Juvenile prisoners in Michigan allege rape, abuse

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

He figures there is no way corrections officers didn't hear his screams.

Normally, at least one guard was stationed outside Kinross Correctional Facility's shower area, no more than 20 feet away. But he said no one came to help, and the rape of the 17-year-old continued.

"He stopped on his own there after about ... I'd say a minute-and-a-half to two minutes," John Doe 11 told The Detroit News. "He stopped. He left. I stayed in the shower as long as I could. I was actually bleeding ...

"I pretty much just sat in the shower, crying. I never expected it to happen to me."

John Doe 11 is one of 11 unnamed plaintiffs saying Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Corrections and 15 wardens from facilities around the state violated their civil rights — essentially failing to protect an at-risk segment of the prison population and demonstrating "deliberate indifference to their safety." Another 200-plus inmates have responded to a notice of a class-action lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs' legal team of Deborah LaBelle and Michael Pitt.

The suits, originally filed in 2013, are getting renewed attention not only for the newly detailed rape allegations from inmates, but also for the state's defense tactics and its historically get-tough approach toward juvenile offenders.

The lawsuits describe alleged incidents in which teens were forced into sex acts by adult prisoners through physical violence or the threat of it. In some cases, corrections facility employees are accused of sexual harassment, allowing assaults to happen or ignoring requests for help from teen inmates.

"We are confident the assertions made in the lawsuit are false and we are vigorously defending the department," said Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Department of Corrections.

The state's vigorous defense made headlines last month when an assistant attorney general subpoenaed the notes of a journalist reporting on the case and an audio copy of a radio interview with LaBelle. The subpoenas were withdrawn.

In 2012, Michigan had the sixth highest number of inmates aged 18 or younger being housed in adult prisons. The state currently has 74 prisoners in the system 17 years old or younger, after adding 27 juveniles to its facilities last year — down from 44 that were placed in 2011.

Critics contend the state is far more effective at jailing teenagers than protecting them from the older sexual predators in its prisons. Two-year-old federal standards stipulate juveniles must be separated from adults by "sight and sound," and the state's alleged failure to do so in the past has led to federal and civil lawsuits.

LaBelle and Pitt each were part of the legal team that sued the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1996, arguing its officers sexually harassed female inmates, and reached a $100 million settlement in 2009. Their new lawsuits raise questions about whether Michigan has a duty to view juvenile prisoners convicted as adults differently than those over age 18.

"You have a different responsibility to children who have broken the law in terms of our obligation to be able to rehabilitate them and get them back in society ... ," LaBelle said. "They have a unique capacity for rehabilitation and growth. So there's a reason you have to separate them (from adults)."

The lawsuits were filed in late 2013, several months after standards of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 kicked in. LaBelle argues that the legislation made clear more than a decade ago that juveniles in adult prisons are at "increased risk of sexual victimization."

The state corrections department now houses all of its juvenile offenders at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer — a facility that also has adult prisoners. Gautz said Michigan began moving its younger prisoners there in October 2012 and now complies with the federal sight and sound standards. But state officials consider them to be optional, not mandated.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice argued a year ago that "State correctional facilities, like those operated by the Defendants, are subject to both the Constitution and the (federal) standards to protect prisoners from harm, including sexual abuse."

John Doe 11 wound up at Kinross after being convicted of unarmed robbery at 17, receiving a sentence of 29 months to 15 years. It led to the alleged assault in the shower where the teen, who stood about 5-foot-7 and weighed roughly 130 pounds, said he was overpowered by a man who was 20 years older and outweighed him by as much as 50 pounds.

The court system considered John Doe 11 a low-enough risk to eventually place him in a boot camp. Despite the bruises and bleeding, he said, he chose not to report the rape to preserve his chances at getting released into that program.

Mich. takes tough stand

Few states are harder on sentencing teen offenders than Michigan.

From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, state lawmakers repeatedly empowered prosecutors with increased latitude to try teens as adults, while lessening the ability of judges to have a say. It was embraced amid fears of a rising wave of teen crime.

In 1988, the Legislature allowed prosecutors to decide whether 15- and 16-year-olds could be tried in adult court for certain crimes. Eight years later, lawmakers extended that prosecutorial discretion to offenders under 14, leading to the trial in adult court of Nathaniel Abraham — an 11-year-old convicted in a 1997 shooting death.

Almost two decades later, Michigan is among a dwindling number of states that take this approach.

■ In 2012, Michigan averaged 91 prisoners under the age of 18 in adult prisons per day — sixth highest in the nation, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

■ Michigan is one of nine states where teens as young as 17 are tried automatically as adults for certain offenses.

■Michigan is one of 15 states that allows a prosecutor to directly file charges in adult court for some offenses without first going through the juvenile system.

■Of those 15 states, Michigan is one of four that does not have a reverse waiver — giving a judge the ability to send a teen's case back to juvenile court.

