The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today against Isabella County Correctional Facility challenging the discriminatory treatment of women inmates, who, unlike male prisoners, are denied access to community service opportunities and trustee positions. In addition, the ACLU is challenging the unconstitutional practice of keeping all inmates locked in cramped cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with limited exceptions.

“Isabella County can maintain public safety while also affirming its commitment to human dignity,” said Sarah Mehta, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “There is no justification for keeping all inmates in crowded cells for 24 hours a day. This practice is counterproductive, unconstitutional and compounded by the fact that women are shut out of programs that can reduce their sentence and allow them time away from their cell.”

The facility, located in Mount Pleasant, Mich., houses about 200 pre-trial detainees and sentenced inmates from not only Isabella County, but also cities such as Livonia, Midland and Westland. Inmates are not permitted any out-of-cell exercise for the duration of their detention, which could exceed one year. Not only are inmates denied the opportunity to exercise outside of their cells, they are rarely able to leave their cells at all. Inmates eat, sleep, and shower in their cells, essentially putting them on lockdown 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Courts have repeatedly ruled that exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well-being of prisoners and denying prisoners an opportunity to exercise constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,” said Mehta. “People who are behind bars may have made mistakes, but they are still entitled to certain basic human rights.”

Each cell is approximately 20 feet by 25 feet and, while most cells have four bunk beds for eight inmates, the cells are routinely overcrowded with as many as 13 inmates confined to a single cell. Inmates only have limited opportunities to leave their cells—for example, medical appointments or the occasional religious services.

A limited number of inmates are given the opportunity to serve as trustees, which allows them time out of their cell to perform prison jobs. Women have been repeatedly told that they will never be allowed to serve as trustees because “this is a man’s jail.” Serving in a trustee position shortens an inmate’s sentence. Additionally, while male inmates are permitted to perform community service during their time in jail, women have not been allowed to enroll.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of current and former inmates and asks the court to declare that the lack of any out-of-cell exercise is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and that excluding women from trustee positions and the community service program violates their rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, seeks class action status on behalf of all inmates who are or will be confined to their cell without opportunities for exercise throughout their detention.

In addition to Mehta, the plaintiffs are represented by Daniel E. Manville, Director of the Michigan State University College of Law Civil Rights Clinic and Michael J. Steinberg and Kary L. Moss of the ACLU of Michigan.

Read the complaint in this case