When Kelsey Buttars was incarcerated at the Grand Traverse County Correctional Facility in 2017, corrections officers would typically bring feminine hygiene products around at least once per day. But on one particular day when she was on her period, she says she had run out of pads.
Buttars says she wrote out a few request slips for more, but she was ignored. Then she pressed the button in her cell for help, but she says she was ignored again. She waited on the toilet in her cell.
After about 30 minutes, Buttars says a corrections officer walked by her. She asked for pads but says the officer refused to get them and suggested she use her sack lunch bag to soak up the blood instead. She says eventually – after about three hours of waiting and threats from her mother to call a lawyer – she got pads.
“Our rights are violated all the time,” says Buttars, who identifies herself as a recovering drug addict.
IPR spoke to half a dozen former female inmates who described a similar experience.
“You’ll see them walking around, and they have blood coming out of the back of their pants,” says Jennifer Honeysette.
Honeysette went to the jail last year after being caught driving with a suspended license and fleeing from a police offer.
She says when she bled through her pants, she would wash them in her jail cell sink and dry them on the heater. Then she’d be in her cell in her underwear until her pants dried out, making her uncomfortable when male officers walked by.
“It’s unhygienic. It’s embarrassing,” Honeysette says. “It’s almost like, ‘Okay, cause we’re criminals, we don’t get to have clean clothes.’”
“It’s not our fault that we bleed,” says Rosa Mata, another former inmate of the jail.
Mata says a lot of times officers say they will get you pads, but then they don’t come back with them.
“I don’t know if they don’t care or they forget,” she says. “I see them talking and chit chatting up at the front, and they’re not doing anything.”
A jail’s constitutional obligations:
Miriam Aukerman, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, says ignored requests for hygiene are all too common.
“It’s something that we hear about in jails across the country and across Michigan, and it really goes to basic human dignity,” Aukerman says.
She says the ACLU sued and settled with the Muskegon County Jail a few years ago under similar circumstances.
Aukerman says these alleged conditions are appalling and unconstitutional.
“The courts are very clear … that jails are responsible for the hygiene needs of female inmates, just as they’re responsible for the hygiene needs of male inmates,” she says.
In Grand Traverse County, male inmates also complain about not getting the hygiene products they need.
As part of IPR’s investigation into conditions at the jail, we heard from more than a dozen former inmates – both male and female – who say there are a handful of corrections officers who often ignore their needs.
They say it can take days or weeks to get basic items like soap, a toothbrush and a towel, particularly if they are in a holding cell and not in General Population.
The Sheriff’s response:
Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley says corrections officers do a good job in less than ideal conditions. He says the jail is overcrowded and poorly designed, and they have staffing shortages that result in too much overtime for officers.
When asked about claims that his officers are ignoring requests for pads, Bensley says those complaints may not make it up the chain of command to him.
“Depending on the situation, depending on what occurred, I would have to say we would look into that and it may or may not be appropriate. I don’t know,” Bensley says.
Otherwise Bensley mostly deferred to Captain Todd Ritter, who was the jail administrator until he resigned this spring.
“Nobody should have to wait for something like that,” Ritter says.
He said, if that is happening, it’s unacceptable.
What the records show:
IPR requested officer disciplinary records and inmate complaints. In 2017 and part of 2018, jail staff were disciplined for a range of things from falling asleep on the job to failing to check on an inmate, resulting in suicide.
There was nothing about ignoring requests for hygiene products.
“If we don’t know something is happening. We can’t deal with it,” Bensley says.
But they did deal with it even though they say no issues were found. Ritter told IPR that after we initially interviewed them, they began stocking feminine hygiene products in each jail cell. Now female inmates can help themselves as needed.
Former administrator leaves the jail:
On April 26, Captain Todd Ritter, the former jail administrator, resigned following allegations he had inappropriate relationships with former female inmates.
“I am very sorry for letting you down,” Ritter wrote in his resignation letter to Sheriff Bensley.
Allegations ranged from taking a former inmate to a hotel room in Lansing at the jail’s expense, smoking marijuana with a former inmate and keeping sexually explicit material on his government issued cell phone.
The allegations surfaced after a new undersheriff was hired and began investigating complaints against Ritter.
Bensley says Ritter had performed his job as jail administrator well, but the allegations were shocking. While he acknowledges that leaders can set the tone and culture of the jail, he does not see a connection between Ritter’s behavior and former inmate allegations that their hygiene requests are ignored.
“I can’t say that’s the case. That would be pure speculation,” says Bensley.
Plenty of good corrections officers:
Every former inmate IPR spoke to say there are plenty of good corrections officers at the Grand Traverse County jail – people who work hard, care about the inmates and respond to requests for assistance. But they say a few bad apples are making life at the jail a lot more dismal and hopeless than it should be.