In 1994, Gov. John Engler’s administration barred the U.S. Justice Department from inspecting Michigan’s two women’s prisons in order to investigate widespread allegations of sexual assault of inmates by corrections staff.
Two years later, the administration ended cooperation with Human Rights Watch after the organization published a report containing numerous prisoner complaints of sexual abuse.
The media hasn’t fared much better. Reporters from "60 Minutes" and "Dateline NBC" have been turned away.
Even a representative of the United Nations was denied access.
The razor wire-topped fences of Scott and Florence Crane correction facilities aren’t only keeping inmates caged up; evidently, they are also being used to prevent the "free world," as prisoners call it, from learning what is happening on the inside.
What is it that the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and the governor don’t want the world to know?
Work Rule 24
In 1996, lawyers filed class action lawsuits in state and federal courts against the MDOC on behalf of seven women prisoners. The inmates claim that the Michigan prison system routinely tolerates sexual assault, harassment and intimidation of its approximately 1,700 female inmates at the two prisons and Michigan’s camp facility for women.
The MDOC denies those charges. In the department’s view, there are occasional, isolated incidents of wrongdoing, but those are vigorously investigated and, when proven, swiftly acted upon.
Department spokesman Matt Davis reports that during the past six years the department has dismissed 57 employees statewide for violating "Work Rule 24," which forbids any "improper relationship" with an inmate.
According to Davis, an improper relationship is broadly defined to encompass any contact that falls outside official duties concerning an offender. A corrections employee having sex with an inmate violates Work Rule 24, but so does a probation officer meeting socially with a parolee for coffee.
Davis declined to go through the dismissals and determine how many were for rapes or illicit sex as compared to wrongful coffee klatches. He did say the total number of dismissals for violations of Work Rule 24 does not include officers who were suspected of having sex with inmates, yet were dismissed for other reasons. Nor, he says, does it include an unspecified number of officers who resigned upon being confronted by their superiors about having sex with inmates.
"It’s kind of a fuzzy figure, I admit," Davis says, adding that MDOC doesn’t compile information on how many officers are dismissed annually for sex-related violations involving prisoners.
Davis says MDOC guarantees discipline for officers who break the rules, but following through is not always easy.
"The union thinks we’re being too strict in terms of discipline," Davis says, referring to the Michigan Corrections Organization. "We have to have a preponderance of evidence. If we fire someone, we have to be able to defend it in court."
MCO Director Fred Parks says he believes MDOC too often investigates allegations without corroborating evidence.
"Every time a prisoner says something, the department shakes and quakes," he says.
Davis defends both the way the department conducts investigations and MDOC’s decision to police its own prisons without the help of outsiders.
He says MDOC turned away a U.N. representative who had planned to visit Michigan’s prisons last year because the United Nations was being misled by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Of those organizations, he says, "This is a Republican administration and they just don’t like us. And when they can get some publicity, it’s a feeding frenzy."
The man ultimately responsible for the way the state runs its prisons, Gov. John Engler, adds the U.S. Justice Department to the list of those beating up on Michigan — or at least his administration — without good reason. In a June 1998 letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, explaining why a United Nations representative wouldn’t be allowed inside Michigan’s women’s prisons, Engler wrote, "I view the United Nations as an unwitting tool in the (U.S.) Justice Department’s agenda to discredit the State of Michigan in spite of the objective evidence that the State of Michigan has not violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates. I must conclude that the Justice Department hopes to use the (United Nations) Special Rapporteur as a sword against the state in this unnecessary litigation."
The Justice Department is suing Michigan for violating the civil rights of female inmates and its suit has been consolidated with the inmates’ federal court case for pretrial purposes; that suit was denied certification as a class action, although the number of plaintiffs has grown from 7 to 32.
The parallel state case has been accepted as class action, but is on hold until the state Supreme Court decides whether to consider a central question: Does the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act apply to the female prisonsers.
On July 31, 1995, a corrections officer doing morning rounds at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth entered 27-year-old Diane Spencer’s cell to find her naked, bruised and battered, gagged with a towel and tied spread-eagle to her bed.
