LeDuff: Feds Probe Wayne County Jail, but Governor's Panel Unaware

February 03, 2020, 10:17 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

(Illustration: Depositphotos)

The much-awaited report from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's task force on jail and pretrial retention told us what we all pretty much knew.

Too many citizens molder in Michigan jails for dumb shit like traffic violations. And they sit too long. Too often, they have no money to bond out. And most disturbing, too many people with mental issues are behind bars when they should be in hospital wards or treatment facilities.

But what the panel did not seem to know is that the U.S. Department of Justice has an ongoing investigation into how the mentally ill are treated at Wayne County's jails, where there have been an alarming number of suicides and deaths over the past few years.

What we have are papier-mâché recommendations. What we need is corrective action. More on that in a moment.

The task force recommends doing away with cash bonds for low-level offenses, reducing some crimes to civil infractions and finding other places to deal with the mentally ill.

That's good. But that's all.

No plans to act

The task force offered no plans to apply those recommendations. Its findings are based on testimony and data, but too few boots on the ground.

It is unclear if anybody on the commission bothered to tour the Wayne County jail facilities in Detroit, the largest in the state. Members I spoke with said they had not. Whitmer's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist


Had more of the bipartisan commissioners, who included Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, bothered to dirty their loafers or heels, those members would have found abominable conditions at the Detroit jails -- including roaches, rats and mold, as reported by Deadline Detroit two weeks ago. None of that is mentioned in the report.

That should bother the ordinary citizen -- not only because it violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment, but also because that citizen is one traffic violation from being there. 

According to the report:

  • The most common charges were misdemeanor driving offenses, felony assault, and child support violations.

  • More than 10 percent of jail admissions were for probation violations with no new criminal charge filed. 

  • Felonies accounted for about half of the admissions and more than three-quarters of the jail population on any given day. 

  • Black people represented 39 percent of the county resident population, but 70 percent of those detained in the jail on any day.

What's worse, is the task force made no mention of the Justice Department's Americans With Disabilities Act investigation into the lack of mental health access in the Detroit jails. The feds inspected the jails just weeks ago, following a string of suicides, county and federal sources confirm. The county commission voted in 2016 to farm out medical services at the jail in a cost-cutting measure to an out of state for-profit company.

It is important to point out that Wayne County has been under a court-imposed consent decree to fix health problems at the jails for the better part of four decades.

No health inspection

In those four decades, no records exist of the jails ever having undergone a health inspection.

At some point, expect Lansing to take up legislation to curb the overcrowding. But what do we do in Detroit in the meantime? How many people die? How many get sick?

A $535-million jail and court complex is being constructed in Detroit, but the public and county commission has been told nothing about how the 2,200-bed facility will deal with the mentally ill.

That project is already at least $90 million over budget, with sewage and telecommunications infrastructure yet to be accounted for, county officials tell me. 

Whatever the cost, the facility is not scheduled to open for three years. What do we do in the meantime?

A report and recommendations are a good start. But if we can't find the guts and the brains to fix the damn roads, I get a sinking feeling we're not going to fix the damn jails, either.


LeDuff: Wayne County Jails -- Worse Than The Border?, Jan. 22

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