Federal lawsuit alleges 'filth,' mold at Michigan's women's prison

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Three women prisoners have filed a civil rights class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, its director and other prison officials, alleging that the Women's Huron Valley prison in Ypsilanti "is operating under a state of degradation, filth, and inhumanity, endangering the health and safety of incarcerated women ... ."

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleges that "the women incarcerated in (the prison) suffer ongoing exposure to harmful varieties of mold...caused by (its) unclear, dilapidated conditions and lack of ventilation."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of plaintiff-inmates Paula Bailey, Krystal Clark and Hope Zentz.

Director Heidi Washington, Huron Valley warden Shawn Brewer and 10 other department of corrections staffers were also named in the lawsuit. The suit seeks "monetary damages and injunctive and declaratory relief."

Hope Zentz

Zentz is one of four inmates at Women's Huron Valley in the first group to receive their braille certifications from the Library of Congress as part of her work with the Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund. 

More:Women prisoners earn braille certifications, look to future

More:Michigan Corrections addresses 'crisis' in employee mental health

Zentz said in a Detroit News story about her work that, after entering prison in 2009 and getting sober, it was time to "pay it forward and make up for some of the wrongs that I’ve done."

'Breeding grounds for mold'

"The prison and its bunkrooms lack proper ventilation," the suit alleges, adding that "conditions have been filthy and dangerous, providing a breeding ground for microscopic fungi and spore-producing mold.

The Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents more than 6,000 corrections officers at the department, including 353 at Women's Huron Valley, said Thursday that there are no "active or inactive" complaints from staff regarding mold at the women's prison.

In a statement, the Michigan Department of Corrections said that it does not comment on pending litigation, but offered a defense of facility staff.

"The staff at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility work hard every day to better the lives of the women there and take seriously that responsibility and duty," the department's statement read. "From the officers, to the maintenance staff, to the warden, everyone understands their critical role in not only public safety, but in the health and safety of the prisoners and staff inside the facility. We disagree with the claims in the lawsuit, but we do not comment on pending litigation."

"Storage closets without windows or ventilation are now being used as group rooms," the suit further alleges. "These...facilities have become ideal breeding grounds for mold."

Another claim: After a 2016 flood in the facility's fieldhouse, inmates were made to clean it "without proper protective gear." 

"In some instances the mold has 'eaten' through bricks and door frames," the suit reads. 

Complaints date back to 2013 "about the presence of visible mold in shower units, in sinks, around toilets in cells, near the windows, around door casings, in the hallways, and in the air vents." 

Despite inmates being "explicitly told" by medical professionals that various illnesses were due to "mold exposure," repairs did not follow, the suit alleges. 

The suit claims that "MDOC personnel and contractors are actively prohibited [by the department] from talking about the mold problem."

Inmate health issues 

Each of the three inmates claim to have seen mold in living quarters and to have suffered health issues as a result.

Paula Bailey

Plaintiff Paula Bailey, housed in unit Filmore-B, alleges she first noticed mold in 2016, in unit Gladwin-B, and to have also seen it in unit Dickinson-B.

"Eventually," the suit reads, "black and brown mold formed in Gladwin-B, dropping from the ceiling in the shower onto [her] face and body. She developed a rash that left visible scars on her face, chest and legs."

Conditions were similar in Dickinson-B, but after a transfer to Filmore-B, "[she] began experiencing even more severe symptoms, such as wheezing, chest pain, and coughing due to mold," which the suit says is still "visibily present" in her housing unit.

"Her symptoms subside only when she leaves the Filmore-B facility," the suit says.

Plaintiff Krystal Clark claims to have seen mold in three housing units, and that she has "significant respiratory problems and other mold-related symptoms" as a result. The headaches she had before prison are "exponentially" worse now, the suit claims. 

Krystal Clark

Plaintiff Hope Zentz, housed in unit 2, claims "mold is present on the windows, showers, heat registers and vents," that "patchy black mold drips from the ceiling into the shower onto [her] face and body," and that rashes followed.

Her "chronic headaches and dizziness....subsided only when she left the facility for fresh air," the suit claims. 

Zentz claims that despite "repeated complaints," including to Warden Brewer, "effective steps were not taken to eradicate the mold...or to keep it from returning."

The plaintiffs have requested a jury trial.

In a statement, Jonathan Marko, one of five attorneys for the plaintiffs, said "No government in a civilized society should treat their people this way, not even prisoners. These women are essentially trapped in poisonous cages.  If the authorities came to your house and saw your pet being treated like these women are being treated, they would haul you off to jail."

Representing the inmates in the suit were Marko, of Marko Law; Nichols Kaster of Minneapolis; Pitt McGehee Palmer and Rivers PC of Royal Oak; David Steingold of Detroit, and Excoco Law of Southfield. 

One in four state of Michigan employees works for the department of corrections, which oversees some 38,000-plus prisoners at about 30 facilities.