The guard accused of brutalizing her, David Shwartz, pleaded guilty the following year in Wayne County Circuit Court to assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct. He was sentenced to one year in prison plus probation.
Although MDOC would not comment on individual cases, Spencer’s attorney, Ada Montgomery, says MDOC is holding prisoners responsible for the attack.
"That’s their typical reaction — someone else had to have done it besides an officer," Montgomery says.
Attorneys for the inmates claim that Spencer’s case, though notable for its brutality, is far from isolated.
Molly Reno, one of the lawyers representing inmates in their state and federal suits, in a January letter to U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ office, writes of numerous alleged assaults on female prisoners at both Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth and Florence Crane Correctional Facility in Coldwater.
In 1998 alone, there were four convictions of criminal sexual conduct against employees at Scott. A fifth case ended in a not guilty verdict. Four other criminal cases, she says, are pending in Wayne County and Branch County circuit courts. Scott Correctional Facility is located in Wayne County; Crane and the prison camp, in Branch.
"More than eight other women prisoners have requested to take polygraph examinations to verify the sexual assaults they suffered by Scott staff," Reno says in the letter. "A number of criminal cases arising from staff sexual assaults on women prisoners at the Florence Crane Facilities are pending in the Branch County criminal courts."
But the criminal cases represent only a small portion of the problem, claim the lawsuits Reno and others brought on behalf of female prisoners. According to the lawyers, the inmates’ federal suit is expected to go to trial sometime next year.
Men guard women
Changes in 1985 led to the problems according to the inmates’ suits: "MDOC began staffing the housing units at all women’s facilities with male officers and staff without providing any prior training related to cross-gender supervision and without developing and implementing procedures for reporting, investigating or disciplining sexual misconduct of staff on women prisoners."
Davis says MDOC permitted cross-gender supervision following litigation on behalf of corrections officers who said they were being discriminated against. The Justice Department also encouraged Michigan to adopt cross-gender supervision under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he adds.
But in leveling the playing field for male and female corrections officers, MDOC created another problem. Male corrections officers were put into positions where the nature of their jobs entailed going unannounced into areas where women dress and undress, shower, and even use the toilet. Male guards performed body searches that included patting down women’s breasts and genital areas. They transported women to medical care, according to the inmates’ lawsuits, and were required to observe gynecological and other intimate medical procedures.
Because of the inherent humiliation and potential for abuse that accompanies such situations, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners call for a prohibition of cross-gender guard/prisoner facilities. According to a U.N. spokesperson, these rules are not legally binding, but are considered the international guideline for prisoner treatment. According to Human Rights Watch’s Widney Brown, many if not most countries prohibit the male guarding of female prisoners.
Not only in Michigan, but across the United States, prison officials assert that civil rights laws prevent them from discriminating against men when hiring corrections officers for women’s prisons.
But that, say critics, has had consequences. According to a report issued earlier this month by Amnesty International, reports of sexual abuse including rapes are common in America’s state prisons, federal prisons and county jails.
"It certainly is a rampant problem throughout the U.S.," says Nancy Bothne, Amnesty International USA’s Midwest coordinator. "There is so little oversight of U.S. prisons that the women are subject to retaliation and the practices are allowed to continue."
In Michigan, the inmates’ suits allege the department and its administrators "knew or should have known that failure to ensure that improperly trained, screened and supervised male guards not be left alone on duty in control of female prisoners posed a strong likelihood that such inaction would result in further sexual assault and/or great bodily harm in an atmosphere in which such conduct was implicitly permissible."
The first outside recognition that prison policies and practices could be causing problems — and indications that the state would rather cover up than confront them — surfaced in 1991, and then almost by accident.
The Michigan Women’s Commission sent an intern to interview 33 women at Scott and Crane about their experiences while incarcerated in county jails. The intern, Jennifer Elder, says only one of the questions in the survey addressed prison conditions.
"It was just a question based on courtesy because I was taking their time and that’s where I was visiting them," Elder says. "I asked them if there were any concerns they wanted to share about prison conditions."
Elder says that 14 of the 33 women interviewed said sexual abuse was a problem in prison.
