Citing Ongoing Abuses, ACLU of MI Challenges Law Cutting Off Legal Protection for Female Prisoners

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
March 14, 2000 12:00 am

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DETROIT, MI — Saying that female prisoners at a county jail are subject to sexual harassment and barred from work release and other jail programs on the basis of gender, the ACLU of Michigan today filed a federal class action challenge to a new state law barring prisoners from seeking protection in the courts.

Michigan Public Act No. 202 of 1999, which went into effect on March 10, 2000, exempts prisoners from the protections of the state human rights law, known as the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and religion. (The Act protects against gender discrimination, while the state constitution bars only discrimination based on “religion, race, color or national origin.”)

“Discrimination, harassment, and unfair treatment are real and legitimate problems within the Michigan prisons and jails,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. “For the state legislature and Governor to take away the state law remedy is to turn the clock back 100 years.”

In its complaint filed today in federal district court, the ACLU asked the court to prohibit continuation of the discriminatory policies and declare the law unconstitutional.

“The ACLU’s action today further substantiates what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have told us for years: Michigan’s treatment of women prisoners is substandard and falls below international human rights norms,” Moss said.

The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Theresa Ann Cox, a former prisoner at the Livingston County Jail, on behalf of herself and other women prisoners. Ms. Cox, who had been convicted of driving under the influence, was sentenced to ten days in jail beginning January 29, 1999.

Although she was eligible for a work release program under the court’s order of probation, Sheriff Donald Homan refused to allow it solely because of her gender. This policy of denying work release has applied to all other women prisoners, according to ACLU cooperating attorney Michael Pitt, while men have been allowed to work at their jobs during the day and serve their time at night and on the weekends.

“Working women are entitled to the same privileges as working men,” said Pitt. “The policy at this jail seems to reflect the assumption that women’s work is less important than men’s. This is an archaic stereotype that in no way reflects reality.”

The lawsuit also charges that women are discriminated against by guards. For example, there is a significant disparity in the number of type of trustee assignments available for women prisoners in comparison with male prisoners. Women trustees are relegated to less-favored laundry work while men are given more favorable positions, including clerical work. Men are able to recreate outside in “the yard,”while women are relegated to a garage.

Sexual harassment is also the norm at the jail, the ACLU said. Male guards can view women prisoners in the shower and women, because of one-piece suits they are required to wear, can be viewed from the waist up by guards while using the toilet facilities.

The ACLU lawsuit challenges the treatment of women prisoners as a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, and the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The lawsuit also alleges that lawmakers violated the state civil rights act which allows successful plaintiffs to get damages and attorneys fees which they are not able to obtain under the state constitution’s equal protection and non-discrimination doctrines. The ACLU is also seeking an undisclosed amount of financial damages on behalf of the prisoners.

ACLU cooperating attorneys in the case are Pitt of Pitt, Dowty, McGehee & Mirer; Deborah Labelle; Professor Roderick M. Hills of the University of Michigan Law School; and Michael Steinberg and Kary Moss of the ACLU of Michigan.

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