Huron Valley Correctional Center, serving as Michigan’s only all-women prison, may run afoul of the United States Constitution.
Two experts who studied the Ypsilanti-area facility say the conditions within Huron Valley amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Their report was filed in federal court on Thursday, bolstering a lawsuit’s claim that the prison is overcrowded and poorly maintained.
Bad ventilation and a lack of recreational and exercise facilities may also be contributing to what attorneys say is a mental health crisis within the facility.
The reports, which the Detroit Free Press says were filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys in a proposed class-action suit, alleges that many prisoners are “packed into former closets and other converted rooms.” Clothing is scarce, medical treatment is substandard and many inmates are so closely confined that they’ve little opportunity to leave their cells.
The lawsuit poses an interesting divergence from the Corrections Department’s own statements.
The Michigan Department of Corrections says that Huron Valley’s current population is around 2,100. Several years ago, that number was closer to 2,257. Either way, the number’s lower than the building’s holding capacity of 2,400.
Attorneys have an interesting explanation: that Huron Valley’s capacity has been inflated by more than 500 since 2010. Cells have been added within existing walls, taking away from space that had once been used for recreation, storage and day rooms.
Randy Atlas, a Florida architect who specializes in prison design, was noted by the Free Press as saying that the Michigan Department of Corrections did convert offices and other suable spaces into cells. But when Huron Valley began construction and expansion operations, it never obtained requisite building permits. In some cases, the jail didn’t even use ‘architectural plans’ as a guide.
Prison conditions at Huron Valley, says Atlas, “deprive WHV inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.”
After examining prison blueprints, Atlas said he could identify at least 14 units ‘housing close to 1,100 prisoners’ that could be considered “overcrowded and constituting cruel and unusual punishment.”
Some units, Atlas said, contained less than 6 ½ square feet of space per prisoner.
Clinical psychologist Ellen Koch, who’s worked with Huron Valley inmates, says overcrowding is aggravating mental health problems. Depression and suicide attempts are all on the rise, says Koch, in a facility that’s quite different from Michigan’s other, threat-segregated prisons.
“The current overcrowding situation is causing significant mental health problems for the prisoners based on the lack of access to materials, space, classes and food, as well as the constant and excessive noise level,” wrote Koch.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office has said the prisoners must demonstrate subjection to intentional, ‘wanton’ indifference to justify their claims of a constitutional violation.
“Allegations of temporary inconveniences are insufficient to state a claim,” they said.