ACLU of Michigan Sues Muskegon County Over Unconstitutional Policies, Hazardous Conditions at Jail

December 04, 2014

The ACLU of Michigan today filed a federal lawsuit against Muskegon County on behalf of eight female inmates of the Muskegon County Jail who contend that inhumane and degrading policies at the filthy, overcrowded lockup violate their constitutional rights.

The suit argues that, in addition to being exposed to unsafe physical conditions, males guards at the prison are permitted to watch female inmates even when the women have to get naked to change clothes, shower and use the toilet. The plaintiffs said they also are targeted with slurs and are often denied access to clean underwear and basic sanitary items such as toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. 

Read the women's stories in their own words

“From health hazards to dehumanizing, unconstitutional procedures, conditions at the Muskegon County Jail are utterly deplorable,” said Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. “Muskegon County has abdicated its constitutional duty to ensure conditions of confinement at the jail just and consistent with health, safety, and human dignity.”

The ACLU of Michigan plans to ask the judge to grant class certification, allowing the case to proceed on behalf of all men and women incarcerated at the Muskegon County Jail.

The named plaintiffs in the suit include former inmate Londora Kitchens, who said that male guards often watched her shower and use the toilet. Kitchens also said that, when she had her period, a guard – instead of giving her sanitary napkins – warned her that she’d better not “bleed on the floor.”

“I understand that I made a mistake in breaking the law,” said Kitchens. “However, nobody deserves to be forced to live like an animal and be treated like one. We are women deserving of basic respect, sanitary conditions, bodily privacy, and simply to be treated like the women we are.”

Another plaintiff, former inmate Denise Vos, said she was naked on the toilet when a guard walked into her cell unannounced to pass out medication.

To protect their privacy, the women attempt to hang trash bags, towels and bedsheets when they were naked. But their efforts are often met with threats or unfair discipline. For example, plaintiff Stashia Collins says that, when she tried putting up a sheet so she could use the toilet privately, the guards ripped down the sheet and reprimanded her.

One former prisoner, Michelle Semelbauer, who was jailed for not paying a fine for driving with suspended license, contends that she was incarcerated illegally in the jail. After she paid her fine, Semelbauer remained locked in the county jail for an additional 28 days.

Additionally, the inmates contend that they were denied adequate time for exercise outside of their cells and that jail guards often targeted them with verbal abuse, including sexist and racist slurs.

A new county jail is slated to open in the summer of 2015. According to the lawsuit, the future completion of a new facility does not change the fact that inmates housed in the current jail endure wretched conditions.

“Even though we hope that the planned construction of a new facility will eliminate the numerous health risks that inmates at the jail currently face, it will take more than a new building to do away with practices that assault these women’s dignity, violate their right to privacy and endanger their health and hygiene,” said Aukerman. “The opening of a new jail presents a critically important opportunity not only to ensure the new jail is designed to protect women’s privacy, but also to change the unconstitutional policies at the jail.”

The lawsuit maintains that conditions at the jail violate the inmates’ constitutional rights to bodily integrity, to due process, and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

“In America, we hold that people can serve time in jail without being denied their fundamental Constitutional rights or the most basic forms of respect,” said Kevin Carlson, a lawyer with the firm of Pitt McGehee Palmer Rivers & Golden PC and lead attorney on the case. “We should be able to punish people justly without depriving them of their dignity.”

In addition to Aukerman and Carlson, the plaintiffs are represented by Dan Korobkin and Marc Allen of the ACLU of Michigan and ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney Beth Rivers, with the law firm of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC.

Read more about our clients at the case page

Read the legal complaint 

Read the motion for a preliminary injunction

Read the brief in support of a preliminary injunction