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Michigan DOC Settles DOJ Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

This past May, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which alleged a pattern and practice of sexual misconduct and invasions of privacy at the women's prisons in Michigan. The DOJ filed its suit in 1997, reported by PLN in October, 1997. During the investigation, so many women complained of retaliation that Human Rights Watch published a report, Nowhere to Hide: Retaliation Against Women in Michigan State Prisons, outlined in PLN's February, 1999, issue.

According to the terms of the agreement (see sidebar), the DOJ will agree to dismiss its claims if the MDOC is found in substantial compliance by a mutually agreed-upon expert. In fact, the DOJ has agreed that the stipulation to dismiss will contain this language: "There is no pattern or practice of Defendants violating female inmates' constitutional right to be free from sexual misconduct and sexually inappropriate behavior."

However, according to an attorney who represents female inmates, Deborah LaBelle, there have been 10 sexual assault convictions of male guards since 1995. Thirteen more are pending. She calls for male guards to be restricted from working in women's housing units. MDOC Director Bill Martin, who terms the lawsuit "bogus," is now also considering using only male guards in male prisons. This change would affect thousands of jobs, since there are 40 prisons and 14 camps for men as compared with two prisons and one camp for women. LaBelle argues that it is only the women's prisons which should have the same gender policy, since "there have been no reports of women guards raping male inmates. "

This argument is taking place at a time when the MDOC is in need of 2,500 new guards by 2001, and is considering relaxing its educational requirements in order to fill the need.

Director Martin is also changing MDOC policy to require prison uniforms for all prisoners and to take away most of their personal clothing. This policy, which will be enormously costly for the MDOC, is scheduled to proceed in stages, by security level. It is unclear at this point if court challenges to the policy by prisoners will be successful.

State legislators have responded to the lawsuit and subsequent publicity by introducing a bill making sexual acts by guards against prisoners a felony. In addition, Attorney LaBelle, a recent recipient of a Champion of Justice award from the State Bar of Michigan, vows to carry on the women's fight, since they are not bound by the settlement agreement and are free to pursue their own lawsuits. "There have been assaults every year," she asserts, "every shift and every month."

See: United States v. Michigan, USDC EDMI, Southern Div., No. 97-CV-751514- BDT

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Related legal case

United States v. Michigan