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Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

Bridge Michigan
Michigan Government
Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

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.

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John Doe 1

Bio: Incarcerated at 17 in adult prison in 2012 for second-degree criminal sexual conduct, larceny of a firearm and home invasion.

Allegation: Says he was raped repeatedly by his adult cellmate and other adult prisoners at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia.

Read some of John Doe 1's story:

Not long after he entered the prison system in 2012, John Doe 1 testified, he was overpowered by his larger adult cellmate. He is 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds. He estimated his attacker at 6 feet and 200 pounds. He said his cellmate threatened him with a weapon fashioned from razor blades tied to a stick if he talked. Later, he said, other adult prisoners raped him using the same weapon as a threat. He testified that other prisoners entered his cell, a violation of the rules, in view of guards. Guards, he said, made jokes about him being a “fag” and receiving visitors.

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John Doe 2

Bio: Incarcerated at 16 in adult prison in 2011 for armed robbery.

Allegation: Says he was raped by his adult cellmate at Thumb Correctional Facility and experienced rectal bleeding but was placed back with his assailant.

Read some of John Doe 2's story:

About a year after he was incarcerated, he testified, he awoke one night in his cell at Thumb Correctional Facility to discover his hands and feet bound to the bed. He larger, adult cellmate then attacked him: “And my bunkie was on top of me and he penetrated me anally and it lasted about five to 10 minutes. He was holding my head down and punching me in the back of the head telling me to be quiet, don't make no noise.” He said he put in a request for health care services for rectal bleeding but felt intimidated when several prison officials showed up, in addition to a nurse. He then denied the rape, because:”I thought the information would get back to my bunkie and that he would hurt me like he told me when he sexually assaulted me.”

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John Doe 3

Bio: Incarcerated in 2010 in adult prison for an armed robbery committed at age 14.

Allegation: Says he was sexually attacked by groups of adult prisoners on several occasions and groped by both male and female guards.

Read some of John Doe 3's story:

He testified that he was subjected to “slipping” - homosexual taunts by adult prisoners – the day he entered the prison system. He said guards paid no attention. Later, he said, he was assaulted on several occasions at Thumb Correctional Facility by groups of adult prisoners who entered his cell. He said female guards would squeeze his testicles, marking remarks like “nice.” He testified that male guards squeezed his genitals on eight or nine occasions. He said he complained directly to a guard while this was going on, and the guard “threatened to Tase me and take me to the hole” if he complained further.

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John Doe 4

Bio: Incarcerated in 2012 at age 16 in adult prison for carrying a concealed weapon and assault with a dangerous weapon.

Allegation: Testified that a female guard at Thumb Correctional Facility coerced him into sexual intercourse, twice in a broom closet and once in his cell. Said female guards grabbed his testicles on numerous occasions. Testified he spent 130 days in solitary confinement his first year in prison.

Read some of John Doe 4's story:

At Thumb Correctional Facility, he testified, he grew accustomed to pat downs by female guards that became sexual assaults when guards on several occasions grabbed his testicles. Out in the prison yard one day, a guard asked for a shakedown. “She grabbed my genitals and talked about nut check and you know, I felt like I was degraded in what she had did.” He said he felt compelled to have sex with another female guard, saying “She probably could have wrote me a ticket, anything, (if) I ain't doing nothing with her.” Of his time in solitary, he recalled: “It's a single cell with doors and a food slot and a little window.”

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John Doe 5

Bio: Incarcerated in 2011 in adult prison for first-degree criminal sexual conduct at 16.

Allegation: While at Thumb Correctional Facility, he testified, he was harassed and groped by male prisoners, raped by his adult cellmate, abused by female guards. At Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon County, he said, he was raped by adult prisoners who paid his cellmate for access.

Read some of John Doe 5's story:

He recalled his cellmate at Thumb Correctional Facility, who blurted out one day: “I want to have sex with you....And this guy, he's a bigger guy, and he forced me down on the bed, pulled my pants down, and had sex with me.” John Doe 5 was about 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds at the time. His attacker, whom he guessed was 22, weighed 200 pounds. He recalled a female guard who would pat him down and “grab my genitals really hard and she'd say, 'Do you like that?'” He recalled an attack by an adult prisoner – not his cellmate - at Brooks Correctional Facility. He recalled the assailant was in his 40s, muscular and weighed 230 pounds. “He was older than me, bigger than me, and he could fight way better than me. He got the better hand in the fight.” At one point, he testified, a guard at Brooks commented to him: “'I heard you were f----d.'”

