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State wins trial over bias claims at women’s prison

Michigan Department of Corrections seal
Michigan Department of Corrections

Male officers sued in 2011, claiming to be victims of discrimination.

A jury has ruled in favor of the state Corrections Department in a trial about work opportunities for male officers at Michigan’s only prison for women.

The men sued in 2011, claiming to be victims of discrimination. They said they were denied certain jobs at the Huron Valley prison in response to sexual assaults by others many years earlier.

The officers were seeking millions of dollars in overtime and other lost compensation. But the trial ended Friday in Washtenaw County with a verdict for the Corrections Department.

“I’m floored,” James Fett, an attorney for the men, said of the verdict.

The assignments sought by male officers at the time were not in the prison’s housing units but in food service, the yard, school, infirmary, gym and other areas, according to the lawsuit.

“This was the department slapping back at men for bad behavior in the 1990s,” Fett said. “These were not jobs where there was a danger of females getting molested. They’ve got cameras all over the place.”

He said an appeal would be considered.

“We have policies in place to keep prisoners and staff safe and we are so grateful this jury understood that, and that the actions we took were reasonable and justified,” said Heidi Washington, head of the prison system.

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.