State Amendment Stripping Prisoners of Civil Rights Unconstitutional

January 25, 2007

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan lauded a federal judge’s ruling striking down a 2000 amendment to the state civil rights law that stripped prisoners from protection against sex, race and religious discrimination. The ACLU of Michigan is now urging the state legislature to quickly take action to remedy years of discrimination and abuse in the state’s prison system.

“This is such an extraordinary victory for civil and human rights in Michigan,” said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “This decision affirms our position that this amendment was mean-spirited and unprecedented in its cruelty. It is now time for the state legislature to fix its past mistakes and ensure that abuse in our prison system does not go unchecked.”

Mason v. Granholm was filed in October of 2005 on behalf of women prisoners who were denied the protections of the state's civil rights act after being subject to sexual abuse by prison guards. The lawsuit challenged the 2000 amendment to the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which took away the right of prisoners to sue for abuse or discrimination based on her or his sex, religion, race, color and national origin. Michigan is the only state in the country that excludes inmates from such protections.

When it was passed, lawmakers said that the amendment would deter frivolous lawsuits; however, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara dismissed this assertion contending that “it appears that the state legislature has not attempted to deter frivolous lawsuits, but rather preclude meritorious ones.”

 “Viewing the statute in the context of this case, the ELCRA amendment essentially permits the state to discriminate against female prisoners without fear of accountability under Michigan’s civil rights law,” Judge O’Meara wrote in the 9 page opinion. “Given the state’s abhorrent and well-documented history of sexual and other abuse of female prisoners, the court finds this amendment particularly troubling.”

"Instead of addressing the degrading and intolerable abuse of women and girls held in Michigan's prisons, the department of corrections has focused their energies on denying facts and silencing women and their families” said Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney in the case. “We hope this insightful ruling will make clear that all Michigan citizens are entitled to protection from discrimination and mistreatment by the state."

Michigan correctional facilities have a long history of documented civil and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented pervasive civil rights violations in Michigan prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice in 1995 concluded that Michigan violates the constitutional rights of its female inmates and in 1997, the Justice Department sued Michigan over the problem. In 1998, the United Nations sought to examine Michigan’s female prisons, but former Michigan Governor John Engler refused to allow the investigator access to the prisons.

The lawsuit was argued by Deborah Labelle, Michael and Peggy Pitt, Cary Mcghee, Richard Soble, Ronald Reosti, Patricia Streeter and Molly Reno.

The ACLU of Michigan and the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief in 2006 saying that the amendment violates the prisoners’ equal protection rights under the law. ACLU Cooperating Attorney Bryan Anderson of the Dykema law firm authored the brief with ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

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