Warning: This report contains explicit language and graphic accounts of alleged sexual assaults in Michigan prisons. The language and descriptions are included because they are central to understanding the allegations in a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections.
A sign in the entrance to Michigan prisons spells out the state's official policy.
“Sexual abuse is not part of your sentence,” it reads, adding that the Michigan Department of Corrections has “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse or harassment by prisoners or staff.
Seated in a small visitor room at one Michigan prison, the inmate known in a class-action lawsuit as John Doe 3 recounted a contrary experience.
Hands clasped in his lap, the 20-year-old looked up and shook his head when asked about the sign out front: “In actuality,” he said, “we know the truth.”
He had entered the state prison system in 2010 at age 16, a slender 6-feet and 170 pounds. He faced a minimum seven years in prison for an armed robbery he committed at 14.
“There would be people yelling from the top floor sexual remarks, saying they was going to rape me if they catch me, saying stuff like, 'I can't wait to rape the new fish,'” according to sworn testimony he has given in the suit against the state, citing prison slang for new prisoners. He said the guards paid no attention.
A few days later, he was transferred to a prison in the Thumb.
“It started off as slipping,” he said, referring to prison slang for sexual taunts. “Like basically… ‘I can't wait to rape you.’'”
Not long after, he testified, several adult prisoners entered his cell, pulled off his prison blues and attacked. “They was grabbing my ass, they were grabbing my genitals, and I was trying to fight.”
He testified that the prisoners entered his cell not far from the guard desk, where the guard at duty would have been able to “clearly see” what was going on. John Doe 3 said it stopped just short of rape when other prisoners came into the cell and halted the attack.
He said he was transferred to a prison in the Upper Peninsula after piling up lots of tickets for misbehavior. There, he said, male prison guards squeezed his genitals on eight or nine occasions and, when he complained, a guard “threatened to Tase me and take me to the hole” if he took it further.
Born to prison
Doe 3’s troubles began early in life. He testified that he was literally born in prison, reunited with his mother at age 1 after she was released. Trouble followed.
“Basically I grew up in a household of violence. My dad always beat us, beat my ma,” he said. “like he used to beat us with belts, leather belts. I mean way back in the day it was a paddle.”
He said he was expelled from school in eighth grade for fighting. By 12, he attended parties with his parents featuring kegs of beer and a white powder. He recalls relatives at the parties, and guns on the counter.
Doe 3 said he ran away from home in 2008, the year he was charged at 14 with armed robbery of the convenience store with three other teens. He began serving his sentence at a county juvenile facility before being transferred to the adult system at 16.
His pre-sentence investigation indicated he was doing well in classes at the county youth facility before he was transferred to the adult system as part of his sentence. According to his teacher, he was an “A student who applies himself. His reading level is above the 12th grade and his math level is 9th grade,” it stated.
A new world
John Doe 3 said he was introduced to rape culture from his first days in adult prison.
It began with threats of sexual assault from adult prisoners at the state system's central intake prison, the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center in Jackson, he said in a deposition obtained by Bridge in the rape lawsuit.
He testified the assaults continued at his next two stops, the Thumb Correctional Facility and the Chippewa Correctional Facility in a remote portion of the eastern Upper Peninsula. He said guards grabbed his genitals at both facilities and prisoners groped him in the hallway on the way to chow in full view of guards. When they did, he said, guards would make approving comments, saying, “‘Grab you harder.’”
He said he started fights in order to be removed from the general adult population and put in an isolation cell. Even then he felt vulnerable. He recalled an incident one day as he made his way in handcuffs from solitary to the shower, when a towel wrapped around his waist accidentally fell to the floor.
“And I was standing naked in the hallway of the hole and people were yelling out their door sexual comments, saying they liked my ass, they can't wait to get out of the hole, you know what I mean, to rape me, saying comments like that. And then it was people yell..., laughing in their cell. The CO (guard) was laughing at me.”
Neither the Michigan Attorney General’s office nor the Michigan Department of Corrections would comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, filed in 2013. In more general statements, they have said they’ve found no evidence of the sexual assaults alleged by plaintiffs.
In his testimony, John Doe 3 said he began having flashbacks and nightmares about the attacks.
“Basically it could be like I used to probably just be sleeping or just lying in the bed...And then like I think somebody's grabbing me and I jump.”
Sitting in a visiting room in March, John Doe 3 tried to imagine a future outside prison. He said it had been years since any member of his family had come to visit. He had already spent a third of his life in detention or behind bars.
He mentioned earning his GED two years ago. He talked about holding out for over two more years, until his potential release in December 2017. Inspired by an uncle who liked to cook, he thinks maybe he can become a chef.
In the meantime, he said, he sleeps with his back to the wall, facing out toward the center of the cell.
“That way,” he said, “I know there is nobody behind me.”