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Monday, January 5, 2009

Human Rights Watch studied abuses

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) is currently being sued by seven female prisoners on behalf of all others similarly situated for sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate visual surveillance within its correctional facilities for women. The suit comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finding in 1995 that sexual misconduct pervades Michigan's women's prisons, including rape, sexual abuse, sexually aggressive acts by guards, and violations of the female prisoners' legitimate privacy interests. Our own investigation, conducted from 1994 through 1996, and based on interviews with current and former female prisoners as well as attorneys, prisoner rights advocates, and MDOC, revealed that rape, sexual assault or abuse, criminal sexual contact, and other misconduct by corrections staff are continuing and serious problems within the women's prisons in Michigan have been tolerated over the years at both the institutional and departmental levels.

Rather than seeking to end such abuse, the Michigan Department of Corrections has consistently refused to acknowledge that there is a problem of sexual misconduct in its women's prisons. As noted below, MDOC dismissed the female prisoners' class action suit as "erroneous" and issued a written statement characterizing the DOJ's findings as "vindictive and distorted" and "full of half truths, innuendo, distortion and lies." (658) The state has taken the positive steps of establishing minimal grievance and investigatory procedures as well as disciplinary and criminal sanctions for custodial sexual contact; however, its stated policy of "zero tolerance" for such abuse is belied by a pervasive bias against prisoner testimony, a high incidence of retaliation against complainants, and a consistent problem with the enforcement of appropriate penalties. [Mark Godsey]

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