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John Doe 6

Bio: Incarcerated at 17 in adult prison in 2012 for larceny from a motor vehicle, criminal sexual conduct and possession of a weapon in jail, after he was found with a homemade stabbing weapon in jail. He had a lengthy juvenile history, including charges of assault and battery, minor in possession and escape from a juvenile facility.

Allegation: Says he was harassed and threatened by adult prisoners at Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center in Ionia, pressed for sex by adults at another Ionia prison and transferred to Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Lenawee County. There, he said, he was raped and assaulted by two adult prisoners. He said he later reported the rape to prison officials but nothing came of it.

Read some of John Doe 6's story:

John Doe 6 recalled the day he entered prison: “I got pressed (for sex) the second I walked in the block. Guys were yelling over the galleries to me: 'You're hot, you're sexy, I can't wait to get around you to f--- you.'” He said guards “were around but they didn't care.” He was on serving duty in the laundry room at Gus Harrison, he said, when an adult inmate told him he was going to have sex with him. Later, he said, he was attacked by that inmate and another adult inmate in the laundry room, adding that one “made me do oral sex and the other one made me do oral sex and anal sex.” He was transferred to Marquette Branch Prison, where he said he reported the rape and the names of the attackers. He said he talked to prison officials at Marquette about the attack but that nothing apparently came of it. At one point, he said, he began cutting himself with a rock to relieve his depression over the rape.

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John Doe 7

Bio: Incarcerated in the summer of 2013 at age 17 in adult prison for carrying a concealed weapon, stemming from an incident earlier that year in which he held up a motorist with a handgun. He's now on probation.

Allegation: In July 2013, says he was assaulted and harassed by an adult prisoner who entered his cell at Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Ionia. After calling for help, he testified, he was further assaulted by the prisoner.

Read some of John Doe 7's story:

Not long after he entered prison, he testified, a guard warned him what was in store for him, saying, “'You are a fish and you know you just came to prison, watch what you do because you are likely to get raped….'” Not longer after, he testified, a larger male prisoner in his 40s entered his cell at chow time, hit him with a lock wrapped up in a sock and assaulted him. “He hit me with the lock and tried to make one more attempt and...grabbed his penis and tried to put it toward my mouth and at that time I started to yell – yell for help, help, help, help.” The assailant then ran out, he said. He said he reported the attack to guards and asked for grievance forms. But he said he did not turn in the forms, because the same guard who warned him “just thought it was a joke when I told him that it happened.”
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First of two parts

One said he was raped in a shower. Another said he was tied down by a bunkmate and sodomized. Still others said they were forced into oral sex, or had their genitals squeezed by prison guards, male and female.

They were inmates thrown into Michigan prisons at 17 or even younger, a practice with predictable risks. Once inside, they said they were sexually taunted by adult prisoners and guards and raped by men far older and more powerful than themselves. One noted that when his cellmate was done with him, he was handed over to other prisoners for a bag of beef sticks and chips. When the teenagers reported attacks, they said prison guards laughed at their torment, or did nothing.

Bridge has obtained exclusive access to testimony from all seven teenage inmates originally named in a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections. Their testimony, outlined in raw video depositions, chronicles dozens of assaults across 10 Michigan prisons, nearly a decade after state prison officials vowed to protect young inmates from sexual assault.

The allegations, if true, raise serious questions about the competence of state corrections officials under multiple Michigan governors. They also raise the prospect of another large payout by a state that, just six years ago, agreed to pay $100 million to settle a case involving the sexual assault of female inmates by prison guards.

The accounts are notable for their grim consistency. The similarity of the testimony ‒ given at different times, in different places, by teens who did not know one another ‒ raise a profound challenge to the state’s defense that the rapes were invented. That defense may be further strained by 200 additional young inmates cited in the class-action suit, who say they were harmed, sexually or otherwise, by the state’s policy (since halted) of housing 17 year olds with adult prisoners.

Inaction by guards

In the depositions reviewed by Bridge, along with interviews with some of the inmates, the teens portray Michigan prisons as a hothouse of sexual predation and menace literally from the moment they entered. Far from protecting their young charges, corrections officers were indifferent to teens’ complaints or simply amused by the danger they faced. As the teenager known as John Doe 1 described it, he was sure guards knew about the stream of predators entering his cell “because they would make a joke about me getting visitors and call me fag.”

Cells weren’t the only danger zone. The teens told of rapes in showers, bathrooms, laundry rooms and broom closets. One said he had to request extra underwear because of rectal bleeding. Another recounted a desperate struggle at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility near Muskegon to keep from being turned on his stomach as a 6-foot-4, 230-pound prisoner in his 40s raped him from behind. He was 5-foot-8 and 148 pounds.

