Are Michigan Prisons Above the Law?

Only six states have had more COVID cases in their prisons than Michigan. Why isn’t there more accountability?

By Joey Horan for Outlier Media

Ursula Bolton and her son, Jewaun McClaine, have been advocating for better treatment inside of Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only female prison, since before the pandemic. But they say things have gotten worse since the August publication of Outlier’s investigation on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 response, in which Bolton and McClaine were key sources.

Bolton, who is incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley (WHV), is still feeling the physical effects of COVID-19. She caught the virus in the prison in April and ended up on a ventilator for three weeks at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ypsilanti.

Now, it’s the social isolation and bureaucratic hurdles that are making life increasingly difficult for Bolton. Like all of the 35,000 people in the Michigan Department of Corrections prisons, she has not received a visit from the outside world since March 13.

In this heavily surveilled and controlled environment, Bolton works hard to hold MDOC accountable for their treatment of incarcerated people. McClaine does the same from the outside. But both say accountability is difficult to come by.

“I’ve been told my expectations are too high,” Bolton said. “I just want to be treated like a human being.”

“We’re all here to serve time. What I try to get people to understand is when they’re violating our rights, why shouldn’t they pay the penalty just like we are?”

Outlier published an investigation in late August that looked into MDOC’s response to COVID-19. My reporting found that the agency’s measures to stem the spread of the virus were often ineffective, punitive, and in some cases, created chaos and confusion.

Even now, MDOC only requires widespread testing of facility staff — the only way for the virus to enter prisons — when people inside an MDOC facility have already tested positive. For many inmates I spoke to, the medical isolation they were subjected to felt more like solitary confinement than quarantine. 

After the publication of the story, Bolton wanted to see her story in print and learn what was happening in other facilities. 

I attempted to send the article to Bolton and other sources at WHV through JPay, a prison electronic messaging service, and the mail. The MDOC, which controls communication into its facilities as a safety measure, rejected the article in both cases.  

The JPay was rejected, Bolton said, for being a “Danger to Emotional/Mental Health.”

The printed copy of the story was rejected by the WHV mailroom for being a “THREAT TO SECURITY,” according to the return notice I received postmarked September 11.

Jessica Shumate, who is also incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley and requested a copy of the story, said the rejections were ironic.

“The treatment that the staff gives to us and the way that they bend policy to their benefit isn’t [damaging to emotional and mental health] but a story about the lack of care and poor treatment are [sic].”

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, confirmed that Huron Valley officials felt the contents of the article “could threaten the order of the facility.”

“The safety and security of our facilities, and those who live and work there, is of critical importance and prisoners are prohibited from receiving mail that may pose a threat to that security, order, or discipline of the facility,” he said.

Gautz denies there is anything personal in their censorship. “The MDOC does not retaliate,” he said. 

But Bolton says she believes prison officials are retaliating against her for speaking to Outlier and for her frequent attempts to hold WHV officials accountable. 

“A lot of the attitude around here is that this is prison, nothing’s going to ever change, there’s nothing we can do, but it does matter to me how other women are being treated in here, and I feel like people need to know about it.”

Bolton has a range of complaints related to how she was treated during the COVID-19 outbreak at WHV. 

After coming off of the ventilator at St. Joseph’s, Bolton was transferred back to WHV and put into solitary confinement for medical observation for two weeks, even though she was in a state of delirium according to her and hospital records. 

The process for Bolton to address that treatment is through MDOC’s official grievance process, which Bolton has tried, only to have grievance after grievance rejected. The latest set of grievances related to her COVID-19 treatment were all rejected because they were filed too late after the problems they described.

“These happened when I was delirious or in the hospital. So there was no way that I could fill this stuff out,” she said. “The whole process is set up for us to fail.” 

As a result of filing three rejected grievances in a 30-day window, Bolton cannot file any grievances for three months without the sign off of a prison official.

For every step Bolton takes on the inside, her son, McClaine follows up on the outside. Still, he feels they have exhausted all the resources available to them.

Bolton and McClaine have filed complaints and sent letters to numerous outside agencies about her treatment, including to the Michigan Legislative Council Ombudsman, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the Board of Medical Ethics, and the governor’s office.

From the big issues to the small, McClaine encounters roadblocks. 

For months, he’s been trying to get his mother’s partial denture replaced, which was lost during her transfer to the hospital.

“I’ve contacted the prison, the MDOC, I think the governor’s office three times,” he said. “And she still hasn’t even received the form she needs to get that done. And, you know, that was lost in April.” 

McClaine has spoken to several lawyers about suing the state over his mother’s medical treatment. 

So far, the lawyers he has spoken to are hesitant to sue the state or the legal costs are too high, McClaine said.

“Right now, the only recourse we have is to really plead with the state for better treatment,” he said.

“Really, all that we can do at this time is to keep trying.”
This article was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.