For years, the Huron Valley Women’s Prison in Ypsilanti, Michigan, carried a reputation for traumatizing inmates by subjecting them to abuse and deplorable conditions. Advocates say little has changed.
Huron Valley, Michigan’s only prison for women, is just one of many prisons across the United States in which Black women suffer abuse and live in poorly ventilated, moldy and overcrowded cells, argue prisoners’ rights activists and family members of those incarcerated.
On September 25, protesters gathered for a second time this year outside Huron Valley Women’s Prison. Theresa Dunlap, who has been incarcerated for 46 years, was the focus of the most recent rally. (See The Final Call, Vol. 41 No. 17)
Lionel Muhammad attended the rally on behalf of his organization, Transforming Re-entry Services. He told The Final Call, “These things that are happening to our women, we have to stand up and then be willing to sacrifice. As long as you’re standing on truth and what’s right, you don’t have to worry about the consequences.” Mr. Muhammad is also an aide to Nation of Islam Student National Prison Reform Minister Abdullah Muhammad.
Machelle Pearson, who was incarcerated for 34 years, also attended the rally on behalf of Ms. Dunlap. “Due to the mold that’s in there, she ended up with lung cancer,” Ms. Pearson said of Ms. Dunlap. “There’s mold that drips off the ceiling. You have to wear water shoes in the shower; we had to stand in a chair because sewer water would come up in the shower floor.
She’s laying on her deathbed, they had to fight to get her son in there. We’re trying to get her home and allow her to pass away at home,” she said. Advocates for Ms. Dunlap demand she be given a compassionate release due to the conditions of the prison and her health.
There are other disturbing accounts about the prison. According to news reports, on September 22, Shikisha Tidmore, 30, was found by a prison officer hanging in her cell in an apparent suicide. She died after being taken to a local hospital with her family by her side. According to prison staff, Ms. Tidmore was in temporary segregation for allegedly participating in a prison assault and had spoken with mental health staff the day she died. The Michigan State Police is investigating, and the corrections department is conducting an internal investigation, reported media outlets.
“This young lady was in isolation which should be illegal,” Shawanna Vaughn of Silent Cry Inc. told The Final Call. She also attended the rally for Ms. Dunlap.
“Ms. Tidmore’s life was valuable, and this is a loss for all of us. Suicide inside Huron Valley Prison for Women must be addressed by the attorney general. The prison population of Michigan are used as political pawns during an election season. They are not pieces on a chess board, but this is human life, and the stakes are much higher.”
Silent Cry Inc. is a New York-based non-profit organization that takes a holistic approach to aftercare from mass incarceration, gun violence and trauma. Ms. Vaughn, who was formerly incarcerated at Huron Valley, believes that department of corrections across the United States will not protect inmates, especially women who are incarcerated.
She also called for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to fire the head of Huron Valley Women’s Prison, Heidi E. Washington. The Final Call contacted Gov. Whitmer’s office and Ms. Washington’s office for comments but did not receive a response.
Another woman by the name of Natasha Roark, 39, was found hanging in a prison shower at the same prison last year. While officials say it was a suicide, her mother told local news she cannot believe her daughter took her own life, especially if she was due to be released in January 2022.
“We want the governor to start considering the women. She needs to step up,” Ms. Pearson said.
—Tariqah Muhammad, Staff Writer (Final Call Staff contributed to this report.)