“He was older than me, bigger than me, and he could fight way better than me. He got the better hand in the fight,” the inmate testified. Afterward, he said, a guard remarked to him, “I heard you got f----d.”

Another teen said he told prison officials he was raped by two men. He put his safety further at risk by identifying the perpetrators. He said he never heard back.

The plaintiffs say correction officers did more than tolerate the sexual taunts directed at the teens by older prisoners ‒ a practice known as “slipping.” Several inmates recounted how male and female guards added their own layer of abuse by squeezing the inmates’ genitals, often to the amusement of other guards or prisoners.

When one plaintiff complained after being groped by guards, he said a guard “threatened to Tase me and take me to the hole” (an isolation cell) if he took it further.

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the lawsuit, and the Michigan Department of Corrections say they have found no evidence that any of the reported sexual assaults took place.

Andrea Bitely, press secretary for Attorney General Bill Schuette, told Bridge the office does not comment on ongoing cases. Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said the department is “confident the assertions made in the lawsuit are false,” but declined further comment.

In court, the state has raised questions about the credibility of the plaintiffs, who now number 11, and in one instance derided the suggestion that the teenagers sent to Michigan prisons are young innocents.

“I know for emotional grab it's important to say things like ‘children’ and ‘little kids’ and stuff like that,” an attorney for Schuette’s office said at a hearing last year. “If you look at their records, these are people who have been convicted of first-degree murder, multiple armed robberies, sexual assaults, tortures, carjackings, kidnapping; these are not minor events.”

Debate over what was known

The sexual assaults took place between 2010 and 2013, the suit said. Through most of that period, Michigan routinely integrated 17-year-olds into the general prison population.

The state did not complete its effort to segregate inmates 17 and younger until August 2013, one year after federal guidelines called for juveniles to be separated by “sight and sound” from adults. States that don’t follow that standard can lose 5 percent of their funding for prisons. Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer for the teens, contends that in the year it took the state to separate juveniles from adults, adult prisoners committed an additional 40 assaults.

“New fish” ‒ One teen inmate’s account of sexual assault

Today, the youngest Michigan prison inmates are now in a wing of the Thumb Correctional Facility east of Flint.

Michigan prison spokesman Gautz said the department began providing sexual assault prevention educational material to all incoming prisoners as early as 2007.

Indeed, signs through the prison system proclaim in black in white that Michigan has “zero tolerance” for harassment or abuse of prisoners by either staff or prisoners, as does official prison policy.

But Brenda Smith, a law professor at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington D.C. and former member of federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission, said it takes more than words and documents to effect change.

Given the lawsuit's assertion that guards often turned a blind eye to complaints or signs of abuse, Smith questioned how seriously Michigan prison officials have taken this issue.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Smith, who directs the school's Project on Addressing Prison Rape.

But while the lawsuit portrays an out-of-control prison environment, Patricia Caruso, who was director of the Michigan prison system from 2003 to 2011, said that image does not mesh with her recollection of how the prison system operated.

“I am never going to say those things don’t happen, but they are not the norm,” Caruso said. “I do know that people don’t always tell the truth, people on both sides of the law.”

Caruso declined to comment on the specifics of the class-action lawsuit. But she said it does not make sense for prison staff to tolerate a chaotic environment rife with abuse. “Staff benefits from a safely run system. It doesn’t make sense to behave that way, it just doesn’t.”

At the same time, she added, “When I was a director, I said that juveniles don't belong in the (adult) system, and they don't.”

She won’t get much argument on that point from one University of Michigan law professor.

Margo Schlanger, who helped craft federal policy protecting juveniles from adult prisoners, said the state’s tactics in aggressively defending the claims could backfire if the case goes to a jury.

The teenage inmates in the current suit have a lot in common with the female prisoners in the earlier case, she said; namely, multiple inmates telling remarkably similar stories.

“Especially when they don’t know each other,” Schlanger said. “As a juror, it’s corroborating evidence when multiple people have the same testimony.”

The research was clear

Lawyers for the young inmates, many of whom also represented the female inmates in the earlier lawsuit, argue that state prison officials have known for more than a decade that teen offenders need added protection.

“Youth become prey in prisons if you put them in with adults,” said LaBelle, whose Ann Arbor firm is one of four representing the teenage prisoners.

