Chippewa prison unit 'not livable' after inmate fight, takeover

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

A fight between three inmates at Chippewa Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula preceded an inmate takeover of a housing unit until the Michigan Department of Corrections, aided by Michigan State Police and U.S. Customs, regained control early Monday morning, authorities said. 

The fight took place about 10:25 p.m. Sunday. It involved three people living in a Level 2 housing unit on the east side of the facility, said corrections spokesman Chris Gautz. Just under 240 people call that housing unit home.

Michigan prisons have five security levels ranging from Level 1, the lowest security risk, to Level 5, maximum security. Chippewa houses level 1, 2 and 4 inmates.

Corrections officers responded to the fight and used a Taser on one of its participants.

That man "briefly passed out" and was taken to the hospital, said the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing the state's roughly 6,000 corrections officers. He was soon medically cleared and is back in the state's custody.

In a very short time, Gautz said, a "routine" fight devolved into "something potentially very tense and dangerous." 

After that ambulance left, people living in the unit "left their cells and approached the officer station."

The "half-dozen" or so officers left the station and the "75 to 100" inmates outside of their cells took control of the unit.

Before the officers left, one of them hit a button that locked all cells and day rooms that had their doors closed. This locked some people down, but locked the remainder in the common areas and the officers' work areas, where, Gautz said, "they made a mess of things."

Security cameras caught the early portion of the action, but inmates disabled them as the hours wore on.

Byron Osborn, president of the corrections union, said in a statement that "the large number of prisoners then proceeded to completely destroy the inside of the housing unit, breaking all of the doors, windows, control panels, cameras, fixtures, computers ... and also flooding parts of the unit."

Desks were overturned. Some files containing private inmate information were destroyed, but those are backed up, Gautz said. A kiosk people can use to answer email via JPay was ripped from its wall. 

The MDOC is preparing a cost estimate on the damages, Gautz said. For now, the unit is considered "not livable," he said.

Osborn called it "unserviceable."

 "The rioters are being transferred to maximum security facilities, and the non-rioters are being dispersed to other facilities," he said.

About 4 a.m., Chippewa staff and the department's Emergency Response Team, which is deployed to break up disturbances, entered the unit. All inmates were placed back in their cells before they were taken to another facility.

Additional staff was brought to Chippewa on Monday, and "as needed," to relieve staffers overworked by the all-hands-on-deck situation, Gautz said.

U.S. Customs and Michigan State Police assisted in securing the facility.  

Kris Grogan, a spokesman for U.S. Customs, said Border Patrol agents provided perimeter security. 

"They were never in the building," Grogan said Monday.

State police deferred comment to the corrections department. Gautz said troopers monitored events from the control center, "allowing us to focus our efforts internally."

According to the MDOC's 2018 statistical report, Chippewa has a capacity of 2,366 inmates, and has about 480 employees, 305 of which are corrections officers. Of the 81,198 misconduct violations by Michigan prisoners in 29 facilities in 2018, roughly 11% of them took place at Chippewa. That is by far the highest.

As of July 2020, Chippewa Valley had among the lowest ratios of corrections officers to inmates, 1 to 9.2. Only one facility, Muskegon at 1 to 9.6, had a lower ratio, according to the corrections department's monthly reports to the Legislature.

"In a matter of seconds, a facility can be lost," Osborn said.

The inmate takeover of the housing unit comes at a challenging time for corrections officers in Michigan.

It was a year ago that the Michigan Department of Corrections admitted to a mental health "crisis" among its employees, one that too-often manifested in suicide.

2019:Michigan Corrections addresses 'crisis' in employee mental health

Since then, it has put together a Wellness Unit to reach out to employees facing stressful circumstances or individual crisis.

The ever-present safety concerns corrections officers face contribute to their "hypervigilance" outside corrections settings. The nature of the work and the often-mandatory overtime shifts make for a stressful life, corrections officers have told The News. The difficulty of the job makes recruiting hard. 

Earlier this month, Cpl. Bryant Searcy, a deputy sheriff in Wayne County, was killed as he made the evening rounds at the Wayne County Jail, checking a unit of single cells.

This month:Details emerge of how sheriff's deputy was fatally attacked in Detroit

Authorities allege that a 28-year-old inmate, Deandre Williams, jimmied the lock of the door to his cell, grabbed the keys from Searcy and attacked him, choking and beating the veteran, 50-year-old officer.  

Williams has been transferred to Oakland County Jail as his case proceeds.