Court ruling bolsters inmates' rights
Capital News Service
LANSING- The heated debate over prisoner rights has been rekindled by a recent federal court decision in a suit by female inmates claiming sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination.
If upheld, the case of Mason v. Granholm will restore inmates' protections against racial, sexual and religious discrimination and reopen the state's liability for damages, lawyers for the prisoners say.
Matt Frendewey, a press aide for the Attorney General's office, said the state will appeal the decision.
"We felt that the court erred in its ruling," Frendewey said. "We believe that prisoners were afforded appropriate rights under the law."
The suit claims that a 2000 amendment to the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act denying prisoners' protections against racial, sexual or religious discrimination is unconstitutional.
When the measure was approved, legislators and the Engler administration said that it was intended to prevent prisoners from filing frivolous discrimination suits.
But U.S. District Judge Corbett O'Meara of Detroit has found the change unconstitutional.
In his ruling, O'Meara slammed the law and cited "the state's abhorrent and well-documented history of sexual and other abuse of female prisoners."
The judge cited a previous case in which reports from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the United Nations described multiple instances of retribution attacks against prisoners by guards in Michigan.
Erica Eisinger, a law professor and expert on civil rights litigation at Wayne State University, said she doubts legislators' justification for the 2000 change.
"I think the ulterior motive was to punish prisoners," said Eisinger. "I don't think that the legislators' asserted motive was to protect against frivolous lawsuits."
While there have been baseless suits, "there are many, many mechanisms to weed out frivolous lawsuits, to find the needle in the haystack and permit meritorious lawsuits to go through," she said.
And she echoed O'Meara, saying, "To ban all lawsuits, that doesn't achieve the objective rationally."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the suit on behalf of the imprisoned women, heralded the decision as a victory over an unjust law.
Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU's Michigan branch, called the 2000 amendment "the most cruel and mean-spirited bill passed by the Michigan legislature in recent history.
"The measure of how civilized or advanced a society is how they treat inmates," Steinberg said. "Certainly, dangerous criminals need to be punished, but punishment takes its form in a loss of freedom, not in a loss of human rights, not in a loss of humanity."
Steinberg also said that the ACLU is urging lawmakers to repeal the amendment and "wipe this embarrassing law off the books."
House Judiciary Committee Chair Paul Condino, D-Southfield, said legislators will not amend the law until the Granholm administration requests a change.
But Condino also said, "The state should recognize that the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act applies to prisoners as well as those on the outside.
"I think that that's a critical interpretation, and it's recognized that part and parcel of locking up prisoners is the duty to provide basic civil rights," he said.
Leo Lalonde, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, said his department had been advised by the Attorney General's office not to discuss the case because further litigation is pending.If the decision is upheld, it could help resolve other cases involving charges of prisoner abuse, including that of a prisoner who claims he was held in restraints for 276 consecutive days, Eisinger said. The prisoner is being represented by members of Wayne State University's Civil Rights Litigation Clinic.
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