Families sue state of Michigan over wave of violence and killings at Macomb prison

LANSING — Two Michigan families and an injured inmate want the state to compensate them for a violent and bloody 30-day stretch at Macomb Correctional Facility.

Two men were killed and another suffered severe wounds in three separate inmate-on-inmate attacks at the prison between Sept. 18 and Oct. 18 of last year.

Crystal Neely, 43, left, and her husband Robert Neely, 37, hold a photo of Robert's younger brother Christopher Neely at Marko Law Firm in downtown Detroit on Friday, July 21, 2023. Christopher Neely is one of multiple prisoners who were murdered in separate incidents at Macomb Correctional Facility. "I don't want this to happen to another family. This is hard," said Crystal Neely. "He was trying to do better with his life and be a good brother and good uncle."

The knifings at the state prison in Lenox Township were the result of severe understaffing and gross negligence by the state, say attorneys Jonathan Marko of Detroit and Vince Colella of Southfield, who sued the state Tuesday in the Michigan Court of Claims.

"We don't expect prisons to be idyllic retreats with massages and spas and pickleball," said Marko, who is seeking unspecified damages. "But we do expect basic human needs and safety are going to be met."

Kyle Kaminski, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, declined comment. He said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

The attacks cited in the suit include:

  • A Sept. 18, 2022, knife attack by two other inmates in a prison common area that killed Christopher Neely, 34, who had served 13 years of a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder.

  • The Oct. 17, 2022, stabbing and asphyxiation of Ruben Martinez, 28, who was serving time for armed robbery, attempted assault of a prison employee, and malicious destruction of property. He was found dead in his cell, tied up under his bunk.

  • The Oct. 18, 2022, stabbing near the prison chow hall of Daniel Mastaw, now 40, who is eligible for release next year after serving time for unarmed robbery, domestic violence, and possession of a weapon by a prisoner. Mastaw wasn't killed but suffered a chipped spine, a fractured bone near his eye, and major cuts to his face that caused deformities, according to the complaint. He suffers from chronic pain and mental trauma, the suit says.

The state breached its duty to protect the prisoners from "harm, injury and death," according to the suit. It alleges cruel and unusual punishment, violation of the prisoners' rights to bodily integrity, and wrongful death.

"I don't want this to happen to another family — this is hard," said Crystal Neely, 43, of Flint, who is married to Christopher Neely's brother Robert, 37. She said she could get little information about the killing from prison officials except for one who told her the facility was understaffed.

Robert Neely, 37, left, his wife Crystal Neely, 43, and attorney Jonathan Marko discuss a lawsuit related to the death of Christopher Neely at Marko Law Firm in downtown Detroit on Friday, July 21, 2023. Christopher Neely is one of multiple prisoners who were murdered in separate incidents at Macomb Correctional Facility.

"The state needs to understand that they need to be employing more people or figure something out," Neely said. "I know they go (to prison) for a reason, but you don't expect them to die there."

The suit was filed Tuesday as the state has been airing TV ads and stepping up other recruitment efforts, including signing bonuses, in an effort to fill hundreds of vacant corrections officer positions around the state.

The Michigan Corrections Organization, which has described the staffing situation as a "time bomb," said Monday the number of vacancies is more than 920 and growing and the amount of forced overtime officers are working is excessive and unsustainable. The union said the hiring crisis is "impacting the health and safety of the current officers, the prisoner population, and citizens of Michigan."

At Macomb Correctional Facility, the number of assaults on prisoners increased to 41 in 2021 and 45 in 2022, up from an average of 17.5 per year between 2017 and 2020, department records show. The number of times officers had to use force to maintain control at the prison was 158 in 2021 and 133 in 2022, up from an average of 39 per year between 2017 and 2020, records show.

Marko, who has handled numerous prison suits in which he has represented both prisoners and employees, said Macomb is at the center of a statewide epidemic of prison violence.

The Macomb prison "is a dangerous place," Marko said. "Prisoners will tell you that. Officers will tell you that."

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Crystal Neely said her brother-in-law had never mentioned concerns about his safety, but it would be unlike him to do so. He mostly asked about family, such as her children and his sister's children, when they spoke regularly on the phone, she said. Christopher Neely, who was sent to prison at age 18 after making some "bad choices," completed his high school certificate in prison and had recently completed a paralegal course so he could help other prisoners with legal issues, she said.

Michael Anthony Fleming, 39, was bound over for trial Monday in New Baltimore district court on charges of first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a prisoner in connection with Neely's death. Fleming's co-defendant, JoJuan Taylor, 35, was also bound over on charges of possession of a weapon by a prisoner and tampering with evidence, according to court records. Fleming has been moved to maximum security at Ionia Correctional Facility since the killing; Taylor remains at Macomb.

Colella is representing Rachel Neitzelt of Saginaw, the mother of Martinez. He is also representing Mastaw, who is now held at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

Michael Leroy Ketchum, 45, is charged with first-degree murder, assault with intent to murder, and being a prisoner in possession of a weapon in connection with the killing of Martinez and the attack on Mastaw. After Mastaw was attacked near the chow hall, prison officials searched Ketchum's cell, where they found Martinez, his cellmate, tied up and murdered under his bunk. Officials believe Martinez had been killed the previous evening.

Since the attacks, Ketchum has been moved to the highest security level at Ionia Correctional Facility.

Colella said the prison's management of Ketchum is particularly concerning because of Ketchum's 2021 conviction for a 2019 prison assault with intent to commit murder, which also involved a weapon.

The Free Press reported in October 2022 that the warden of the Macomb prison at that time, George Stephenson, had been "stop ordered," meaning he was banned from prison property pending internal investigations. Prison officials have refused to state the reason for the removal of Stephenson, who has not returned to the department.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Families sue state over wave of violence, killings at Macomb prison