By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Inmates who throw excrement and other bodily fluids at their jailers could be charged with a felony if legislation under consideration by the Senate passes.
The proposal, sponsored by Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, would turn “dressing out” (throwing excrement, urine, spit, semen or blood onto a corrections employee) into a felony punishable by up to four years in the slammer. The new bill is necessary because convictions are unlikely under a current assault law that could add 10 to-15 years to sentences, O’Brien said.
The bill recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. An amendment may be included to make sure the punishment is in addition to the current sentence an inmate is serving of at the same time, O’Brien said.
But the union representing corrections workers isn’t entirely on board.
“We appreciate the efforts,” said Jeremy Tripp, director of government and political affairs at the Michigan Corrections Organization of the Service Employees International Union.
But there’s an existing law that covers the problem of bodily material being thrown on officers and prison employees, Tripp said.
The change the Legislature is considering would require prosecutors to do more work for a lesser penalty, he said.
The problem is, prosecutors aren’t using the law that exists, Tripp said. Figuring out why was one part of an “Officer Dignity Coalition” that brought prosecutors, officers and others together to address issues such as high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among guards. Tripp said he hopes to reconvene the coalition.
Several things contribute to the crime not being prosecuted, he said.
Prosecutors don’t all know that they have the option of using the existing law because it’s tucked under a clause having to do with prison escapes. Guards don’t always write professional enough reports to be used at trial. And the State Police aren’t always called to treat such incidents as crime scenes .
But the corrections union’s neutrality doesn’t affect the bill sponsors’ plans.
Sheriffs testified the bill would help them with county jail management, said Jones, who was sheriff of Eaton County. The sheriffs want the bill because it would give county jail inmates a strong incentive not to throw bodily material. If they do, they’ll go to prison instead.
The Department of Corrections doesn’t track the number of times a corrections employee is attacked in this way, said Chris Gautz,a public information officer for the department. That’s because the incidents are bundled into other assaults.
The total number of staff assaults in 2015 was 526, but that includes incidents as diverse as jabbing a finger into a guard’s chest to punching or stabbing a guard.
A prisoner’s motivation for throwing excrement can be varied, said Daniel B. Kennedy, a Troy-based sociologist and criminologist who is the principal consultant for Forensic Criminology Associates. The firm provides expert witness testimony for cases involving prisoner health care, psychiatric evaluations and other issues.
“Well, they don’t have rocks,” he said. “It’s a way of expressing extreme contempt.”
And sometimes prisoners do it because they want to unnerve the guards, said Kennedy, who is also an adjunct professor of profile and threat assessment at Oakland University.
Jones said throwing bodily material is a dangerous practice. If an inmate’s bodily fluids come into contact with a guard’s skin, guards worry because inmates have a higher rate of disease such as hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis.
O’Brien said, “Look at how much we do in health care to protect doctors and nurses from interfacing with bodily fluids. It’s a pretty common-sense bill.”
By KAREN HOPPER USHER