Now a Detroit social worker, Elder says the commission met with former MDOC Director Kenneth McGinnis to discuss her findings.
"I was thinking they would definitely do something about it if they knew about it," she says. "Instead, they reacted defensively. It was almost implied that the information that we had was inaccurate, or that every single piece of information that we got from those quotes was false. And I have trouble believing that 42 percent of those we talked to were lying."
Results of the survey on county jails were published in July 1993. However, Elder says, the information about sexual abuse in prisons was not included.
"I was told by the commission that it was sort of a political situation and that McGinnis didn’t want it included in the report," Elder says. "Once they realized there were inappropriate things going on at the state level, well, you can see what happened. ... The ball was dropped."
MDOC’s Davis says the information was excluded from the report because it was unverified "anecdotal evidence."
Conyers visits Scott
Also in 1993, the department moved to convince the public that the state intended to address the issue.
In a press release dated January 6, 1993, following news accounts and a state Senate committee investigation of complaints at Scott and Crane, McGinnis declared: "This department cannot and will not tolerate or condone any manner of sex abuse, harassment or sexual contact between employees and inmates. … The department has zero tolerance for such behavior and our record of disciplinary actions and dismissals verify this fact."
According to the press release, in the six years leading up to 1993 only 11 dismissals of corrections officers — four women and seven men — were based on "confirmed sexual relations with inmates."
Davis says later that year MDOC began mandating a 40-hour training course for corrections employees on the "special needs" of female offenders — as much or more training, he says, than any other state requires.
Human Rights Watch considered both McGinnis’ denial that the problem was extensive and his pledge of zero tolerance far-fetched. It also said that his attitude only served to make things worse.
"The Michigan Department of Corrections, rather than addressing the need to prevent sexual abuse of female inmates, has concentrated its energies on blanket denials of the allegations," Human Rights Watch stated in "Nowhere to Hide," its 1998 report on Michigan prisons.
"These denials create an atmosphere hostile to the women who assert their right not to be subjected to sexual abuse by guards and allow the abuse to continue with impunity."
MDOC’s Davis says it’s not the place of "radical left" groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to investigate Michigan’s prisons.
"They are special interest groups," he says. "The people of Michigan elected this administration three times."
Nor, says Davis, is it the role of U.S. Rep. Conyers to investigate conditions in Michigan’s prisons.
Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, made his first visit to Scott last month.
Rather than interviewing prisoners at random as his office had requested, the congressman was allowed to attend a "warden’s forum" with prison authorities and 15 inmates MDOC says were chosen by fellow prisoners.
Random interviews would have created a security problem, explains Davis.
Besides, he adds: "We don’t elect congressmen to oversee state prisons."
Conyers is undeterred.
"My visit was to establish that I will be going back and forth out there," he says. "It’s important that (prisoners) know that there are people out there who are supervising and making sure this is running at a minimum level of decency."
At least Conyers was able to get into the prison. Members of the media, both local and national, have had as little success as the United Nations. Deborah LaBelle, another attorney representing prisoners in their lawsuits, says she believes MDOC’s restriction of media access to the prisons has kept a lid on the story.
"Gov. Engler knows exactly what he’s doing," LaBelle says. "Even the print media needs someone to talk to or it shuts down the story."
Even so, a mass of evidence is building. In addition to the reports from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International, depositions and other information are being obtained in both the Justice Department and inmates’ federal lawsuits, and a growing number of criminal cases are cracking open the reality faced by women locked in Michigan’s prisons.
What emerges appears to be a picture of widespread abuse.
In 1995, for example, the Justice Department reported that discovery in a private civil action revealed at least 20 reported incidents of sexual assault or serious harassment between 1991 and 1993.
After being told "matter of factly" by one corrections officer that sex between guards and inmates is frequent, and finding that "nearly every inmate we interviewed reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards," the Justice Department told Engler in a letter of findings that reported incidents cover "only a small percentage of the number of sexual assaults actually occurring at the prisons."
Part of the reason, the letter stated, has to do with attitudes toward sex by prisoners, guards and even administrators.
