Jury Forces Saginaw County Jail to Pay $145,000 in Prison Abuse Case

March 12, 2008

A federal jury today found the Saginaw County Jail responsible for the egregious and unconstitutional treatment of detainees and awarded 4 plaintiffs $145,000 in damages. The lawsuit challenged policies that allowed prison personnel to strip detainees and place them naked in a cell referred to as "the hole." In 2005, the ACLU of Michigan joined the case, which was originally filed in 2001.

“The jury has sent a strong message to the prison system in Michigan – detainee abuse is illegal and it will not be tolerated,” said Michael L. Pitt, the lead attorney on the case. “Since 2001, our clients have traversed the legal system looking for answers and closure, today the jury has restored our clients’ faith in justice.”

The jury trial was held in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan with Judge David M. Lawson presiding. In January 2005, Judge Lawson found that the practice of holding detainees naked in segregation is unconstitutional, however, he did not decide on the issue of damages. In the weeks leading up to this trial, 37 other victims settled their lawsuit with the jail and 35 other victims are expected to settle during settlement conferences on April 21 and 23 before Judge Lawson.

“We applaud the jury for standing up for basic human rights in our prison system,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. “Hopefully, this decision will put an end to such practices where ever they may occur.”

In each instance, those arrested were misdemeanor, pre-trial detainees held for minor offenses. In addition in some cases, the prison policy required those who are perceived as uncooperative to be placed naked into an administrative segregation cell where they can be viewed by jail personnel and inmates of the opposite gender.

“I kept this story bottled up for a very long time because I was ashamed and afraid to come forward,” said Sue Letterman of Birch Run who was humiliated, put in an isolation cell, forced to remove her clothes and remain naked for several hours. “I just wanted justice for myself and for others who were treated this way. My only hope is that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Under the policy, if a detainee refused to surrender their clothes, force was used in the form of a "take down," which often included a physical blow to the body, the use of a chemical spray, and even removing the clothing with scissors. In addition, prison personnel of the opposite gender also took part in the disrobing, at times violently, and in the subsequent video monitoring and live cell checks.

Attorneys in the case include Michael L. Pitt and Peggy Pitt of Pitt McGehee Palmer Rivers & Golden; Christopher Pianto; Loyst Fletcher, Jr.; ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorney Stephen Wasinger; ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary L. Moss.

To read Judge Lawson's opinion in Rose v. Saginaw County Jail, go to: www.aclumich.org/pdf/roseopinion.pdf.

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