A Corrections Department van circles the perimeter of the Huron Valley women’s prison in Ypsilanti. It is a dreary scene. A 12-foot-high fence topped with razor wire rings the state facility housing 817 women. A U.S. flag and a partially torn Michigan Department of Corrections flag flutter in the wind.
Inside the lobby on this morning in Feburary, a coterie of burly guards with close-cropped hair joke with one another as visitors wait, mostly in silence. Beyond a metal detector manned by two more guards, a group of inmates waits to meet with friends and family. These women, depending whom you ask, are either suffering undue hardship at the hands of a neglectful Department of Corrections or, as corrections officials contend, are inconvenienced by a move.
Citing state policy, officials denied a Metro Times request to tour the facility.
Prisoners have filed hundreds of grievances regarding living conditions since they were moved to Huron Valley from a Plymouth prison in mid-December.
In addition, Shannon Dunn, an Ann Arbor attorney who works with women prisoners, provided surveys to prisoners shortly after they moved into Huron Valley. More than 150 responded, detailing problems that run the gamut from a shortage of toilets and sporadic heating to a lack of programs that could help them obtain early parole.
Prison officials say many of the issues have already been addressed, but even they admit significant problems remain.
Many of the complaints are related to the fact that a facility previously used as a 400-bed psychiatric hospital now houses more than twice that number of prisoners. Huron Valley comprises six main structures subdivided into smaller units, each of which houses from 50 to 80 women. Some of those units have only two working toilets, prisoners say.
Meals are also an issue. Food prepared at the adjacent Huron Valley Men’s Correctional Facility is often served cold, the women say. Dinners are sometimes served as late as 10 or 11 p.m. On occasion, women report they have been awoken at night to be given sandwiches. On top of that, the cafeteria, or “chow hall,” is located in the gym, the inmates add, thus restricting indoor activities.
Worse yet are complaints of inadequate medical care and a lack of jobs and rehabilitative programs — which can help inmates qualify for early parole.
“They say the problems are being addressed — but they haven’t been,” Dunn says. “There’s been a lack of preparedness and conditions are not what they should be — they had a full year to plan this move.”
In mid-December, officials shuttered Western Wayne Correctional Facility in Plymouth because of environmental concerns. Some women said that, among other things, they smelled noxious fumes.
“We needed to get out of Western Wayne because it was on a landfill,” says Leo Lalonde, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
The inmates were moved to the Huron Valley Complex-Women’s, previously known as the Huron Valley Center. First opened in 1977, it was most recently a 400-bed forensic psychiatric hospital run by the state’s Department of Community Health under a contract with the Department of Corrections. Prior to that, it was a women’s prison.
No study was ever done to ascertain whether the facility could adequately accommodate more than 800 prisoners, Lalonde says. Most are low-security inmates, although there is one high-security unit.
He says some inconveniences can be expected in any such move. “Prisoners like routine and predictability — they don’t like disruptions,” he says. “Moving inmates was very difficult.” Nonetheless, Lalonde insists, “Our staff did an unbelievable job.”
Inmates say some 500 internal grievances have been filed since moving into the facility. Lalonde says the number is closer to 300, and is not unusually high.
“At Western Wayne [Correctional Facility] we had between 100 and 130 grievances a month,” Lalonde says. “Knowing what prisoners are [concerned] about allows our staff to focus on their needs and take appropriate action.”
Dunn says the number of complaints doesn’t reflect the true extent of discontent and concern because inmates didn’t have access to grievance forms when they first moved in.
“There was certainly a suppression of being able to file grievances in the weeks after the move,” she says.
With respect to overcrowding, Lalonde says that there is more square footage per prisoner in Huron Valley than at Western Wayne.
Total square footage isn’t the issue, Dunn counters.
“They’re taking non-traditional housing space and putting women in it,” she says. Inmates, she adds, are being forced to bed down in areas such as activity rooms. “The women are not complaining about the physical space per room — they’re complaining about the ratio of women per shower, per toilet, per sink. We’re talking about having two working toilets for 50 women.”
Lalonde concedes that the gym is being used as a dining area. But he says this is a temporary measure, adding that efforts are under way to provide a kitchen with a dining hall. He also says cell locks will be provided in “the near future,” and window covers on doors have already been installed.
Other problems are more difficult to fix. “We are working on replacing the water system,” Lalonde says. Until then, schedules will be juggled in an attempt to allow the women to take showers. But that is only a stopgap measure.
Invariably, Lalonde explains, “the system as it exists today will not keep up with current demand.”
Mary Marshall, a 39-year-old prisoner and maintenance worker, sighs as she glances studiously about the visiting room. Several outside maintenance men with hammers and drills fastened to their belts walk back and forth indifferently as she speaks.
“It’s just a mess,” says Marshall, who hails from Detroit’s West Side. “It’s terrible — they don’t care.”
Marshall started what she calls her “bid,” or sentence, for second-degree murder in Huron Valley during its first incarnation as a women’s prison back in 1990. She knows the lay of the land perhaps as well as anyone: She normally teams up with plumbers and electricians as part of her work.
