On the night she ended her life, Janika Edmond asked her guards at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility for a suicide prevention vest, according to her family’s attorney David Steingold.
Edmond was 25 years old and was nearly finished serving time for violating parole following past convictions of assault, breaking and entering and resisting police officers. Records from the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and Steingold show Edmond spent her sentence dealing with clinical depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts, all of which were the aftermath of a deluge of emotional and financial problems she experienced as a child.
Steingold went on to detail Edmond’s request on Nov. 2, 2015, for the suicide prevention vest — a bulky smock with straps known as a Bam Bam suit — and prison guards’ dismissive reactions. He even referenced a bet placed by prison staff members on the likelihood of Edmond’s success in receiving a vest.
Just 20 minutes later, Edmond was found deceased. Washtenaw County vital records confirm she was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital four days later on Nov. 6.
Steingold said though he is not able to comment on the exact details of Edmond’s death, its causes are clear.
“Her death was occasioned by improper action of the prison and its employees,” he said.
Two corrections officers were fired over the incident this March, and as Steingold gathers evidence in preparation for a lawsuit against MDOC, the Michigan State Police is still conducting an investigation into the death, which has not yet been officially declared a suicide. Edmond, however, was just one of 33 suicide attempts at Huron Valley in the last year alone. She was just one of 2,287 women packed inside the facility, which is set to receive more offenders, despite the fact that it’s already more than 100 inmates above capacity.
This year alone, the prison has been in the news for stories such as women being housed in converted break rooms and offices, rationing sanitary pads and a double amputee inmate forced to crawl to shower areas. Though Edmond’s end may have been exceptional, many claim her experiences suggest common, endemic problems of overcrowding and inadequate inmate resources at Huron Valley.
MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz emphasized that prison officials are working to alleviate issues of overcrowding. Since a November Detroit Free Press article exposed the prison for housing women in offices and TV rooms, Gautz said officials at Huron Valley have devoted more time to carving out space for more inmates.
“We’re dealing with the space we have available at Women’s Huron Valley,” Gautz said. “We had to, in some housing units, convert areas that weren’t traditionally cells, and we’ve been able to take a few of those offline. We also created a new housing unit in a newer area of the facility that had about 90 beds. It’s a situation we continue to monitor daily.”
Many critics are still not satisfied. Birmingham attorney Lynn Shecter, on behalf of three Huron Valley inmates, sued the state in a class action suit in April on claims that the overcrowding violated inmates’ basic constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit, still under preliminary consideration by state courts, alleges the three inmates spent up to 23 hours with multiple cell partners in confined spaces. Shecter emphasized that her clients’ experiences are not isolated.
“We keep hearing the same story again and again,” Shecter said. “When we distributed a survey to find out if (overcrowding) is a universal problem at Huron Valley, we discovered it is. And this has an effect on the mental health and attempts to rehabilitate prisoners.”
Huron Valley’s population has jumped by more than 17 percent in the last five years, though the building’s capacity has stayed the same. Gautz pointed to increased heroin use and a higher rate of women’s incarceration around the country for the rising number of Huron Valley inmates.
“Heroin usage has led to a lot of crimes women are committing to feed that drug habit, and all of our counties are sending more women to prison,” Gautz said.
However, Shecter, Steingold and a number of advocates underscored the vacuum of resources created by the influx of inmates as a greater issue than the sheer number of women housed in the facility.
“The state has abdicated its responsibility for these women,” Steingold said. “The fact they have to stand in long lines to get medications, some diabetic patients can’t access medications because of the long distances they have to walk … we’re talking about basic human needs.”
Since 2009, University of Michigan research assistant Lizzy Baskerville has facilitated a weekly acting program at Huron Valley with the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), which promotes artistic collaboration between the University community and the local incarcerated population. Baskerville noted the precarious state of female inmates’ mental health — roughly 20 percent of the entire U.S. inmate population is diagnosed with a mental illness — and argued poor living conditions exacerbate an already stressful climate.
“The suicide stuff is an epidemic,” Baskerville said. “Tensions are really high because they’re in such close proximity to other people. They mention often, ‘we’re all smiles in here,’ but outside, there’s tension.”