No consensual sex
On July 8, 1997, Human Rights Watch says, inmate Tanika Lynch finally reported then-corrections officer Phillip Lewis to prison authorities. The Human Rights Watch report states that the sexual relationship Lynch willingly developed with Lewis became abusive when she tried to end it. The following January, Lewis was convicted of criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to two years’ probation.
The case illustrates a widely held viewpoint: Given the power dynamic in prisons, no sex between a corrections officer and a prisoner is truly consensual.
"It’s never over when the woman says it’s over," says Tekla Miller, a retired MDOC warden who worked 20 years in the corrections system, although not at Crane or Scott. "Too many times their back is against the wall."
"There’s an inherent coercion in a correctional setting," adds Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Thomas Furtaw, who last September successfully prosecuted a former Scott guard charged with sexually assaulting an inmate.
A number of corrections officers agree there is a pervasive power dynamic in prison, but see it differently.
Former corrections officer John Sobkowiak, who was acquitted last year on charges that he too had sexually abused Lynch, says he doesn’t know of any prisoner ever being raped at Scott. Instead, he says "weak-minded" officers are lured into sex with inmates, who then report the officers in an attempt to avoid misconduct charges or to gain some other advantage.
Sobkowiak says he never had sex with Lynch. Furthermore, he says Lynch and MDOC conspired to set him up, making him a scapegoat while the department, feeling the heat of critics, creates the appearance it is "cleaning house."
The officer’s word
According to the Justice Department, the very notion of consensual sex between prisoners and guards causes problems. The department said in 1995 that "… the apparent view by many supervisors that these sexual relationships are consensual, despite the power and control held by guards, contributes to the reluctance of women to report various sexual assaults and other incidents."
Former warden Miller, who wrote about her experiences in the book The Warden Wore Pink, elaborates:
"I don’t care whether it’s rape or what in our society is considered consensual It’s an authority figure and a prisoner. That authority figure has complete authority over everything you do 24 hours a day. …"
Now a volunteer women’s counselor in Durango, Colo., Miller says that during her time as a warden, "There was manipulation by the male staff for sexual gratification, but there was no way I could prove it. I had to have corroboration from other staff."
And the word of the officer would always take precedence over the accusations of a prisoner, she says.
The MDOC’s Davis defends the department’s handling complaints, saying that a prison system that houses 1,700 female inmates could not function if guards were suspended or transferred when allegations of abuse are made.
"If we suspend someone every time a harassment complaint is levied — let’s say we did that. You want us to suspend the entire corrections staff of a prison just because an offender says it?"
Both Human Rights Watch and the Justice Department report that inmates live in fear of retaliation should they spurn advances or report abuse.
The consequences of retaliation can be dire. Misconduct charges, for example, can determine whether an inmate receives parole or remains locked up.
Attorney LaBelle paints this scenario: "Say if the officer flirts for a couple weeks and says, ‘I hear you got an out date. It sure would be a shame if you got a (misconduct) ticket.’"
Also, says LaBelle, a significant percentage of women in prison have been previously sexually abused on the outside, making them especially vulnerable to manipulation.
"They know that if you piss off the person in control of you, you get hurt," she says.
Human Rights Watch investigator Widney Brown reported that "virtually all of the women incarcerated in Michigan who were interviewed … and who had lodged complaints of sexual harassment or abuse have suffered some form of retaliation by the accused officer, his colleagues, or other inmates. In some cases, they have also faced punishment by corrections officials."
According to the report, retaliation can range from subsequent sexual assaults to abusive pat-frisks to curtailment of visitation privileges, including contact between mothers and children.
The report details the stories of five prisoners in the inmates’ federal suit who say they have been retaliated against.
Inmate Lynch appeared to become a target after breaking off an affair with a guard. She alleged subsequent abuse through excessive sexual touching in pat-down searches.
Retaliation allegedly came in the form of misconduct tickets. According to the report, she had received just four such tickets during her first seven months in prison; in the four months after filing a sexual abuse report, she received 25 tickets. Once, when being denied a request to use the toilet, Lynch was allegedly told, "Bitches like you get found in ditches."
