Millions at stake in trial over job policy at Washtenaw County women’s prison

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Trial began Monday in a long-running lawsuit that accuses the Michigan prison system of illegally discriminating against male officers at the state’s only prison for women.

Millions of dollars in overtime and other compensation are at stake in the class-action case in Washtenaw County.

Tom Nowacki sued in 2011, claiming he was illegally denied certain jobs at the Huron Valley prison in response to sexual assaults by others many years earlier.

The assignments were not in the prison's housing units but in food service, the yard, school, infirmary, gym and other areas, according to a lawsuit filed by attorney James Fett.

The state has defended the employment policy.

“The outrage class members feel is palpable. MDOC stereotyped every one of them as sexual predators," Fett and co-counsel Glen Lenhoff said in a court filing, referring to the Corrections Department.

“This stereotyping came across loud and clear in MDOC’s statements to the media, statements to academy classes, statements to union officials and undoubtedly in many other ways,” the attorneys said.

In a separate but related matter, the Corrections Department in 2018 agreed to pay about $750,000 to hundreds of female prison officers who said they were forced to work excessive overtime and denied transfers at Huron Valley because of the state’s desire to keep women staff there. The U.S. Justice Department had filed a lawsuit.