Furthermore, inmates face restricted access to medical treatment and educational services. For instance, 454 women are on the waiting list for GED classes, while 1,151 women remain on the waiting list for vocational training — both numbers are the highest of any prison in the state. Ronald Simpson-Bey, a criminal justice advocate with JustLeadershipUSA — which is dedicated to reducing nationwide incarceration rates — and a former MDOC inmate, pushed back against state officials’ claims of a high parole rate at Huron Valley, saying the number of inmates that could be on parole is sizeable.
“There are maybe 400 or 500 women that could be on parole but aren’t for having too much toilet paper — silly stuff like that,” he said.
As the number of inmates steadily rises, the prison staff population is experiencing the opposite trend. More than a dozen Huron Valley employees have quit in the last six months, the Detroit Free Press reported earlier this month, and current staffers are consistently being forced to work mandatory overtime hours.
Gautz and other MDOC officials have confirmed the state is working on relieving a shortage of female correctional officers, but Steingold said the current state of the prison staff is unsustainable.
“There are guards there that don’t care, that hate what they do,” he said.
Bey-Simpson said there is a positive correlation between extreme stress on staff members and tension between inmates and officers.
“(Huron Valley) has been sued so many times they know how to not willfully neglect people,” he said. “These are frustrated people doing a stressful job.”
Shecter’s lawsuit, then, is not the first legal complaint against Huron Valley — nor are allegations of overworked staff unique to this year. Many advocates view the facility’s current situation as a tipping point in a vicious cycle of prison overcrowding throughout Michigan. Despite the fact that the state’s corrections expenditures have risen only moderately in the last five years, MDOC’s funding has jumped from 3 percent of the state budget in 1980 to 20 percent in 2014.
Rosemary Sarri, professor emerita at the University’s Social of Social Work, conducted one of the first studies on Huron Valley after its opening in 1977. Sarri highlighted a tenuous history of women’s imprisonment, especially following the consolidation of four previous women’s facilities into Huron Valley in 2009.
“There’s a complete lack of funding,” Sarri said. “One in 10 of children in Michigan have a parent in prison … incarceration in this state is futile.”
Sarri and other advocacy groups like the American Friends Service Committee are at the forefront of lobbying for reforms to the state prison system, but they complain of resistance from State Attorney General Bill Schuette, state officials and legislators. Schuette has publicly criticized bills revising parole procedures and minimum sentences and has linked the attempted changes to anti-cop and anti-law enforcement sentiments.
Bey-Simpson also alluded to long-standing internal inaction within MDOC.
“It’s a department-wide problem,” he said. “There’s this idea of ‘we’ll pay the fine,’ but this is still the way we’ll do it.”
Gautz said, though the department has made an effort to implement measures such as drug courts — specialized courts dedicated to helping nonviolent drug offenders reach recovery and reintegation services — and boot camps, which are short residential programs similar to military basic training, state officials’ divergent perspectives are one of many obstacles in bringing prison populations down.
“We can have all these programs and find ways to divert people who have been put through the criminal justice system, but you have to have county judges that will send the women to those places,” Gautz said. “It will take a lot of work on our end to educate judges about this so that they feel it’s going to be a good fit for that individual.”
The need for more public education on the state of Michigan’s prisons is not limited to lawmakers. Though Huron Valley — the subject of so many debates over incarceration and inmate treatment in the Michigan — sits roughly 15 minutes away from the University’s central campus, Baskerville and other students involved in PCAP argued that incidents of suicide, disappointing prison conditions and mass incarceration in general are non-issues to the student body at large.
Baskerville traced the University community’s lack of knowledge of the prison crisis at hand to issues of gender, race and socioeconomic status.
“The fact that they’re women and the fact that they’re poor — it’s as much poverty as it is race — but we don’t care about women of color or poor women,” she said.
LSA senior Elaine Chen, a PCAP facilitator with experience at Huron Valley, agreed students’ perceptions of the incarcerated population need to be shifted. When PCAP created a photography display of artwork produced by inmate participants last semester on the Diag, Chen said pictures were vandalized with cigarette burns, and some where even stolen straight from their frames.
“This is the mentality we need to deal with,” she said. “There are students on this campus doing things that could get them behind those bars — mainly drugs — but we don’t see somebody as the worst thing they’ve done.”
Chen brightened, however, at the prospect of student action surrounding prison reform.
“Student activism absolutely has a place in criminal justice reform,” she said. “Connecting one-on-one is where it starts.”