Back in 2004, two Michigan Department of Corrections officials shared a PowerPoint slide show with department staff. One slide warned that preventing prison rape is a “matter of national priority” and that teens in adult prisons were “five times more likely to be raped.”

“They knew that,” LaBelle said. “And for 10 years, they flung youth in adult prisons and housed youth with adult prisoners in the same cells and did not take steps to protect them.”

The lawsuit contends the victimized prisoners were further hampered by a grievance procedure that discouraged complaints. According to the suit, the young inmates were advised that before they could file a grievance there had to be a consultation with the prisoner being accused of assault. Complying with the procedure placed the teens “in grave danger,” the suit maintains.

The plaintiffs also point to a number of national studies had show mixing prisoners 17 and younger with adult prisoners is a combustible blend:

  • A 1989 study in the Juvenile & Family Court Journal found that juveniles in adult prison were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than if they were in a juvenile facility and nearly twice as likely to be beaten by staff. Nearly one-third of juveniles in prison reported they had been attacked by a weapon, compared with less than a fourth in a juvenile facility.
  • In 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a 378-page report, “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” that included widespread accounts of rape in prisons across the United States, including men coerced into sex while guards stood by, and some inmates forced into virtual sex slavery.
  • In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), aimed in part at protecting juvenile prisoners from sexual assault. It established a commission to issue recommendations and in 2009, it released a report estimating that 60,000 U.S. inmates were assaulted each year.

The 2009 report warned that juveniles were especially vulnerable.

“More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse,” the report stated.

Punk prison

How did Michigan become so bullish on sending young offenders to adult prisons?

The push began in the 1980s, with a rise nationally in juvenile crime. In 1988, Michigan's Legislature approved a measure giving prosecutors more authority to charge teens as young as 15 as adults for a short list of crimes, including first-degree murder.

In the 1990s, Gov. John Engler called for even tougher measures for “punks,” as public anxiety grew over juvenile crime. Those fears were stoked by warnings from analysts like Princeton University political science professor John DiIulio, who issued an alarming forecast in 1995 about the impending rise of the youth “superpredator.”

In 1996, Engler signed a measure removing any minimum age that a juvenile could be tried as an adult and giving prosecutors the power to automatically charge juveniles as young as 14 as an adult for 18 offenses. According to a University of Michigan study, the number of juveniles in Michigan prisons nearly quadrupled in a decade, from 54 in 1988 to 202 in 1998.

But the “superpredator” juvenile crime wave never materialized, as U.S. violent juvenile crime peaked in 1994 and fell by 48 percent between 1994 and 2003. That year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the violent juvenile arrest rate stood at its lowest level since 1980. In Michigan, juvenile violent arrests fell by more than half from 1994 to 2002. DiIulio later recanted his theory.

In the years since, child advocates point to research showing that putting juveniles in adult prison only increases the chances they will commit another crime when they get out.

“Adult prisons are not equipped to deal with the needs of juveniles,” said Kristen Staley, associate director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency a Lansing-based advocacy group. “They have different developmental needs.”

A 2007 survey of research on juvenile incarceration by the Centers for Disease Control found that juveniles transferred to the adult system “resulted in increased arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime” by those juveniles.

Juveniles are also more likely to commit suicide in adult settings. A 2000 federal report found that juveniles in adult jails were five times more likely to commit suicide than the general population and eight times more likely than juveniles sent to juvenile detention facilities.

Out of step

Today, Michigan is one of nine states that mandate prosecution of 17-year-olds as adults. The state sets no minimum age for when juveniles can be charged as adults. And Michigan is one of just four states that provide no judicial review for when juveniles are automatically waived into adult court, according to Carmen Daugherty, policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“Michigan is out of step with the direction other states are going,” Daugherty said.

At the end of 2013, according to U.S. Department of Justice data, Michigan ranked fifth in the number of youth in state prison with 73 inmates 17 or younger, though they were now segregated from adults.

With more than 350 inmates sentenced to life without parole as youth, the state is second only to Pennsylvania in the number of juvenile lifers.

LaBelle, the inmates’ lawyer, acknowledges that not everyone sees these get-tough policies as a problem. Likewise, not everyone is going to take pity on her young clients, who have been found guilty of such crimes as armed robbery, carrying a concealed weapon, larceny from a vehicle and criminal sexual conduct.

But she contends that the punishment for crimes, even serious crimes, should not be rape.

“Your sentence is loss of freedom,” LaBelle said. “I can't believe anyone would allow a judge to stand up and say, ‘We are going to sentence you to be in a cell for three years and, by the way, we are going to allow you to be raped for three years.'”

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