Michigan senators demand answers after allegations of risky working conditions in state prisons

"These conditions push officers to their limits, threatening their mental health, morale and safety," said Sen. Jeff Irwin


By Dave Boucher
Detroit Free Press
        
LANSING, Mich. — Michigan correctional officers are overworked and exposed to increasing threats at facilities across the state, a bipartisan pair of state senators recently said in letters calling for action from the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, want department leaders to discuss allegations of officers working 24 hours at a time or solely staffing units in a manner that may leave them vulnerable.

"I know from our discussions that you are aware of these long-term, systemic issues. However, despite the apparent validity of many of the explanations, my colleagues and I cannot continue to simply accept these explanations coupled with promises and plans to improve and move on to the next issue," McBroom wrote in a Dec. 29 letter to department Director Heidi Washington.

The Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility is seen on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
The Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility is seen on Tuesday, May 17, 2016, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. (Salwan Georges/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

"This is more apparent when you consider that none of these plans ever involve serious requests for transformative legislative action. The time to forbear and tolerate explanations of the shortages that rely on the rights and exigencies of the employees themselves is past."

McBroom promised to discuss staff shortages and assaults during a January hearing of the Senate Oversight Committee. He also sent a series of questions to Washington, asking for data on staff assaults, department strategies for recruiting more officers and the impact of federal funds on prison culture.

Irwin specifically described concerns pertaining to the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility. The Washtenaw County site is the only women's prison in the state, with the capacity to house nearly 2,400 people.

The senator said he had heard of substantial staff churn, resulting in exceptionally long shifts that create dangerous situations for officers and those who are incarcerated.

"The communications my office received describe severe staffing shortages that have led to forced overtime, mandatory 24-hour shifts, and individual officers being left alone. These conditions push officers to their limits, threatening their mental health, morale and safety," Irwin wrote in a letter to McBroom.

"These staff shortages are making life immeasurably worse for inmates, and it's curbing their access to programs that will help them re-enter society successfully. I am gravely concerned for their safety and physical and mental health."

Irwin also noted the state's correctional officer's union in 2020 submitted a vote of no confidence in Washington, specifically pertaining to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Department spokesman Chris Gautz shared some links to COVID-19 data and largely downplayed some of the concerns specifically raised by Irwin about the Huron Valley facility.

He said over the weekend no one was forced to work 24 hours straight; a handful did work more than 16 hours, but no one stayed on longer than 20. People at the prison also are not barred entirely from going to the yard, but rather access is limited to similar outdoor recreational areas in an attempt to try and stop the spread of COVID-19 at the facility.

"If COVID was not at play, we would not have had the kind of issues that we had this weekend. This is because of COVID," Gautz said.

Neither senator specifically referenced the impact of COVID-19 on Michigan's prisons, but the pandemic still maintains a massive presence at these sites. At least 5,905 correctional officers have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with 11 dying, according to department data.

Additionally, more than 28,800 people incarcerated have tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus, causing more than 150 to die.

There's currently a widespread outbreak at the Huron Valley facility: As of Monday, 410 women at the prison were actively battling COVID-19, or roughly more than one in four of those held at the site. It also constitutes 60% of all known cases among the incarcerated in the state.

Gautz said in addition to 60 vacant positions at the prison, another 63 officers were unable to work because of COVID-19. Others were away on holiday vacation, maternity, military or some other leave, creating what Gautz described as a unique situation at the facility.

The department continues to work on recruiting and retention efforts, but Gautz said it faces the same issues as other businesses in trying to find and keep employees.

The upcoming Senate Oversight Committee hearing also comes after a recent department report outlined $255 million in necessary upgrades and repairs throughout the prison system. That includes replacing the 43-year-old heating, ventilation and air conditioning system on the west side of the Huron Valley prison. In general, health and safety experts say improving a building's ventilation system helps mitigate some chances of spreading COVID-19.

No hearing is currently on the Senate's public schedule. Lawmakers resume their legislative duties next week.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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