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Michigan DOC Sex Abuse Suit Nets Nearly $4 Million

On February 7, 2000, Michigan DOC officials agreed to settle a lawsuit with 32 women prisoners for $3,787,000 in damages, costs, and attorney fees. The women sued in a Michigan federal district court after being sexually abused by DOC guards.

The named plaintiff, Linda Nunn, and 31 others were female prisoners at Michigan camps and prisons. Each complained of being sexually abused by male guards at one of those facilities.

Some reported forcible rape and physical assault. Others suffered sexual coercion by threat of disciplinary punishment. Some were groped during patdown searches. Most were the targets of degrading sexoriented remarks. Many were gawked at while undressed in bathrooms, living units, and medical examination rooms.

The claims are too numerous for individual attention here. However, one particularly disturbing case was that of Dolly Peerenboom. In August or September of 1996, she was stripsearched by male guards at the Scott Facility. Both of her prosthetic arms were taken from her. Instead of returning her arms after the search, the guards entertained themselves by watching her struggle to dress herself without them.

For more information on the extent and duration of the sexual abuse of Michigan women prisoners see, Nowhere To Hide: Retaliation Against Women In Michigan State Prisons by the Human Rights Watch , reported in the February 1999 issue of PLN .

Retaliation against those who reported the abuse was widespread. Such retaliation included additional sexual abuse, physical assault, and verbal threats.

Some were harassed with constant misconduct citations. Some were over punished for minor rule violations, including one who was criminally charged for a relatively minor violation.

Despite the number of sexual abuse allegations, prison administrators conducted no serious investigation into the charges made by the women.

Some of the women have been transferred to a special mental health facility. They are being treated for emotional problems stemming from these atrocities. However, prison administrators have taken no disciplinary action against most of the offending guards.

MDOC Director, Bill Martin, has decided to remove male guards from women's housing units "to protect the men from false accusations of sexual abuse" as reported in PLN 's March, 2000 issue.

Michigan prison administrators previously allowed male guards free access to women prisoners' showers and bathrooms, living units, and medical examination rooms. Those guards also had authority to conduct unsupervised personal searches of women prisoners. The resulting abuse, then, was as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise.

In addition to the monetary settlement, an elaborate procedural agreement was reached, as follows:

"MDOC will prohibit, by policy, guards' sexual misconduct and retaliation against prisoners who report it. Women prisoners will be educated and counseled in terms of such reporting and retaliation.

"MDOC will screen job applicants for domestic violence history and will record and track sexual misconduct and retaliation charges against individual guards, as well as conduct a personal history check on them every 5 years. Guards placed in contact with prisoner positions will be based on these data.

"Guards will be trained in proper supervisory techniques. That training will be reviewed for adequacy by independent experts.

"Those responsible for investigating sexual misconduct will be trained to properly perform that function. That training will also be reviewed for adequacy.

"Male guards will not interact alone with female prisoners out of the view of others and will not conduct patdown searches on women except in emergencies.

"There will be a secure box for sexual misconduct complaints, to which only high ranking administrators will have access. The names of prisoners or staff reporting such misconduct will be kept confidential. Prisoners will no longer be harassed in any way for reporting sexual misconduct.

"Allegations of sexual misconduct will be seriously investigated. Confirmed allegations will result in the offending guard's being disciplined.

"Prisoners subjected to sexual abuse will be provided with psychological attention."

The 32 plaintiffs and their attorney, Deborah LaBelle, will share the $3,787,000, with LaBelle taking no more than $100,000 because of an attorney fee cap. See: Nunn v. Michigan Dept. Of Corrections , USDC EDMI, Case No. 96CV71416DT.

LaBelle first filed the action against MDOC in a Michigan state court under that state's Civil Rights Act. However, after the state court ruled for the prisoners, Michigan legislators enacted legislation exempting prisoners from the Act, gutting the lawsuit. [See: PLN March 2000.]

Commendably, LaBelle took the fight to the federal courts via Nunn ,supra , where she finally prevailed.

Both the amount of the monetary settlement and the extent of the procedural agreement are remarkable. Rarely does a prisoner abuse case net such a high amount of money. Moreover, the elaborate policy changes agreed to by MDOC are unprecedented.

One can only marvel at the Michigan legislature's response to the first action. Once the widespread sexual abuse of women prisoners was brought to light in the state courts, rather than illegalizing the rape of women prisoners, Michigan legislators effectively authorized it. They did so by exempting prisoners from the state Civil Rights Act, thus removing any remedy for such sexual abuse.

The Michigan lawmakers' message is clear: rape is an acceptable form of entertainment in Michigan, so long as it only involves a state employee raping a prisoner.

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Related legal case

Nunn v. Michigan DOC