Teens raped in prison have civil rights, Michigan appeals court rules

Hundreds of Michigan teen prison inmates who were housed with adult inmates got a boost in this lawsuit from a Michigan appeals court ruling.

The state can be held liable for teens raped in Michigan prisons, after the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled a state law that halted civil rights at the prison gate was unconstitutional.

In a 2-1 decision released Tuesday, a Court of Appeals panel threw out a 1999 law that said the state’s civil rights law, the Elliott Larson Civil Rights Act, doesn’t apply to prisoners.

That 1999 law, aimed at limited the state’s liability in a lawsuit filed by women who had been raped in Michigan prisons, was pushed by then-Gov. John Engler. Engler’s handling of that suit was raised as a concern when he was named interim president of Michigan State University in January, in the midst of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Kirsten F. Kelly, also ruled the state is not immune from liability in lawsuits filed by prisoners alleging violations of their civil rights.


The ruling clears the way for a lawsuit involving more than 900 young men  to move forward. A similar lawsuit filed by women assaulted in prison cost the state $100 million.

“Children in Michigan prisons have protections under the civil rights act. We all win,” Deborah LaBelle, the lead attorney representing the prisoners, told Bridge Tuesday. “Once you decide that people in jail are still people, it leads you to say … the state has to be held accountable for their wrongs; they don’t have immunity for violating their citizens’ rights."

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 with seven unnamed prisoners and former prisoners, and has grown into a class action with more than 900 young men who claim they were harmed, sexually or otherwise, while being forced to live in the general adult prison population. In 2013, the Michigan Department of Correction changed its policies and now segregates teens from adult prisoners.

The lawsuit contends prison officials did not take claims of sexual assault seriously, and created a culture of institutional indifference to assaults.

In 2015, Bridge published segments of video depositions of the unnamed prisoners. The stories of the prisoners, who did not know each other, had a grim and graphic similarity that added credence to their claims of sexual assault by older prisoners.

In his dissent, appellate Judge Peter O’Connell said that “allowing plaintiffs to use the (state civil rights law) in this innovative manner places an impossible burden on public service providers and is antagonistic to current state law.”

Megan Hawthorne, press secretary for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, representing the state in the case, said the office is reviewing the ruling. 

“After almost two dozen appeals and stays, we want to get to trial,” LaBelle said. 

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Janet Van
Wed, 03/28/2018 - 9:22am

I would argue that the right not to be raped is a human right, not a civil right. Why is that so hard for Michigan to comprehend?

Fri, 03/30/2018 - 8:14am

So Judge O'Connell thinks that putting pressure on prison staff to prevent rape and other sexual assaults "places an impossible burden on public service providers and is antagonistic to current state law". He needs to spend a little time in a cell. Get to know some big, hairy guys who might show him the necessity of this change.