state was having success reducing the state’s prison population among men and women, Holbrook said. Two facilities housing women were closed, and at one point the number of inmates was cut from “about 3,000 to 1,700.” But the population wouldn’t stay that low for long.
The steadily rising numbers has caused disruptions, as female prisoners face delayed release or are kept from classes, programming or even simple out-of-cell relaxation. Staff shortages follow the rising population.
And conditions inside could eventually lead to a lawsuit, now being considered by at least one civil rights attorney in Michigan. It wouldn’t be without precedent; seven years ago, the state settled a suit for $100 million with a group of female inmates who were being sexually abused by male guards. And it is working through a similar suit, brought last year on behalf of teen inmates, who contend the state made them targets for sexual abuse by housing them with adults.
Lynn Shecter, the Birmingham lawyer considering the overcrowding suit, said she’s still gathering information on conditions at Huron Valley. Anecdotally, she said she’s hearing that inmates are spending too much time locked in their cells and not enough time involved in prison activities that will help the women rebuild their lives after the sentence is served – schooling, work, even parole hearings.
“When you limit the time they can be out of their cells, it increases conflict between inmates,” Shecter said. “There are a whole host of problems.”
Shecter said that a lawsuit, if she files one, would likely be aimed more at asking a judge for injunctive relief – ordering the state to improve prison conditions – than an expensive monetary settlement. That might be the sole bright spot for the state in the whole problem.
It’s also ironic. One complication of overcrowding is the staff shortage, caused in part by the success of the earlier women’s lawsuit relating to sexual assaults by male guards, said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. As part of the 2009 settlement, the state was required to put more female inmates under the eyes of female guards, who are in shorter supply. A new class of 40 female corrections officers just finished training last week, easing the shortage somewhat, Gautz said, but the department still needs more.
Free the women?
The law, and sentences for breaking it, applies equally to both genders, but putting women behind bars is different from locking up men, both sides agree.
“For one thing, we don’t have to make arrangements for pregnant men,” said Gautz, half in jest, but his statement is true. Some women go into prison pregnant and give birth as incarcerated individuals, which adds expense and social costs beyond just medical bills, as infants (and inmates’ older children) have to then be placed with relatives or foster parents.
Given that many of these inmates are doing time for nonviolent offenses, some argue that prison time is an unnecessary financial burden on the state, and that sentences could be served in different ways.
Besides drug courts, Labelle advocates for fewer or no mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent offenses, on the front end, and on the back end, early prison release of those who have served at least some time, are elderly, nonviolent or otherwise pose no threat to public safety.
Elsewhere, some reformers even advocate for most women to be kept out of prison altogether, arguing that their low numbers (in Michigan, there are roughly 2,300 women in prison, as opposed to 40,200 men) make nonviolent women offenders better candidates for alternative sentencing options, closer to the communities in which they live.
Women inmates are also more likely than men to have children who depend on them for support. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that two-thirds of female inmates at the state level nationwide are the parent of a minor child.
From the outside, Huron Valley looks like any government office complex – low, architecturally insignificant, red brick. Only the fence line suggests the people inside are being held past quitting time.
Holbrook from the American Friends Service Committee said some of the inmates at Huron Valley are serving sentences that make little sense, given the circumstances.
“Here’s a silly case,” Holbrook said. “A woman is on probation for failing to pay child support. When she still can’t pay, they send her to prison.” The woman was given a minimum sentence of 18 months, which guarantees her children will go without support for at least that long. But when she came up for parole, she was denied release.
She’ll serve another 18 months before she’s considered again.
Many of these women find themselves in such circumstances due to drug addiction, although most will not be serving time for drug offenses, but rather, the crimes that surround addiction ‒ theft, check-passing, prostitution, according to both prison officials and prisoner advocates. While most such crimes don’t carry prison terms for first offenses, addicts who don’t get treatment will re-offend, and later offenses may have time attached.
“So then, what you have is a woman going to prison for the crime of being a drug addict,” said Holbrook. “And there’s no comprehensive treatment inside,” meaning there’s no detox unit or supportive care that an addict would get in a treatment facility. “Maybe (Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous).” Meetings only, in other words.
There are 105 parole and probation offices around the state, and the deputy director for field operations has visited 100 of them, Gautz said. At each office, the field directors asks what is driving the population growth at Huron Valley.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 said it’s heroin,” Gautz said. “The 100th was meth.”
Prisoner advocates aren’t the only ones who believe drug courts are part of the solution. Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of Corrections, is also a fan.
“Where they’re in operation, they’re working well,” Pagel told Bridge. “It’s something we need to look very hard at.”
There are currently 84 drug courts in Michigan, partially funded by the state, but that includes cases involving drunk driving, family dependency, juvenile and tribal sub-classifications. Thirty-two of the courts are designated for adults alone.
In typical cases, first-time drug offenders are ordered into treatment, moderated with regular testing, under judicial supervision. At the conclusion of treatment, which may include restitution or other court-ordered activities, offenders still have records, but they avoid incarceration. Studies of defendants’ activities after completing drug court generally show that they are far less likely to be arrested in the future and that their cases tend to cost taxpayers far less than typical criminal prosecutions.
Does this girl belong here?
Earlier this month, protesters in Grand Rapids rallied in support of Latesha Clay, 16, recently sentenced to nine years in prison for armed robbery. Clay was 15 when she was arrested with two accomplices last summer, allegedly used as bait in a common robbery scheme: Men were lured to a motel by a website ad offering sex with a teen. When the men arrived, the two others, 17 and 18 years old at the time, pulled a gun on the would-be johns and robbed them. The gun was an Airsoft pistol (a type of replica firearm used for target shooting) with the telltale orange tip removed.
Clay was sentenced to prison as an adult in January and has begun serving her sentence at Huron Valley. Advocates for Clay argue that her age at the time of the crime, and the nature of the trap that was set, make her a victim, not an offender who needs to spend years behind bars. The prosecutor and sentencing judge did not agree, and her case is under appeal.
“She has two children herself,” said Michael Mittlestat, deputy director of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, which is handling her appeal. “It’s a terribly tragic case.”
Clay, Holbrook said, is a prime example of an offender in need of a different approach to criminal justice.
Lengthy prison terms only partly explain why more women are behind bars.
Bills designed to reduce the state’s large prison population have faltered in the face of opposition from prosecutors and state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who caution against budget-minded measures they say threaten public safety. The latest was a “presumptive parole” bill passed by the state House and supported by Gov. Rick Snyder, that failed to advance in the state senate last year. Presumptive parole would allow prisoners deemed to pose a low risk to public safety to be released after their minimum sentence is served unless the parole board is given concrete reasons to keep them behind bars. Similar bills, even those with bipartisan support, died in earlier sessions.
Ultimately, if trends continue, even the beds still free at Huron Valley – a certain percentage have to be open to accommodate new inmates, who arrived and leave daily – will fill and the state may face a crisis. How it might be resolved is an open question. But building a new facility is unlikely.
“A new prison would be $40-50 million,” said Gautz, the prison spokesman, and the same staffing issues would exist. Better to have “field and legislative staff work with judges about alternative sentences,” or put resources into true rehabilitation ‒ training to develop job skills, drug treatment and counseling, he said.
Of all those options, prisoner advocates say, drug treatment is the most important.
What’s happening at Huron Valley, said Labelle, the attorney in the sexual assault cases, is “a microcosm of our inability to look at successful alternatives to locking people in cells.
“We have to get (drug offenders) into treatment and tethers. It would be easier for the state to contribute to that program than put people in prison.”