State of Michigan set to pay $80M to settle sex abuse suit with former juvenile offenders

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Corrections will pay $80 million to settle a lawsuit with former juvenile offenders who claimed they were sexually abused in Michigan prisons between October 2010 and February 2020, state officials said Thursday. 

Pending final approval April 9, the state will pay $25 million immediately, $15 million by October, $25 million by October 2021 and $15 million by October 2022.

Michigan officials have settled a sexual abuse lawsuit filed by former juvenile offenders for $80 million.

State corrections officials and Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office announced the settlement with the individuals in a press release after Washtenaw County Judge Carol Kuhnke signed Thursday an order of preliminary approval.

The settlement would be the largest since the department reached a $100 million resolution in a 1996 case, Neal v. Michigan Department of Corrections, in which female prisoners alleged a pattern of sexual misconduct and harassment related to the supervision of female prisoners by male officers.

The department agreed to a $100 million settlement in the Neal case in 2009, and distributed the payments to plaintiffs between 2010 and 2015. 

If the Neal case were removed from totals, the department has averaged about $2.6 million in settlement payments annually since 2010, according to Corrections Department data.

Plaintiffs' attorneys will work with the court to determine how the $80 million will be distributed among the roughly 1,300 plaintiffs in the class, said Christina Grossi, chief of operations for Nessel's office.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, will work with appropriations committees in both chambers to cover the cost of this settlement in the budget, said Amber McCann, a Shirkey spokeswoman.

Hundreds of juvenile prisoners sued the state in 2013 and 2015, alleging the Department of Corrections had failed to protect them against sexual abuse while they were held among adult prisoners.

When the lawsuit was renewed in 2015, a Department of Correction spokesman said "the assertions made in the lawsuit are false and we are vigorously defending the department." 

The state's vigorous defense made headlines at the time because an assistant attorney general subpoenaed the notes of a journalist reporting on the case and an audio copy of a radio interview with Deborah LaBelle, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. The subpoenas were withdrawn.

The state's settlement includes a continued denial of liability, Grossi said. Any of the roughly 1,300 plaintiffs in the lawsuit can opt out before April 9 and continue to pursue separate cases against the state, she said. 

"The state has vigorously defended against this lawsuit and exhausted every single legal argument over the years, filing a total of 31 appeals," Nessel said in a statement read to the media by Grossi. "In the end, it was clear that continuing to engage in protracted litigation was not in the best interest of the people of this state.”

While there were allegations of sexual abuse in the lawsuit, the litigation largely focused on whether youth should be held in adult facilities and the issues that could arise from such an arrangement, Grossi said. Those would include whether youth offenders should be segregated, when and how the use of force is appropriate, or what type of educational resources are available to them, she said. 

The abuse was perpetrated at times by guards in the prisons but, in the majority of cases, by other adult prisoners, LaBelle said Thursday. 

The lawsuit covers anyone who was sexually assaulted between October 2010 and 2020, even those who have yet to come forward, she said. About 1,300 juvenile offenders were placed in prison during that decade and hundreds so far have come forward, LeBelle said. 

The settlement will help those individuals to seek counseling both inside and outside of prison, she said. 

"These youths spoke out at great risk to themselves about the abuse that happened to them while in the care of the MDOC," LaBelle said. "We started this suit six years ago to try to get the state to see the harm done to these children. We hope through the settlement that the state recognizes the harm and will do this no more.”

The state has largely moved juvenile offenders away from adult prisoners in recent years, housing them since 2016 in separate wings of the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer and Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, said Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington.

Twenty-nine of the 38,000 prisoners housed by the Corrections Department are under the age of 18. 

As part of the settlement, the state also has agreed to develop a policy particularly tailored to youth offenders and get input on it from plaintiffs' attorneys, Washington said. 

The prison director also called on the Legislature to pass laws prohibiting the housing of youthful offenders sentenced as adults in adult prisons, a provision that was initially included last year in a Raise the Age legislative package.

"We run the adult prison system," Washington said. "That’s what our focus has been. We believe that youthful offenders should be in the youthful system until they become adults, and then they come to the adult system.”

A 17-year-old juvenile offender known as John Doe 11 told The Detroit News in 2015 that he was raped for almost two minutes in a Kinross Correctional Facility shower area, where a prison guard usually was stationed no more than 20 feet away. But he said no one came when he cried out for help during the assault.

While the settlement is a step toward resolving the issue, the risk remains so long as offenders under the age of 18 continue to be housed in adult prisons, LaBelle said. 

"The numbers have decreased significantly over the time period that this suit was going on, but they’re still being put in there," she said. "Until the state steps forward and joins almost every state in this country and says we won’t do that anymore, it still remains a possibility.”