Upon first moving in, she says, “The rooms were really cold. Cold air was blowing through the central air supply that produces heat.”
Though Marshall says some units have been fixed since the move, others still need to be repaired. “Some buildings have no heat because they’re at the end of the line,” she says, referring to one of the units she worked on. “Nobody should be housed there in wintertime.”
“There may be some isolated areas where the temperature is warmer than others,” Lalonde says. “The problem is that the heating system is not being calibrated, but we are working to correct it.”
“They don’t have shit in this place,” one female prisoner says in dismay, to no one in particular, as she walks through the visiting room into a hall. A sign close by reads: “It’s been a good run, Huron Valley Center … would the last one out please turn out the lights?”
Things are particularly difficult for women with medical problems, inmates say. Women like Sandy Jones say they are especially vulnerable because of the adverse conditions at the prison.
“These are the worst conditions I’ve ever experienced,” says Jones, a 62-year-old Detroit native serving a 50-75 year sentence for second-degree murder. She suffers from fibromyalgia, a rheumatic disorder in which soft tissue and muscles swell painfully together in the cold. “They give me Tylenol for the pain, but I get no therapy.”
Stress, she says, aggravates her condition. “My blood pressure was at stroke level when I got here,” she says, adding that other symptoms include “spasms, cramping, charley horses and a crippled wrist.”
Inmates, she says, are required to fill out a form called a “kite” should they seek any medical attention. Every form costs $5. (Lalonde confirms that this is prison policy.) The problem, prisoners say, is that many inmates earn as little as 36 cents an hour, making even a $5 fee an obstacle. Prisoners also say that there are fewer jobs available since the move from Western Wayne; women without jobs must rely on outside support from family or friends.
Mail, inmate Toni Deramo says, is an issue too. “Money orders are getting lost; I’m still trying to find mine — everybody is ignoring me,” Deramo adds. “I’ve written everybody from the warden on down.”
“You name it, it’s a problem,” Deramo says, who is serving a sentence for retail fraud. “Nothing is consistent here.”
Ann Arbor classifies Huron Valley as a rural route, and will not deliver mail, Lalonde says, so a staff member goes to the post office daily, while the post office in Plymouth will only forward mail from Western Wayne once a week.
Deramo says the way officials respond to complaints can be as frustrating as the problems themselves. “We basically get spun — if we seek help, we get the runaround,” Deramo, formerly of St. Clair Shores, says. “I’m tired of them lying to my family on the phone telling them things are fixed when they’re not.”
Perhaps the most demoralizing aspect of life at Huron Valley, the women say, is a dearth of rehabilitative programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and, in particular, the Assaultive Offender Program, a group therapy program that focuses on inmates who have commited crimes involving assault.
Aside from their intrinsic value, these programs can help can inmates obtain early release.
Barbara Levine is the executive director of the Citizen’s Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a Lansing-based public policy group that advocates prison reform. She says she is “alarmed” about Huron Valley’s lack of programming,
The lack of programs in treatment and education affect parole, as well as recidivism, she says. “There would be a cost to taxpayers from people being in prison beyond their eligibility.”
Two Assaultive Offender Programs are now being offered, Lalonde says; within the next month, he adds, five more will be offered. Community volunteers will soon be offering Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Whether community volunteers can maintain an adequate level of programming for a prison facility of more than 800 women remains to be seen.
Marshall, for one, isn’t very optimistic. “I don’t want to have to stay here just because the Michigan Department of Corrections doesn’t have a program available for me,” she says. “It just isn’t right.”
Vickie Hoskins, who’s serving a 25-year year sentence for a drug conspiracy conviction, says Huron Valley has been her worst incarceration experience. “My unit has water — it just goes from scalding hot to freezing cold,” says the diminutive woman from Pontiac who has been in prison for nine years.
Things are so bad, she and other inmates say, they are speaking out despite fears that doing so could result in retribution from prison officials.
“I know I’m going to be retaliated against for speaking out,” Hoskins says. Guards, she adds, will likely “shake down my room,” or rummage through it seeking infractions for which they can write tickets.
It has happened before.
“Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons” is the title of a 1998 report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch about abuse of women prisoners in Michigan.
“Corrections officers have nearly unlimited discretion in how they enforce prison rules by reporting an inmate for major and minor violations of prison rules,” the group alleged in the report. “Being found guilty of the violation for which the ‘ticket’ was issued can result in a loss of phone and visitation privileges, being locked up in one’s cell or being placed in punitive segregation.”
Should enough of these tickets, or warnings, go before a parole board, they can also result in a later date of release, Dunn says.
According to Dunn, the conditions alleged in the report persist seven years later.
Even so, the women were willing to have their plight publicized in the hope that it would lead to changes.
Lalonde says there will be no reprisals for speaking out.
“If there was a fear of this, prisoners wouldn’t talk to a reporter in the first place,” he says, adding that if the women receive a ticket for anything in the coming weeks, “they can blame it on talking to a reporter.”Joseph Kirschke is a Metro Times staff writer. he can be reached at email@example.com or