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Michigan settles juvenile inmate sex assault claims as trial nears

After fighting lawsuits for seven years that allege rape and other abuse of juvenile prisoners housed with adult inmates, the state of Michigan has quietly agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to settle the cases. 

The state has aggressively contested the suits, known as the John Does vs. Michigan Department of Corrections cases, with a flurry of motions and appeals, while denying there is sufficient proof the abuse ever happened.

A federal court document filed Friday revealed that the parties had “reached a class settlement on damages” in the litigation, which has played out in two separate suits — one in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and one in the Washtenaw Circuit Court.

That document did not immediately reveal a financial award to the juvenile inmates, saying that final deal is contingent on plaintiffs claims for “equitable relief”; that is, any non-monetary terms the state would agree to carry out as part of a final deal.  

The document states the parties agreed to a 30-day stay (delay) of proceedings in court, dating back to Dec. 27. The two sides are to meet Jan. 16 to address plaintiff claims for equitable relief. It is not clear from the court filing when financial terms of the settlement will be made public. 

Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment in an email to Bridge Magazine on Saturday.

But pressure on the state may have mounted with the Washtenaw Circuit Court case set to go to trial Jan. 13, in a lawsuit that had grown to more than 500 current and former prisoners.

In 1996, the state took a similar approach defending the prison system against accusations of sexual assault made in unrelated suits by women inmates. The state fought those claims for over a decade, only to eventually pay the women more than $100 million in damages. LaBelle was a lead lawyer in that litigation as well. 

Prior to this week’s settlement, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, had vigorously defended the state against allegations of abuse of juveniles in state prisons since taking office last January, staking out a defense similar to her Republican predecessor Bill Schuette.

In October, she told Bridge in a statement that many of the abuse claims lacked evidence. 

Nessel said then that while a prison sentence “does not and should not include subjugation to physical or sexual assault…(m)any of the allegations only surfaced after litigation ensued and there is no corroborating evidence that the alleged assault occurred—no medical evidence, testimony by other inmates or staff who witnessed the assaults, and in several cases, not even an identification of the perpetrator.

“To assume the accusations made by the plaintiffs are truthful, often without any supporting evidence, or that the state should pay hundreds of millions of dollars for acts that would never result in settlements or judgments of that kind for law-abiding citizens outside a correctional facility, is simply unreasonable and unfair to Michigan’s taxpayers.”

The juvenile prison suit involves claims by current and former inmates aged 14 to 17 who said they suffered repeated sexual assault under a state policy that, until August 2013, allowed juvenile inmates sentenced as adults to be placed in prison cells with adult inmates.

They said prison officers ignored or laughed off complaints of rape and sexual assault by older inmates. In some cases, officers themselves assaulted juveniles, they said. The abuse was constant: in prison cells, showers, closets, bathrooms and hallways.

The alleged attacks took place between 2009 and 2013, years after the state acknowledged that juvenile inmates were “five times more likely” to be sexually assaulted in an adult prison. They also followed passage of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, based on congressional findings of the high risk of sexual abuse of youths who incarcerated in adult prisons.

Between 2004 and 2013, Michigan inmates filed more than 3,500 sexual abuse-related complaints, according to the MDOC. The state substantiated 6 percent of the claims.

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