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Ten Michigan Lawyers Honored For 8-Year Effort To Win $30 Million Damages For 10 Women Prisoners’ Sexual Abuse By Prison Guards

by John E. Dannenberg

Ten Michigan attorneys were awarded two different awards by two national attorney professional associations. The attorneys received the National Lawyers Guilds’ coveted Law for the People award. The NLG was founded in 1937 as the nation’s first racially integrated bar association. In addition to the NLG award, the attorneys also received the prestigious Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from Public Justice (FKA Trial Lawyers for Public Justice) for their tenacious eight-year effort to gain injunctive relief and damages for female prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) who were from 1993 to 2003 violently sexually assaulted, abused, harassed and defiled by male prison guards charged with their safety and supervision. The attorneys withstood MDOC’s barrage of obfuscatory legal defense tactics designed to protect the perverted guards and their supervisors, on February 1, 2008, winning a jury award of $15.5 million for the first group of ten victims (worth an estimated $30 million today with accumulated interest).
Individual awards ranged from $335,000 to $3.6 million. The jury was so moved by the stories of what MDOC had wrought against the prisoners’ civil rights and personal dignities that they issued a rare apology on behalf of the people of Michigan. 49 similar cases against MDOC are still pending, each representing claims of ten victims.

The testimony of the victims was both shocking and heart-wrenching. One by one, the first group of ten - including three lifers - told of forceful, aggressive, and unwanted violent rapes, digital penetrations, oral sex, fondling, prurient observation and verbal harassment spanning a decade of incarceration. One had a baby. With no relief from administrative complaints, the sexual free-for-all foisted upon these women prisoners by male guards was only heightened by their threats of loss of prison privileges, good time credits and parole. Some of the guards followed their victims to the streets, stalking them, assaulting them and even violating them back to prison where they could repeat their sexual predation.

The jury heard as well from lying supervisory defendants, who asserted that they simply had no idea that such crimes were going on. But two guards were criminally convicted during the ten year period, and others were fired. One investigator, Captain Jack Hutchins, forced plaintiff Alicia Smith to perform oral sex on him - then sexually assaulted her repeatedly until he was transferred to another prison.

Plaintiff Nicole Anderson was sexually violated by guard Derle Jones at the Scott Correctional Facility in 1997 and 1998. Jones, with help from fellow guards, took Anderson from the housing unit for the sole purpose of sexually assaulting her. Jones threatened her with punishment if she told. Jones followed Anderson to the streets, where he required her to report and perform oral sex. When Anderson was put on electronic monitoring, Jones followed her home where he sexually assaulted her again. In 2001, Anderson was returned to prison and the sexual attacks began all over again, by Jones and other guards whom Michigan taxpayers had entrusted with the care and rehabilitation of prisoners.

Prisoner Carmelita Ayers was sexually assaulted by guard John Fedewa twice in December 1993, in the staff bathroom and in a caustic closet. When Ayers came back to prison in 2001, after six years on the streets, she was taken to a hospital for medical treatment, where guard Joseph Durigon sexually assaulted her.

In 2000, guard Michael O’Donnell watched plaintiff Victoria Baldridge in various states of undress and when she used the toilet. Getting bolder, he then ordered her to undress so he could view her naked body while he worked. Finally, O’Donnell brazenly entered her cell and violently sexually assaulted her. This went on for over a year, while other staff refused to take her complaints.

Back at the Scott facility, guard Lynn Williams sexually assaulted 18-year-old Toni Bunton in the bathroom, in her cell, in the shower and in other areas. Plainly, this was common knowledge - but no one would take any steps against Williams; he was protected by knowledgeable supervisors.

Plaintiff Hiywanica Dunning was in an acute mental health care center at Huron Valley. But her mental disadvantage was all guard Kevin Estes needed to go after her. Plaintiff Jill Flanders, when incarcerated at Camp Branch, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by guard Art Lancaster in classrooms and even in the principal’s office. Although Lancaster resigned in 2000, he continued to harass Flanders by mail until her release, when he took up stalking her on the streets.

Florence Crane facility prisoner Carrie Flemion was assaulted in 1997 by guard Jan Baldwin, who forced her to perform oral sex and digitally penetrated her in the shower room, grooming room, caustic closet, supply closet, staff bathroom and prisoner bathroom. Baldwin pled guilty to criminal charges of assault and battery in 2000.

Despite this compelling testimony, MDOC vigorously defended that it wasn’t true. They took five interlocutory appeals and innumerable stays to delay proceedings for eight years. The legislature even changed the state Civil Rights statute to exclude protection for state prisoners, but the plaintiffs’ attorneys defeated this shameful tactic in a constitutional challenge.

The trial gained national attention. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even a Special Rapporteur sent by the United Nations followed the immoral undertaking by MDOC to shelter its perverted prison guards. Still, sexual assaults continued. A guard at Huron Valley was sent to prison for assaulting a female prisoner in 2005.

The accolades for their legal work fell to indefatigable Michigan attorneys Deborah LaBelle, Richard Soble, Patricia Streeter, Shannon Dunn, Molly Reno, Michael Pitt, Peggy Pitt, Cary McGehee, Ronald Reosti and Ralph Sirlin. See: Neal v. Michigan DOC, Michigan Circuit Court (Washtenaw County), Case No. 966986 CZ. The verdicts are posted on PLN’s website. PLN has reported the sexual horror story of the Michigan prison system for almost two decades now. Hopefully we will soon be able to report its conclusion.

Other resources: Public Justice E-lert, Associated Press.

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Related legal case

Neal v. Michigan DOC