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.
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.
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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.