Thursday, July 31, 2014

Will the state improve its care of mentally ill prisoners?

There’s a problem at Michigan’s prison for women. Now the big question is: What is doing to be done about it?

This week, thanks to courageous reports from whistle-blowers at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a five-page letter to the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Warden of WHV. The letter outlined the problems involving care of mentally ill women behind bars, demanded improvement and finally offered to help.

HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS has been begging for this attention for months. In June, we devoted the entire front page of our monthly newsletter to the topic, with actual quotes from our contacts among the inmates. Finally, we have some momentum. The letter from the ACLU to Director Dan Heyns and Warden Millicent Warren was signed not only by attorneys from the Detroit office, but also by two attorneys from the University of Michigan Law School, the director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, and the President of Citizens for Prison Reform!

Based on documents and authenticated statements from HFP sources, the letter expressed outrage over the way mentally ill women are being treated by prisoner staffers. The letter cited cases of water deprivation, food deprivation, unsanitary conditions, neglect, use of excessive force, and use of solitary confinement. We know for a fact that, in two specific cases, a prisoner was hog-tied as punishment and another was seriously dehydrated and still denied a drink of water. For the record, there was also strong evidence that guards also used taser weapons and pepper gas to control these mentally challenged women. Shameful.

As a single agency we were not able to attract much attention, let alone prod the state into action. Let’s pray that with this added impetus we’ll get results. Mentally ill women behind bars and their families deserve humane treatment, the same kind of treatment one would expect in any care facility.

And if there is no suitable response to this scathing letter, we urge the ACLU to consider the next step: legal action. Sometimes it seems that is the only language the state understands.

May God bless the efforts of this team of organizations to help the “least of these,” sisters of Jesus.

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