LANSING — The State of Michigan will pay about $750,000 and make other changes to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of female officers at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti.
The federal lawsuit was brought in 2016, alleging the Michigan Department of Corrections discriminates against female officers by forcing them to work excessive overtime at Michigan’s only prison for women.
Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the proposed settlement was reached following an Aug. 17 conference in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub in Detroit.
Under the proposed settlement, Gautz said:
- The department would pay about $750,000 to about 700 female officers who have worked at the prison since 2009.
- A freeze would be lifted that barred female officers at Women’s Huron Valley from transferring to other prisons, though there would be a mechanism to reinstate the freeze if too many female officers left.
- The department would examine current and new staff positions at the prison to determine whether additional jobs could be made open to male officers, instead of being designated women-only.
The proposed settlement is still subject to a hearing before U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy.
It was reached soon after the Free Press wrote an Aug. 10 article in which Corrections Officer Amber Dotson described the repeated double shifts forced on her and other female officers as a safety threat.
“It’s very stressful, very tiring — physically, mentally,” Dotson told the Free Press. “It really wears you out.”
U.S. Justice Department officials declined to comment.
The Michigan Corrections Organization union, which is not a party to the suit, welcomed the potential settlement.
“MCO leaders hope this settlement brings some relief to the women corrections officers at WHV, who have sacrificed and worked 16-hour days to keep the prison running as safely and smoothly as they can,” said union president Byron Osborn.
“The settlement has not been shared with MCO, so it would be difficult for us to comment on any details. We’ll be meeting with the … administration as they work to implement the settlement, and we’ll keep corrections officers informed as the process unfolds.”
Though the Corrections Department faces officer shortages around the state, the situation is aggravated at the women’s prison because only female officers can work in the housing units because of concerns about sexual abuse.
Union officials say the constant forced overtime has become a serious safety issue, both inside the prison —where officers must tend to fights and other emergencies — and on the surrounding freeways as exhausted female officers try to drive home.
The Free Press had previously interviewed officers who quit because they couldn’t stand the constant forced overtime. Dotson is the first officer to go on the record while still on the job.
Gautz said the agency is doing all it can to address the shortage of female officers, actively recruiting and holding regular training academies. But the situation is aggravated by a wave of retirements by officers brought in during a 1980s hiring push and a low unemployment rate that gives qualified potential hires other choices.
In its lawsuit, the Justice Department alleged 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 department said in a 2016 news release.
The suit turned contentious in 2017, when the federal agency accused the Corrections Department of destroying employment records that it should have known they needed to be preserved as a result of the lawsuit.
The destruction of the records happened after the department was put on notice that they should be preserved and “severely prejudices” the department’s ability to prove its case, Justice Department attorneys said in a court filing.
As a result, the court should draw certain inferences about the allegations in the lawsuit and bar the department from using certain defenses, the attorneys argued.
Gautz said at the time that the Corrections Department strongly disagreed with the allegations about the destruction of records. No sanctions had been imposed by the court at the time the settlement was reached.
Women’s Huron Valley houses about 2,200 female inmates who cover the full range of criminal records and security levels. Inmates complain the prison is overcrowded, with storage areas and day rooms converted to cells.