Feds Sue Michigan Prisons for Making Women Work an Unhealthy Amount

by | June 14, 2016

By Paul Egan

The U.S. Justice Department on Monday filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections over staffing issues at the state's only women's prison, where female corrections officers have been subjected to mandatory overtime they say is excessive and harmful.

The issue was highlighted by the Free Press in a May 24 article. At the time, an advocate for inmates at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti said the combination of an overcrowded prison and excessive forced overtime for female corrections officers could be "a recipe for disaster."

The suit filed under the Civil Rights Act in U.S. District Court in Detroit alleges the department's policy of allowing only female corrections officers in certain jobs at the prison has been overly broad since 2009 and the department's denial of transfers to other prisons for female corrections officers has been unlawful and discriminatory.

Combined, the policies "required female employees at Huron Valley to work excessive overtime hours at a cost to their health," the Justice Department said in a news release.

"Employers may not unduly lock workers into or out of a job because of their sex," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. "Qualified male and female correctional officers deserve equal opportunities to compete for job assignments and transfers without unnecessary barriers."

Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said the department had just received the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the defendants to stop discriminatory job assignment and transfer policies and implement policies to halt further discrimination. The suit also seeks monetary damages for affected female corrections officers.

The department years ago banned male corrections officers from female housing units because of a past history of sexual abuse. But the Michigan Department of Corrections has until very recently extended that ban to parts of the prison such as the gym, food services and the library.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said that "by limiting positions that are not justifiably related to inmate privacy to women officers, MDOC created staffing limitations that harm female employees by forcing them to work overtime and preventing them from transferring to other facilities that are closer to their homes, offer more favorable conditions or provide promotional opportunities."

The suit arose from an earlier complaint 28 female corrections officers made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Free Press reported the mandatory overtime issue was highlighted in May when Corrections Officer Latasha Clements quit her job, citing "my health, safety and the best interests of my family."

"The constant mandating, three and four days consecutively, have caused my physical and emotional health to deteriorate, as well (as) causing diminished ability to adequately care for my husband and children," Clements wrote in a May 12 e-mail to prison, union, and legislative officials. A copy was obtained by the Free Press.

"This is of grave concern to me due to the severity of danger involved in the job we perform," Clements wrote. "We need to be in the best possible physical and emotional health, at all times, while on the work site."

The state says it paid $5.2 million in custody overtime -- not including holiday pay -- at Women's Huron Valley in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data was available.

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press