- Michigan lawmakers approved $7.1 million in funding for staff to wear body cameras in prisons
- Department: Most correctional officers, kitchen staff, prison bus drivers will wear them
- Criminal justice advocates celebrate the funding, call it “first step” to prison reform
LANSING — Jonathan Lancaster had big plans for his release from prison: Get remarried, meet his grandchild for the first time and move to Florida, his sister Danielle Dunn recalled.
“He was very much looking forward to coming home,” Dunn, 47, told Bridge Michigan.
But Lancaster never did.
In 2019, the 38-year-old inmate died of dehydration at the Alger Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula. According to a lawsuit his sister filed in November, staff repeatedly denied Lancaster medical care when his mental health deteriorated in solitary confinement. The staff pepper-spraying him, strapped him to a restraint chair and left him to die, the suit said.
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On June 20, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged eight staff at the Alger Correctional Facility with involuntary manslaughter or misconduct in Lancaster’s death, calling it “a preventable tragedy.”
Although there were fixed point cameras inside the facility, none of the staff members were required to wear body cameras when interacting with Lancaster. Only parts of his treatment were captured as a result, Dunn said.
That will soon change.
Most correctional officers in state prisons will begin wearing body cameras inside facilities after state lawmakers last month approved $7.1 million in the state budget to fund the effort, Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesperson Kyle Kaminski told Bridge Michigan.
The funding comes after criminal justice advocates had pushed for broader prison reform for years. Lois Pullano, executive director at the Lansing-based Citizens for Prison Reform, recommended mandatory body cameras for all prison staff to MDOC in 2021, according to a list of policy recommendations the group sent to the department director Heidi Washington.
“It speaks to the truth of what is going on inside,” Pullano told Bridge in an interview.
It is unclear how many allegations of abuse or neglect are lodged against Michigan correctional officers or staff in a given year, or how many inmates are alleged to havedied due to abuse and neglect.
At least 19 inmates have died in solitary confinement since 2002, according to a tally by Citizens for Prison Reform. At least five of them, including Lancaster, died due to starvation or dehydration, the group claimed.
There have been multiple high-profile lawsuits inmates or their families have filed against prison officers over the years, including the one Dunn filed for Lancaster.
A 2013 class-action lawsuit accused state prison staff of allowing — and even participating in — the sexual abuse of more than 1,300 young male inmates. MDOC in 2020 agreed to pay out $80 million over three years to settle the case and implement policies to prevent similar abuses in the future. A class-action involving more than 500 women inmates who said they were sexually abused by staff at several Michigan prisons in the 1990s yielded an estimated $50 million in verdicts against MDOC.
While fewstates have adopted wide-scale body camera wearing in prisons, some states witnessed a reduction in prison violence after such policiestook effect. For example, the Florida Department of Corrections reported a 70-percent reduction in allegations of excessive force, a 51-percent drop in “reactionary use of force” incidents and 42-percent decrease in staff assaults after establishing a pilot body camera program in 2019.
Michigan developing prison body camera policy
The $7.1 million approved by Michigan lawmakers includes $3.3 million in one-time funds, which will be used mostly to purchase body cameras and other equipment, said Kaminski, the prison spokesperson. Another $3.8 million in annual expenses will support a new, 8-person Body Worn Camera Unit which is responsible for maintaining and storing the video footage and cover other costs associated with the program, he said.
The department hopes to place an initial order of body cameras in early fiscal 2024, which starts Oct. 1, Kaminski told Bridge.
The funding was recommended by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer but was not included in the initial House or Senate budget, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency. It was added back after a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers met to hammer out the final budget.
Sen. Sue Shink, a Northfield Township Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections and Judiciary, told Bridge on Friday the problem was not whether, but how best, to fund the body cameras, stressing the Legislature was always going to allocate money for the project.
“The ability to see what happens when things happen is important,” she said.
The funding was listed as a department priority in the department’s budget request this year, Kaminski said.
“This technology increases safety by acting as a deterrent to violence and other negative behavior, while capturing usable evidence for misconducts or prosecution when these acts still occur,” he said in a Thursday email.
“The technology can also increase accountability by capturing a video and audio record of interactions from the wearer’s perspective, which our current stationary cameras cannot do.”
Most correctional officers, supervisory custody staff, as well as those staffing the kitchen and transporting inmates or parolees will wear a body camera, Kaminski said.
Body cameras are expected to be recording “throughout the wearer’s day” with “limited exceptions,” such as when prison staff need to use the restroom, he said. The department will retain “relevant video related to qualifying events,” he said.
Kaminski said Michigan’s program will be modeled after Ohio’s prison body camera system.
In Ohio, the state government bought 5,100 body cameras forstaff across 28 state prisons. Those cameras are automatically activated when guards pull out a gun or pepper spray, and control centers in certain prisons can remotely turn on the cameras. The cameras can only retain 18 hours of footage at any given time, but staff can store the video if there is an incident happening, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
The Ohio program came after the death of Michael McDaniel, who died in 2021 after correctional officers tackled him multiple times while he was still handcuffed. Surveillance cameras recorded much of the violence but failed to capture key moments during the incident.
Efforts to push for change
In the week after Nessel announced the charges in Lancaster’s death, Pullanoof the reform group, Dunn and other family members of inmates held in solitary confinement rallied at the Capitol to honor Lancaster, urging lawmakers to implement body cameras and require data reporting on solitary confinement.
Reformadvocates placed Black body bags and headstones with inmate names outside legislative buildings and the state Capitol.
“I think our legislators need a wake-up call and need to know just how serious this situation is,” she said.
“It just seems like it’s never quite enough to get their attention. It’s never quite enough. We felt like this was a last-chance opportunity to really get this into the budget and we were willing to do what we had to do to make it happen.”
Pullano said she is “grateful” for the funding for body cameras, but the policy change is merely the “first step.”
To improve transparency, she said Michigan State Police, not MDOC, should oversee the storage of body camera footage and data maintenance. In addition to body cameras, Pullano said she also hopes the state will find a “humane” alternative to solitary confinement, which she said can lead to deteriorated mental health and harm inmates as well as their families.