Lawmakers want info about troubling Washtenaw County prison conditions

Generic photo of a prison officer removing handcuffs from a prisoner. (Pexels)

PITTSFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. – Two lawmakers from different parties are demanding answers from the state Corrections Department about conditions at prisons.

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said his office has been told that staff shortages at the women’s prison in Washtenaw County have led to “forced overtime, mandatory 24-hour shifts and individual officers being left alone.”

Irwin asked the chairman of the Senate Oversight Committee to hold a hearing about the Huron Valley prison.

“These staff shortages are making life immeasurably worse for inmates, and it’s curbing their access to programs that will help them reenter society successfully,” Irwin said Wednesday.

In response, Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz said a “handful” of officers at Huron Valley worked shifts that lasted more than 16 hours over the New Year’s Day weekend but not more than 20 hours.

Vacancies, staff with COVID-19 and other absences created a “perfect storm,” Gautz said.

“We’re not downplaying it,” he said. “We definitely have staffing issues, but we took actions necessary to make sure everyone was safe. ... The warden was there all weekend.”

Gautz said there were no assaults.

On Dec. 29, Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican from the Upper Peninsula who chairs the committee, said he would hold hearings about prison conditions. He sent a letter to the department seeking information about assaults on staff and prison staff recruitment, among other issues.

“The department must propose bold actions and plans or provide real feedback to legislative attempts to rectify the situation in order to prevent future serious incidents,” McBroom said.