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U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, says he plans to seek U.S. Attorney General Janet Renos opinion regarding the constitutionality of recent state legislation that excludes prisoners from Michigans civil rights laws.
Beginning March 10, the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act will no longer apply to anyone detained in Michigans prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities.
In addition to wiping out any future prisoner civil rights claims under state law, the changes to Elliot-Larsen retroactively target a lawsuit brought against the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1996 by 32 female prisoners who allege widespread sexual abuse by prison guards. The U.S. Justice Department last year settled a similar federal suit against MDOC without bringing meaningful reforms, prisoner advocates say.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Michael Bishop, R-Rochester, was signed into law by Gov. John Engler in December.
"Although theres been federal intervention, weve got to go to the top," said Conyers, D-Detroit, in reaction to the curbing of prisoners rights. "Were bringing this to the attention of the Attorney General."
The state attorney generals office threw its support behind the legislation in a Dec. 8 letter to state Sens. John Cherry, Dan DeGrow and William Van Regenmorter. The letter asserts that prisoners civil rights are "fully addressed by existing federal legislation."
However, critics say recent changes to federal law, including the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, make it difficult for federal courts to enforce prisoners rights. Given the state and federal restrictions, Conyers asks: "What kind of meaningful civil rights remain for an inmate in this state?"
After hearing testimony against the new laws from the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics, the governor-appointed Michigan Civil Rights Commission announced last week plans to look into whether the body is still authorized to investigate civil rights violations in the states correctional facilities.
Meanwhile in Congress, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., has reintroduced legislation that would exclude state and county prisoners from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thurmond spokesman John DeCross says it is too expensive for state and local corrections departments to accommodate people with disabilities to the extent federal law requires. Similarly, the state attorney generals office praised Bishops legislation for "protecting taxpayers wallets."
"If this is the real logic behind the bill," says Elizabeth Bauer, executive director for the disability rights nonprofit Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, "whats to keep them from saying people in the states psychiatric hospitals, who are living off taxpayers dollars, arent protected that you can abuse and neglect them?"