A New York-based freelance journalist, backed by the ACLU of Michigan, took the Michigan Department of Corrections to court Monday over the department's refusal to release prison video footage of a September incident in which a 24-year-old prisoner at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility near Ionia died after he was Tasered.
Spencer Woodman, who writes frequently for The Nation and The Intercept, says department claims that releasing the video footage would compromise prison security make no sense.
"I was so unsatisfied with their explanation that I decided I wanted to find legal representation to sue for the records," Woodman told the Free Press.
According to a complaint filed Monday in the Michigan Court of Claims, inmate Dustin Szot died at Bellamy Creek on Sept. 27, following a confrontation with another prisoner and after being shocked by Tasers fired by corrections officers. Szot's autopsy listed his death as a homicide and said blunt force trauma was the cause, according to the complaint.
On Friday, Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler issued a news release that said Szot died from "a freak and unusual result of ... rather unremarkable punches" thrown in self-defense by another prisoner, after Szot attacked him.
"The actions of each corrections officer involved in the altercation were also investigated," Butler said.
"It is my conclusion that in no way did the corrections officers' use of force, or use of (Tasers), violate any criminal law."
Corrections Department spokeswoman Holly Kramer declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday. "We are not able to comment on pending litigation," she said.
Woodman said he was curious when he read about the incident in Michigan media reports, but had no specific story in mind when he filed a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request for video and audio recordings of the incident, on Sept. 28.
The Corrections Department denied the request, saying the video, if disclosed, could threaten security by "revealing fixed camera placement as well as the scope and clarity of the facility's fixed camera and handheld recordings." The refusal also cited concerns about revealing "policies and procedures used by staff for disturbance control and the management of disruptive prisoners."
Woodman said that's absurd because inmates know they are under constant surveillance and since cameras are typically not hidden, know where the cameras are placed.
Also, "footage of inmate altercations with prison guards has been routinely released across the country, and such means of control are already and rightly widely known," Woodman said in his Oct. 10 appeal of the FOIA denial.
"Perhaps more importantly, as part of its commitment to ensuring the civil rights of everyone working and living within prisons, correctional facilities must be able to publicly disclose the means by which they restrain, pacify and use force against prisoners."
The department denied his appeal on Oct. 25, this time citing an additional FOIA exemption for records of a public body's security measures.
Daniel Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said he's not familiar with case law related to the release of internal Michigan Department of Corrections video under FOIA, but he finds the department's reasons for refusing to release the video "a clear violation of our state's FOIA law."
"The video would not, if disclosed, prejudice MDOC's ability to maintain the physical security of its prisons," Korobkin wrote in the complaint. Robert Riley of the Honigman law firm is serving as co-counsel.
Szot was serving three to 20 years for a 2015 home invasion. Some of his family members, who could not immediately be reached for comment, also called for release of the videos in a September interview with WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids.