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Female inmates at Muskegon County Jail bring class-action suit over “deplorable” conditions

Dec 5, 2014

Protesters marched outside the Muskegon County Jail in 2009 over its "postcard only" rule.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The American Civil Liberties Union is bringing a class-action lawsuit against Muskegon County on behalf of current and former female inmates at the jail.

ACLU attorney Miriam Auckerman alleges women at the jail are forced to shower and use the toilet in front of male guards. 

She says they are not provided basic feminine hygiene products in a timely manner, if at all, and are not allowed time to exercise.

“No woman should be forced to shower or use the toilet in front of men. No woman should be forced to bleed into her clothes because she’s denied sanitary pads. It’s humiliating. It’s degrading. We can punish people justly without depriving them of their basic human dignity,” Auckerman said.

Auckerman says the ACLU filed the case after trying unsuccessfully to work with the county for nearly two years. She says inmates have tried to file grievances within the jail, but have not found relief.

Michigan Radio has attempted to get a response from county officials. The suit was filed late Thursday in federal court in Grand Rapids.

The case outlines the experience of eight women the ACLU says have experiences that are representative of those all women at the jail face. The suit alleges the inmates face cruel and unusual punishment.

Auckerman notes many of the women in the jail haven’t been convicted of a crime, but are there while they wait for their case to work through the courts.

One of the plaintiffs, Michelle Semelbauer, was sent to jail because she didn’t pay a fine for driving on a suspended license. Semelbauer says she paid the $799 in fees, but claims she was held an additional 28 days, despite bringing it up to jail officials.

The suit also alleges the facility is infested, moldy, and overcrowded. The county is in the middle of building a new jail. But Auckerman says having a new building alone won’t resolve some of the policy-related complaints her clients allege in the case.