Op-Ed: How Michigan is failing Huron Valley

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 6:44pm

At the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the decrepit prison conditions have now caused an outspread of scabies. This week, the Detroit Free Press reported that of the 200 women found with a mysterious rash in early December, 24 have contracted the skin condition.

Though identifying the rash is a breakthrough for prison officials in addressing the ailment, which according to epidemiologists is easily treatable, this is only the first step in attempting to tackle the widespread issue at a facility already beleaguered with overcrowding. And former inmates such as Machelle Pearson have described the abject conditions that led to the medical problems at the facility. After Pearson was released from Huron Valley, her primary medical provider surmised the rash she contracted while there was a result of coming into contact with mold. Pearson, in an interview with the Free Press, recalled the mold accumulating in the showers black fungus spreading across and eventually encompassing what was once a tile ceiling. When inmates cleaned the shower, they would have to squeegee the ceilings, inevitably leading to the water dripping onto their clothes and forcing them to bathe in hazardous juices that remained in the fabric long after they were finished mopping.

Despite accounts like those from Pearson, officials in the prison reframe the issue as one brought on by inmates, not a dilapidated infrastructure. Citing an improper mixture of cleaning chemicals used by the women, rather than mold, they deflected blame from themselves in an attempt to dispel the notion there was any wrongdoing on behalf of the leadership.

If one were to follow this particular strain of bureaucratic incompetence to its root, it would once again exhibit how overpopulation debilitates Michigan’s prison system. Policies that ensnare the state’s most vulnerable populations weigh down Michigan’s criminal justice system, with a state prison population that has ballooned to 40,000 and another 14,000 in jails. Michigan has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country.

The overstuffed criminal justice system, both state and nationwide, yields the kinds of inhumane living circumstances seen at Huron Valley. And this is hardly the first time there have been complaints lobbed against the women’s prison. Just this September, two experts who investigated the prison filed reports in federal court claiming that the overcrowding and crumbling conditions in the prison violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution as “cruel and unusual punishment.” The cramped space provides little area for recreational use or exercise, imposing physical and mental burdens onto those in the prison. Officials converted storage units into living areas and dismissed building codes so that, as one of the prisoners’ attorneys described, the prison was literally “bursting at the seams.”

Yet again and again when both inhabitants and outside investigators decry the facility, officials dismiss the concerns. Though the country is ostensibly pushing against the trend of mass incarceration that has been a fixture of the criminal justice system for decades, state policies are as primitive as they are resistant to change.

Federal changes to domestic incarceration policy only impact those in federal prisons, which does not make up a substantial portion of prisoners. Furthermore, these changes seem cosmetic when looking at the numbers. The prison system still groans under the weight of esoteric, racialized policies which place an emphasis on profiting off imprisoned bodies.

There are opportunities for Michigan to change, especially as recently sworn-in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seeks political wins that have the potential for bipartisan support. Since 2007, the Michigan prison population has decreased from a record high of 51,000 to 40,000 inmates. And though Huron Valley is ridden with problems, at the center of the issue is an overpopulation crisis which is hazardous for inmates and cumbersome for state bureaucrats to manage.

Policies that legislators and Whitmer could look at are occupational licensing, specifically reforming the current system in place that prevents those with criminal records from receiving a license that enables them to work in certain fields. Restrictions currently placed are indiscriminate, barring anyone with a criminal record from obtaining one even if the crime they committed is unrelated to the occupation in which they seek a license. Fixing this has the potential to reduce recidivism rates and enable more people to contribute to the Michigan economy.

Michigan lawmakers could also look into reforming the current bail system, which discriminately impacts low-income earners who cannot afford to pay the exorbitant bail costs imposed on them. Thousands of people remain in jails without charges simply because they cannot meet the set bail.

This is one of many problems facing the inmates of Huron Valley. The deteriorating infrastructure, past history of sexual assault and overpopulation due to the artificial increase in capacity has yielded wide-ranging consequences for inmates. The policing and prison policies in Michigan are still in dire need of reform, with change necessary for thousands of prisoners who are now becoming subject to human rights violations.

Joel Danilewitz can be reached at joeldan@umich.edu.