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Letter to Attorney General Janet Reno

Dear Attorney General Reno:

I am writing to express Human Rights Watch's deep
concern about the gross inadequacy of the
settlement agreement recently negotiated between
the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC)
and the U.S. Department of Justice in the case
United States of America v. Michigan. The
Department of Justice filed suit against MDOC in
March 1997, alleging that inmates at the Crane and
Scott correctional facilities were subject to sexual
abuse and misconduct as well as unlawful invasions
of privacy.

As you may know, Human Rights Watch has done extensive work documenting human rights abuses and retaliation against women incarcerated in the Michigan prison system. In our reports, All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons and Nowhere To Hide: Retaliation against Women in Michigan State Prisons, we detailed the problems and recommended specific measures to remedy the situation, including a confidential means of reporting abuse and impartial investigation of such allegations, independent monitors, and ensuring that accused staff are not in a position to retaliate against complainants. Based on our research and experience with MDOC's past handling of such matters, we are troubled that the settlement does not correct the most serious barriers to ensuring that women's rights are respected and that women who report abuse do so without fear of retaliation.

We recently met with Department of Justice officials to express our concerns regarding this settlement as well as to address the broader question of the Department of Justice's role in promoting and protecting the human rights of women incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons. While we appreciate the opportunity we had at the meeting to express our concerns, we want to reiterate our strong objections to the content of this agreement and urge you to withdraw the Justice Department's motion for conditional dismissal of the suit, reinstate the complaint, and press MDOC for more substantial reforms..

First, the settlement agreement fails to establish an independent oversight mechanism to monitor the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of abuses against women in the Michigan prisons. The predominantly male corrections staff in the Michigan prisons exercises near total control over the lives of the women inmates. Our research shows that women do not a have a safe and secure means of reporting abuse nor do they have confidence that the reports will be adequately investigated. Women's reports of abuse have been dismissed without serious investigation, and inmates who report abuse have been retaliated against by staff who suffer no consequences for their actions. The Michigan Department of Corrections' repeated refusal to allow independent monitoring raises serious questions about its commitment to conducting thorough investigations into allegations of abuse by corrections staff. The risk of abuse is too great and the ability of the women to stop the abuse is far too! limited to allow the corrections department to monitor itself. In both All Too Familiar and Nowhere To Hide, Human Rights Watch called for independent oversight of prisons as a check against abuse and to ensure that departments of corrections do not hide, rather than solve, abusive situations.

Second, the settlement agreement compounds the women's vulnerability to abuse by permitting the Corrections Department to issue major misconduct tickets to women whose claims of abuse are deemed "unfounded." The Michigan Department of Corrections has used "unfounded" and "unsubstantiated" interchangeably when discussing women's reports of abuse. The agreement leaves open the possibility that MDOC will punish inmates who file a claim that cannot be substantiated, however well-founded it may be. Such an agreement will have a chilling impact on the women, who will face serious consequences for filing reports of abuse, which, though factually true, may be deemed "unfounded" by the Corrections Department. Investigators for the Department of Justice found that virtually every woman they interviewed at Michigan's Scott Correctional Facility feared retaliation by the corrections staff if they reported abuse. Human Rights Watch has urged that disciplinary action be taken only when M! DOC determines that a woman filed a false report with malicious intent.

Third, the agreement creates the position of a Special Administrator, who will report to MDOC's director, responsible for addressing issues concerning women inmates, yet fails to specify how women will be able to communicate with the Special Administrator with full guarantees that their communication will be kept confidential. The women we have talked with have complained repeatedly that their calls, including calls to attorneys, are monitored and their mail, including their legal mail, is opened. Given the many documented cases of retaliation against women who have reported sexual abuse and the pervasive fear of retaliation expressed by all the women, it is imperative that the settlement agreement provide women with a safe and secure means of reporting sexual abuse and other violations both to the Special Administrator and, if this complaint goes unanswered, to an independent oversight agency.

Fourth, the settlement agreement calls for the adoption of a "knock and announce" policy, requiring male officers to announce their presence in any areas where women could be in a state of undress. This policy is wholly inadequate in addressing the privacy violations found by both Department of Justice investigators and by Human Rights Watch as it does not prevent male guards from knocking, announcing, and barging in without waiting. Women consistently reported male guards viewing them as they change clothes in their cells, shower, and toilet. Human Rights Watch has proposed that, recognizing a basic right to privacy, male guards should be restricted from showers, toilets, and housing units during specified periods when female inmates are dressing and undressing.

Fifth, the settlement agreement imposes a dress code on the women inmates. The imposition of a dress code sends the wrong message to the corrections staff. It effectively shifts the blame for sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and invasions of privacy from the offending corrections staff to the women. The women's rights movement has worked for decades to dispel the myth that women "provoke" attacks or "ask for it" by dressing in ways which are perceived as "immodest." By imposing a dress code on the women, the settlement not only places the blame squarely on the women, but it gives the corrections officers another means to punish and harass the women.

Finally, the settlement agreement calls for an expert to tour the facilities three and six months after the execution of the agreement, after which time the complaint will either be dismissed or reinstated. Such limited access by the expert over such a short period of time will not allow for the expert to determine if the Michigan Department of Corrections has changed the current, abusive situation. This six month monitoring period is particularly disturbing in light of the provision for a six-month moratorium on cross-gender pat-down searches. If cross-gender pat-down searches resume after six months, there will be no means to check if they are being done in an abusive manner, as was alleged by a significant number of women inmates. Human Rights Watch recommends that compliance monitoring be in place for at least two years, include unlimited unannounced site visits by the expert, and allow for reinstatement of the complaint if the expert finds at any point that compliance! is substantially lacking.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the U.S. Department of Justice to take the measures necessary to promote and protect the human rights of women incarcerated in the United States in keeping with domestic and international standards. Yet our attempts to draft national legislation that would provide some basic protections for incarcerated women have met with strong resistance from the Department of Justice. This resistance coupled with the profoundly flawed Michigan settlement agreement raise serious questions about this administration's commitment to women's human rights and to ending impunity for violence against women. We urge you to ensure that the Department of Justice defends the rights of women in prison by pushing for reforms from the Michigan Department of Corrections that are better designed to root out sexual abuse and misconduct and MDOC's tolerance thereof and by supporting legislative efforts to protect the rights of women in prison.

Thank you for your attention to these issues. If you have any questions regarding our concerns, please feel free to contact us.


Regan Ralph
Executive Director
Women's Rights Division

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