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Lesbian officers sue Michigan corrections department for discrimination

Michelle Wood and Loretta Smith, a gay couple in their 50s, said they faced discrimination and retaliation by the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Loretta Smith and Michelle Wood.
Loretta Smith, left, and Michelle Wood.Courtesy Loretta Smith and Michelle Wood

Michelle Wood worked for the Michigan Department of Corrections for 26 years, and she had hoped to make it an even 30. But Wood, 52, said she was forced to leave her job as a prison guard in October 2018 after being subjected to discrimination and harassment because of her sexual orientation.

“The job in and of itself is extremely dangerous and stressful,” Wood told NBC News. “It just made it to the point where there was no joy in going in there anymore.”

Wood worked at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, with her girlfriend, Loretta Smith, 53, who was transferred to the facility in 2015. Wood said she was frequently targeted by co-workers, who she said called her derogatory terms for being a lesbian.

“We're people, we’re human beings ... We just happen to be in a lesbian relationship. We have the same feelings and the same emotions as everyone else. I just would like to see them extend the law to cover us as a protected group.”

Michelle Wood

The harassment was more than just verbal, Wood recalled. “When I would leave the computer, people would go over and change my screensaver when I wasn't looking,” she said. “It just got ridiculous.”

Wood took three months of medical leave for stress in 2018 after she was allegedly stalked by a co-worker known to make derogatory statements about gay men. Wood said she was scheduled to make an early morning trip to Flint to get emergency medical care for an inmate when she realized she was being followed.

“It was pretty dark, and he was creeping around between the vehicles,” she said of the co-worker. “When my partner was trying to back up, he just jumped right there and scared both of us.”

After taking early retirement later that same year, Wood filed a lawsuit in the Wayne County Circuit Court last Monday, in which she alleged that the Michigan Department of Corrections knew about the mistreatment she had been facing and failed to intervene. She said she had reported the incidents to the warden, who declined to get involved, and then eventually escalated her complaints to Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

According to Wood, nothing was done and reporting the harassment only spurred retaliation. She said she started being written up for minor infractions, such as carrying an eyeglass case that her superiors claimed was against regulations, and she was investigated for an alleged sexual relationship with a male prisoner.

“They knew that I was lesbian,” she said. “I’ve been in a committed relationship for 17 years. It was just an onslaught of anxiety and stress.”

Wood's attorney, Jonathan Marko, said he has handled approximately 30 cases against the Michigan Department of Corrections and claimed his client’s case is the “most heinous, shameful and downright wrong harassment” he’s ever seen.

“I represent a lot of people within the prison system,” he said. “A common theme in every case is if you’re a minority, if you’re gay or lesbian, or if you’re different, you’re not going to be treated the same way as everybody else. Clients referred to it as a ‘good old boy’ system. It’s a macho, white-male-dominated environment.”

Marko is also representing Wood’s partner, who the attorney said also experienced discrimination and retaliation at Thumb Correctional Facility. After Wood began complaining about mistreatment, Smith was abruptly moved to the “graveyard shift.”

“It’s the unwanted shift,” Marko said. “It's the island of undesirables. Nobody wants to have to work overnight. You have to sleep during the day and go to work at night.”

Wood said the abuse they both suffered took an extreme toll on their mental health and their relationship. “Our household has suffered greatly,” she said. “It’s very difficult to turn that on and turn off when you get home.”

The Michigan Department of Corrections, which potentially faces six charges of workplace discrimination over the alleged mistreatment Wood and Smith experienced, has declined to comment on the case. However, a representative of the department told local news outlet Michigan Live that harassment and retaliation are “not tolerated in this department.”

“The MDOC takes allegations of discrimination in the workplace, no matter what type — race, sex, orientation, identity — seriously and investigates such claims as soon as they become known to the department,” spokesman Chris Gautz told the outlet.

While the couple is seeking damages, Wood said her goal in filing the lawsuit is to help push for fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections in Michigan. The state is one of 29 in the U.S. that has yet to pass a comprehensive state law explicitly banning bias in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.

However, last year, the state’s newly elected attorney general, Dana Nessel, who is gay, stated that it is her opinion that Michigan’s 44-year-old civil rights law, the Elliott-Larsen Act, does include sexual orientation and gender identity in its definition of sex discrimination. This case is likely to test Nessel’s interpretation of the law, which her predecessor as attorney general, Bill Schuette, had claimed did not protect LGBTQ people.

Wood hopes that her case helps set a precedent to ensure that she and her partner have the same rights as all other Michigan residents.

“We're people, we’re human beings,” Wood said. “We just happen to be in a lesbian relationship. We have the same feelings and the same emotions as everyone else. I just would like to see them extend the law to cover us as a protected group.”

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