Engler’s handling of prison assaults draws criticism

Christine Ferretti, and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

After being tapped as Michigan State University’s interim president, former Gov. John Engler vowed a “change was coming” in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

But nearly 20 years ago, when the United Nations sought to examine the state’s female prisons as part of a report on sexual abuse, Engler refused to allow an investigator to proceed, as first reported by Bridge. The Republican governor, who led the state from 1991 to 2002, also fought in court to stop a separate Justice Department investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse and inadequate care.

“I view the United Nations as an unwitting tool in the Justice Department’s agenda to discredit the State of Michigan in spite of the objective evidence that the State of Michigan has not violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates,” he wrote in the 1998 letter to the U.N.

Deborah LaBelle, a civil rights attorney who served as lead council on a class-action lawsuit in the sexual abuse claims involving hundreds of women in the state’s prisons, questioned the decision by MSU’s board to unanimously vote Wednesday to name Engler interim president.

Engler and state Corrections officials, she said, were dismissive in the case involving her clients as well as with the Justice Department, U.N. and others who raised concerns.

“My thing was simply, ‘Listen, have you done your due diligence?’ If this is how he handles things on his watch, that’s a concern,” said LaBelle, noting that the eventual settlement in the case was one of the largest payouts in the state’s history.

“We shouldn’t be talking about Gov. Engler. We should be talking about the young women who have come forward. Why do you want to have this baggage?”

John Truscott, Engler’s press secretary for most of the 12 years he was governor, said the proposed U.N. visit was a “political effort” and the raising of the issue is being used the same way now. Engler directed the Department of Corrections to move female guards into the areas in question and made an effort to hire more female guards, he said.

“The governor gave me a free license to do what needed to be done,” said Bill Martin, Engler’s Corrections director from 1999 to 2002. “It was very disconcerting and troubling, and the governor had zero tolerance for this type of behavior.

“He’s a stand-up, straight-up guy,” said Martin, who is now chief executive of Florida Realtors in Orlando.

For Trustee Dianne Byrum, a Democrat, the focus is now on moving forward.

“At this moment in time at Michigan State University we need an interim president that can help institute major changes and prepare the university for a successful presidential search. I believe John Engler is prepared to lead this effort,” Byrum said. “I know from John Engler’s statements that he affirmed his commitment to helping change the culture at Michigan State University.”

Byrum, who served in the Legislature during Engler’s tenure, noted she and Engler have disagreed over policy issues. “I am prepared to continue to disagree with John Engler when I don’t believe he’s making the right decisions,” she said.

In 1995, the U.S. Justice Department concluded Michigan was violating the constitutional rights of its female inmates amid reports of alleged rampant sexual abuse by prison staff. The next year, female inmates filed two lawsuits against the state Department of Corrections.

The Justice Department said female convicts in Michigan prisons were raped, deprived of good medical care and housed in dirty conditions. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division leveled the charges in a scathing 12-page letter and threatened to sue the state unless the Michigan Department of Corrections fixed them.

Nearly every inmate among about 80 interviewed by federal investigators at the time reported some kind of sexually aggression by male guards. The report found guards would rape, fondle women inmates, make crude sexual remarks or watch them shower or undress. The Justice Department sued the state over the abuse in 1997.

In 1999, under Engler’s watch, the state settled the Justice Department case by promising sweeping reforms. Martin that same year proposed replacing male guards with female officers in living units in Michigan's women’s prisons.

Officials announced the policy in 1999 and the following year began to aggressively implement it as being in the best interests of inmates and employees. But the union representing corrections officers sued Martin, arguing the move was discriminatory.

The Corrections Department ultimately prevailed and by December 2005 completed the switch to female guards in the Robert Scott and Huron Valley facilities. The policy remains in place today, said Chris Gautz, Corrections Department spokesman.

“I think everybody is sad at the kind of behavior that went on,” Martin said Thursday. “It was not with every corrections officer, it was not with every inmate, but it didn’t matter. One was too many.”

Separately, more than 900 women sought money in 2009 in the $100 million settlement from the state for alleged sexual misconduct that occurred inside prisons between March 1993 and July 2009. A majority of the claims related to harassment and about a dozen of the women who said they were sexually assaulted by a guard.

The issue was detailed in a 2005 Detroit News award-winning series, “Sexual Abuse Behind Bars,” chronicling abuse of female inmates by male prison guards. The News’ five-month investigation found that sexual abuse complaints by the women were higher a decade after federal officials first noted Michigan had a problem in 1995.

The prisons were run by the Democratic administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm from 2003-10.

Truscott said he and Engler have no knowledge of the 2009 lawsuit settlement since it happened seven years after Engler left office.

On the proposed U.N. investigator visit in 1998, Engler rejected it for many reasons. He cited federal officials’ “baseless lawsuit” and suggested the investigator would be wielded as a “sword against the state in this unnecessary litigation.”

“I cannot permit, as a matter of both sound legal strategy and good common sense, the state to participate in such an effort,” Engler wrote.

The investigator later said she found the refusal “particularly disturbing” in the wake of “very serious allegations of sexual misconduct.”

Martin told The News on Thursday that he advised Engler against admitting the investigator, who had “zero jurisdiction” in the prisons. It “would have been just another distraction” that could have led to chaos and compromised the safety of the staff, he said.

The former prison director added he was open to speaking with the investigator.

“They could have come to my office and talked to me until the cows came home,” he said. “They never offered to do that.”