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Lesbian officers sue Michigan corrections for harassment, discrimination

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Lesbian officers sue Michigan corrections for harassment, discrimination

Two lesbian officers are suing the Michigan corrections department for harassment and discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

Michelle Wood, 52, and her girlfriend, Sgt. Loretta Smith, 53, both worked at the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). The two had been together for 17 years.

However, Wood had to leave her job as a prison guard in October 2018 because she was frequently being targeted by her co-workers.

While also being targeted, Smith is still working at the MDOC.

Discrimination at the Michigan corrections

While working for MDOC for 26 years, Wood was assigned at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan in 2000. Smith had only started working at the facility in 2015.

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

Wood related that she experienced verbal and physical harassment and was even stalked by one co-worker known for making derogatory statements about gay men.

“When I would leave the computer, people would go over and change my screensaver when I wasn’t looking. It just got ridiculous,” she said.

No respite or help from department officials

Wood told the warden and– when this didn’t any response– escalated it to MDOC director Heidi Washington about her mistreatment. The latter did not intervene.

“I repeatedly begged them, Heidi Washington specifically, to try to come to some resolution so I could resume my employment. I got nothing,” Wood said.

Her reporting of the matter pushed retaliation from her co-workers, from being written up for minor infractions to even being investigated for having sexual relations with a male prisoner.

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

Smith also began to experience harassment and retaliation after Wood had complained, being assigned to the “graveyard shift.”

Charges filed against the Michigan corrections

Because of the stalking, Wood had to take three months of medical leave for stress in 2018. She eventually took early retirement later that same year.

This year, she filed a a six-count workplace discrimination lawsuit in the Wayne County Circuit Court against the MDOC.

Jonathan Marko, who is representing the couple, 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.”

The MDOC has denied to comment on the case. However, spokesman Chris Gautz 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,” Gautz said.

Fighting for equal rights in Michigan

Wood has said while they are seeking damages, their lawsuit’s goal is to push for fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections in Michigan.

The previous Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette, had previously said that the state’s 44-year old civil rights law, the Elliot-Larsen Act, doesn’t protect LGBTQ people.

However, the current AG, Dana Nessel, who is gay, has given her opinion that the law does protect them in its definition of sex discrimination.

“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,” Wood said.

“I just would like to see them extend the law to cover us as a protected group,” she added.

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