Male teen inmates alleging they were raped in Michigan prisons are a big step closer to getting their day in court, after the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that granted prisoners the same civil rights guaranteed other citizens.
The ruling late last week clears the way for a lawsuit involving more than 900 young men to move to trial in January 2020. A similar lawsuit filed by women assaulted in prison cost the state $100 million.
Two Republican justices would have heard the appeal. At least three justices from among Republican moderate David Viviano and the court’s three Democratic-nominated justices voted to let a Court of Appeal decision stand that allowed the case to proceed.
With the Supreme Court letting the lower court’s decision stand, the case is now set for a January 2020 trial, unless defendants and the state reach an out-of-court settlement.
“Finally, prisoners and our children in prison are recognized as persons protected by our state civil rights act,” said Deborah LaBelle, lead attorney representing the prisoners.
The Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in the lawsuit, did not reply to a request for comment on Monday.
The class-action suit claims teen offenders were sexually assaulted in Michigan prisons under a state policy that, until August 2013, allowed young inmates to be placed in cells with adult inmates. Prison officials, the suit contends, ignored or laughed off the inmates’ complaints, and even groped several of the teenagers themselves. The inmates’ lawyers accuse state prison officials of creating a culture of institutional indifference to the attacks.
All of the alleged incidents took place between 2010 and 2013, long after the state acknowledged in 2004 that juvenile offenders were “five times more likely” to be sexually assaulted in prison than adult prisoners.
Listen to some of the young inmate’s accounts of rape here.
Republican-nominated justices Brian Zahra and Stephen Markman dissented. Republican justice Elizabeth Clement declined to participate in the vote because she served as former Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief legal counsel while the case was being litigated against the state before appointed to the Supreme Court by Snyder. (Clement has since been elected to the court.)
The decision is not signed but at least three of the four remaining justices had to vote to deny the appeal for the Court of Appeals decision to stand. Those justices are Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, David Viviano, Richard Bernstein and Megan Cavanaugh.