Many states that had similar policies in the 1980s and 1990s have rolled them back in recent years, said Carmen Daugherty, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice. The group advocates keeping teens under 18 out of the adult criminal system.

"Michigan is definitely an outlier," Daugherty said. "(It's) one of a few states that has failed to recognize what the public, recent research and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized: Kids are different. While over half of the states have re-examined their statutes and policies on how kids are treated in the adult system, Michigan has stayed in the same place."

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, Michigan's highest court ruled last summer that the 350 state inmates serving life for crimes committed while juveniles would not be resentenced. Attorney General Bill Schuette also argued against resentencing all but five of those prisoners.

During his time in the Michigan prison system, John Doe 3 has learned to listen for the "click" — the sound of someone unlocking his cell door.

Since being convicted of armed robbery for an incident that occurred at age 14, he said he was sexually assaulted twice after hearing that noise at the Thumb Correctional Facility. Each time, he claimed older prisoners rushed into his cell and sexually assaulted him until other inmates came to his rescue.

But in one of those incidents, John Doe 3 alleged that the cell door clicked electronically — as if it had been opened by someone at the guard station. The lawsuits allege many incidents involve corrections officers — from their alleged failure to respond to requests for protection to sexual harassment and assault.

The state has mounted an aggressive response. In addition to arguing that federal standards don't apply to state prisons, Schuette's office has mounted a defense that LaBelle described as "aggressive" and "irresponsible."

"The state has a right to vigorously defend a case," LaBelle said. "However, the number of appeals that they have taken from the rulings of the lower court are unusual — highly unusual. ... Their continuing requests to stop the case I think appears to reflect more of a desire to delay."

She pointed to the state's efforts to have the case transferred to the Michigan Court of Appeals, a venue where the matter would be decided without a jury. Court of Appeals Judge Amy Ronayne Krause said in January 2014 the matter belonged in circuit court and chided the Attorney General's Office for its tactics.

"This request for declaratory actions is really some sort of horrible, frivolous attempt to manufacture jurisdiction in the Court of Claims by bootstrapping," Krause said. "I find your arguments to be really rather ... odious."

According to the Michigan Supreme Court, the Attorney General's Office has filed at least seven interlocutory appeals — a less common form of appeal filed in the middle of a case — as well as seven requests to stay proceedings, two of which were granted.

In addition, the Attorney General's Office tried in early March to subpoena a Huffington Post reporter's notes from interviews with two of the John Does in different prisons. Another subpoena was served on Michigan Public Radio for audio and video recordings of an interview conducted with LaBelle.

All were quickly withdrawn after the requests received media attention. Schuette said he didn't know about the subpoenas and personally apologized to the journalist and radio station.

Schuette's office declined to address a series of questions submitted by The Detroit News.

"Our job is to defend the Department of Corrections and therefore the state taxpayer against lawsuits," said Andrea Bitely, Schuette's communications director. "As in all such cases, we carry out our responsibility with due diligence."

Hints of state's defense

"I got pressed the second I walked in the block," John Doe 6 said during a deposition taken last summer. "Guys were yelling over the galleries to me. ... 'You're hot.' 'You're sexy.' 'I can't wait to ... — you.'"

Late in 2013, trapped by two older men in a laundry room at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility, it was suddenly more than just a threat. John Doe 6 said he was raped, even though months earlier he told officials at a different prison he was being threatened with sexual assault.

There is a video of the teen, originally jailed for criminal sexual conduct, refusing to leave a segregated cell and return to the main prison out of a fear of being assaulted or raped by another inmate. Corrections officers explain to John Doe 6 that he will be tear-gassed if he doesn't agree to be removed. He has threatened to harm himself and is adamant that he won't go.

Officers administer the chemical spray, place him in restraints and forcibly extract him from the cell.

State officials have declined to address specific allegations contained in the lawsuits, but court filings offer some hints about the state's attitude toward the allegations. One defense filing from January 2014 included the following passages:

■ "...to the MDOC's knowledge, a prisoner's vulnerability to another prisoner is more a function of the prisoner's attitude and deportment and behavior, than it is strictly of age."

■ "Defendants have collected approximately 180 affidavits from prisoners currently in custody, including substantially all of the under age 18 prisoners in custody, and have learned from those prisoners that they do not perceive themselves to be at imminent risk of physical or sexual assault."

While the lawsuits proceed with a trial perhaps a year or more off, the plaintiffs wait — some of them behind bars, others out in the world.

John Doe 11 is now outside Michigan's prison system, attempting to put together a new life in Tennessee. Just over a week ago, he welcomed his newborn daughter into the world.

Yet the rape is still there in his head.

"Sometimes I just can't quit thinking about everything that's happened," he said. "For some reason, it makes me feel like less of a man, honestly.

"My mom tells me (that's not true) every day. But I don't know."


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