LANSING — It's not just female corrections officers who are being discriminated against at Michigan's only women's prison, according to those pressing a class action on behalf of male corrections officers at Women's Huron Valley prison.
On June 13, the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, alleging the department discriminates against female corrections officers at the prison near Ypsilanti by designating too many positions as "women only." As a result, officials "required female employees at Huron Valley to work excessive overtime hours at a cost to their health," the suit alleges.
There's a flip side to that claim, said Tom Nowacki, a corrections officer at Women's Huron Valley since 2004 and the lead plaintiff in a class action by about 90 current and former male corrections officers at the facility: men have been unfairly excluded from certain jobs and denied overtime opportunities.
"The women are forced to work mandatory overtime while the men are sent home, simply because of our gender," Nowacki told the Free Press on Friday.
James Fett, a Pinckney attorney representing Nowacki and the other plaintiffs, said the Justice Department's action last week strengthens his case, which was filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court in 2011 and also is being litigated in the Michigan Court of Claims and the Michigan Court of Appeals.
"The state is now looking down a double-barreled shotgun, instead of just a single-barreled shotgun," Fett said Friday. "Both the DOJ and my legal team are singing from the same song book."
Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, which is representing the Corrections Department in the case, declined to comment. And Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, declined to comment.
The department banned male corrections officers from working most jobs at Women's Huron Valley in response to multimillion-dollar 2008 jury awards related to sexual abuse of female inmates by male corrections officers at other women's prisons in Michigan, which are no longer open.
Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility houses about 2,200 inmates. The prison also has been in the news due to complaints from inmates about overcrowding.
"Male correctional staff do not want to work in the residential units," but they've been unfairly excluded from jobs in the gym, food services, schools, and gate control, among others, Nowacki said.
Though Nowacki and the other lawsuit members played no part in the abuses that led to the successful lawsuits by female inmates, "the administration has been treating us like we're a bunch of convicted sex offenders," Nowacki said.
In March, the department moved to soften its "women's only" policy, opening up to male corrections officers certain jobs in food services, the gym, the infirmary, the property room, schools and yard control, according to a letter sent to the Michigan Civil Service Commission.
But Fett said "there are far more changes that need to be made," and the March changes were only an unsuccessful "attempt to appease the DOJ, so they wouldn't file a suit."
The suit has already survived appeals of its certification as a class action, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals and which the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear.
The department transferred the non-monetary claims, such as requests for injunctions, to the Michigan Court of Claims. Fett said the plaintiffs have offered to withdraw those non-monetary claims so they can have a circuit court trial related to damages. But the department, through the Attorney General's Office, is fighting the plaintiffs' attempt to abandon those claims, in the Court of Appeals, saying the action could legally prejudice the department.
In an April court filing, Fett accused the state of "repeated delay tactics."
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.