LANSING – The union representing Michigan prison officers called Thursday for the removal of Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington, saying it has lost confidence in her leadership over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Michigan Corrections Organization will be submitting a vote of no confidence to the Michigan Legislature and governor’s office regarding your continued appointment as Director,” union President Byron Osborn said in a letter sent to Washington and shared with the Free Press.
“We believe that we have done our part in trying to work with you on issues and offer solutions. Unfortunately, we are at a point where the current work conditions are unacceptable for our members.”
Osborn told the Free Press the executive board of the 6,000-member union is submitting its vote of no confidence in Washington to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and each member of the Legislature.
“We need a change in leadership,” he said.
Washington, who was appointed director in July 2015, is a rare holdover in the Democratic Whitmer administration from the former administration of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Whitmer, who has called Washington a national leader in prison management, particularly in the area of returning offenders to the workforce upon release, issued a statement through a spokesman expressing support for both Washington and the union.
Washington also issued a statement in response to the letter. “The department is committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of people under our supervision – both in prison and in the community – and our staff, who are working hard every day,” she said.
“I stand by the important work this department has done throughout the pandemic to keep people safe, and we will keep working to ensure that our inmates and staff are protected during these challenging times.”
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In the letter, Osborn said he complained to Washington in October 2018 about a “toxic and dysfunctional” working environment for corrections officers.
Those issues have not been addressed, hurting morale, and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic has made things worse, he said.
Specifically, Osborn cited:
The Michigan prison system, which has about 37,000 prisoners, has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 5,000 prisoner cases and 69 prisoner deaths, along with 448 employee cases and three employee deaths.
The department has touted its use of the Michigan National Guard to complete testing of all prisoners for the coronavirus in May. Under an emergency order issued Aug. 19, all prison staff who work inside prisons must also be tested.
Osborn said he raised several outstanding non-pandemic issues with Washington in 2018, beyond the low staffing levels.
They include a lack of discretion in meting out employee discipline and a lack of transparency and inclusion of officers in formulating department policies and decisions, including policies that affect officers most directly, such as recent ones related to vacation time and mandatory overtime.
Zack Pohl, a spokesman for Whitmer, said the governor “supports Director Washington’s leadership, from providing job and skills training to prisoners, to protecting inmates and staff throughout the pandemic.”
Whitmer “also supports the hard work and sacrifices that MCO members and their families have made throughout this crisis, which is why she worked to secure hazard pay for all prison staff,” Pohl said.
“The administration will continue working with MDOC and MCO leadership to ensure the safety of everyone in Michigan’s prison system as we manage through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
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