Corrections officer Julie Kennedy-Carpenter — in a deposition taken for the Justice Department and the inmates’ federal suits — said that Lynch may have deserved some of the tickets. But Kennedy-Carpenter also stated, "I know a lot of officers have talked about making her pay."
Other prisoners have apparently taken notice. One prisoner told Human Rights Watch that she had been coerced into a sexual relationship with a guard for more than two years but would not file a complaint, saying, "I don’t want to end up like Tanika Lynch."
Another inmate in the Human Rights Watch report is Stacy Barker, who allegedly faced retaliation for reporting abuse in 1995. Tickets began to mount against Barker, whom guards identified as a "set-up queen" who frequently sued the department.
Barker’s lawyer, Stuart Friedman, insists that his client was singled out for prosecution on a drug possession charge (less than a gram of marijuana) because she spoke up about abuse.
"Guards are going to retaliate against you if you win a legal case," Friedman is quoted as saying in the Human Rights Watch report. "Because of Stacy, a guard lost his job."
But her troubles didn’t end with the drug charges, the Human Rights Watch account says. Placed in isolation for 23 hours a day, and permanently denied the privilege of visiting with her young child, her problems intensified when another guard allegedly began sexually abusing her.
Barker was subsequently transferred to the Huron Valley Center, a psychiatric hospital for inmates. On October 19, 1997, she attempted suicide. She alleged to Human Rights Watch, that when she was found, she "was stripped naked by three male guards, placed in five-point restraints on a bed with no blanket, and held for nine hours. Despite being on suicide watch for 29 days, she allegedly told Human Rights Watch that she received no counseling or psychiatric evaluation during the entire period.
"The women in Michigan prisons have learned from their fellow inmates’ experiences," states the Human Rights Watch report. "Put simply, most women in the system are now too scared to report sexual abuse, because they feel the consequences may be more devastating that the abuse itself."
A woman scarred
It is not just prisoners and human rights advocates who say intimidation, retaliation and threats keep would-be whistle-blowers quiet at MDOC.
Former corrections officer Patricia Hibbs told the Metro Times that not even guards are safe if they report a fellow officer. The scars covering her face, she says, are proof.
According to court records, Hibbs — who is suing the MDOC for various forms of harassment — says her troubles began in 1995, after she reported a co-worker for being unnecessarily rough with an inmate.
Hibbs says she also wrote a memo to Scott administrators about the apparent smuggling of drugs into the prison. Hibbs and other former corrections employees told the Metro Times they believe drugs are brought in by MDOC employees, not only by prisoners or their visitors.
At least as far back as the 1995 Justice Department letter to Engler, it has been alleged that drug use in the state’s women’s prisons is a major problem. The MDOC’s Davis calls the assertion absurd, saying frequent drug tests of prisoners would reveal widespread drug use.
However, several individuals familiar with the two women’s prisons told the Metro Times that drugs were abundant, with sex often the commodity used to obtain substances such as cocaine and heroin from guards.
"(Scott) is teeming with drugs," says attorney LaBelle. "Do guards buy sex with drugs? Yes. … It’s part of the problem."
Hibbs claims her problem is having had the temerity to try to expose this and other problems.
She alleges in court documents that on the afternoon of April 26, 1997, while in an area of the prison off-limits to inmates, she was grabbed from behind and had her face repeatedly slashed with a sharp instrument, perhaps a box-cutter, before being knocked unconscious.
The attacker, she believes, was a fellow guard.
According to court records, the MDOC has questioned Hibbs’ account, and alleged that she cut herself.
To Hibbs, the message was clear: This is what happens to snitches.
Kennedy-Carpenter, who says most Michigan prisons are run well by conscientious officers, portrays Scott as a place where the bad officers often terrorize the good ones into silence.
"We all pretty much know where everybody lives and, you know, who they hang out with and their families. And so there’s a lot of people afraid to say anything," Kennedy-Carpenter said in her deposition.
But it’s the prisoners at both women’s prisons who are most fearful of all, say their advocates.
"When you have a problem, who are you going to go to?" asks attorney Montgomery. "If you have no trust in there, can you imagine how terrifying it must be? When that door opens, you don’t know whether it’s going to be help or harm."