Michigan Settles Sex Abuse Claims by 1,300 Former Juvenile Offenders Housed With Adults for $80 Million
On January 29, 2020, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) agreed to pay $80 million to resolve a class action lawsuit filed by juveniles who were housed in adult facilities where they were allegedly subjected to sexual assault and other harms.
The action consolidated in state court numerous lawsuits filed against MDOC in both state and federal courts. The class included persons incarcerated in MDOC while younger than 18 at any time during the period from October 15, 2010 to February 24, 2020. All of these juveniles were charged, convicted, and sentenced as adults, and MDOC placed them in adult facilities upon receiving them.
The complaint contained allegations related to 12 “John Doe” prisoners, all of whom alleged they were anally raped or coerced to engage in anal or oral sex, sometimes by guards but most often by adult prisoners with whom the juveniles were housed and left to fend for themselves. The events they described read like lurid movie portrayals of new prisoners being “fresh meat.” [See PLN, April 2020, p.50.]
John Doe #2 reported a physical assault and sexual harassment while at Oaks Correctional Facility in 2011. He was placed in solitary confinement and issued disciplinary misconduct tickets for making his abuse report. Once released from solitary, he was physically assaulted with a blade, “resulting in a scar across his face and marking him as a victim and ongoing target for other prisoners.” That incident again led to placement in solitary confinement.
Another plaintiff refused to leave solitary confinement after making a report of sexual abuse. He also was subject to disciplinary action for that refusal. Two juvenile plaintiffs alleged they were routinely sexually and physically assaulted by guards who grabbed and pulled on their genitals during body searches.
The parties sealed details of the settlement on February 26, 2020. The $80 million was to be paid in three installments: $25 million within two business days of the settlement’s effective date, another $15 million on October 15, 2020, and the final installment of $25 million due on October 15, 2021.
Incarcerated class members can maintain an outside bank account to receive settlement funds, but they can only have money from that account if it is sent to their prisoner accounts. Only settlement funds can be placed in the account. The settlement requires class members to pay any victim restitution, court costs and fees, institutional debt, and child support arrears.
With nearly 1,300 plaintiffs, it remained to be determined how the settlement funds would be distributed. But MDOC also agreed to implement a “Youthful Offender Policy Directive” within 180 days of final approval of the settlement agreement that will address “youth-specific policies for segregation, discipline, use of force, staff training, and the reporting and tracking of sexual abuse and harassment and allegations of retaliation for reporting the same.”
MDOC also agreed to eliminate its grievance process under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and to allow for sexual abuse and harassment claims to be exhausted through the normal grievance process. MDOC’s PREA Grievance Process was found by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2019 to be so impractical that it was effectively unavailable to prisoners.
Since 2016, MDOC has housed juvenile prisoners in areas separated from adults. As of early 2020, just 28 juveniles remained in housing with the system’s 38,000 adult prisoners.
“These youths spoke out at great risk to themselves about the abuse that happened to them while in the care of the MDOC,” said plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Deborah LaBelle. “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.”
MDOC Director Heidi Washington agreed.
“Though this settlement brings finality to this case,” she said, “we call on the Legislature to bring this issue to an end once and for all and prohibit youthful offenders from being placed in adult prison.” See: Does v. Michigan Department of Corrections, 2020 Mich. LEXIS 131.
Related legal case
Does v. Michigan Department of Corrections
|Cite||2020 Mich. LEXIS 131|