In the photo shared publicly on Facebook, a large African-American male prisoner has his hand on the arm of a much smaller white prisoner. The face of Justin Bieber is superimposed on the white prisoner. Both are sitting on a prison bunk draped in lace-trimmed curtains. The older prisoner is speaking to the younger one:
“Beliebe me,” the caption reads, “I'll be gentle.”
It’s the type of insensitive, joking attitude toward prison rape that Michigan’s coordinator for prison rape prevention would be expected to try to combat.
Except for one thing: One of Michigan’s prison rape prevention coordinators was the person who posted it.
The story of William Ruhlman, his Facebook page, and a subsequent lawsuit alleging he texted a photo of his penis to another corrections officer, is emblematic, critics say, of the laissez-faire attitude the state has taken toward the sexual assault of Michigan’s most vulnerable inmates.
Between November 2013 and November 2014, Ruhlman was the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) coordinator at the Thumb Correctional Facility, where most of the state’s juvenile inmates are housed. He is now in a different job at the same prison, serving as re-entry coordinator. Ruhlman continued to be the person charged with prevention of sexual abuse and harassment for 10 months after he posted the prison rape joke on his Facebook page.
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said prison officials did not learn of the Facebook post until January 2015, after Ruhlman had left the PREA coordinator position, a post that Gautz said is rotated among staff members.
Gautz said: “The private social media postings that this or any of our other 14,000 employees make during off hours do not reflect the position of the Michigan Department of Corrections, or the great strides we have taken to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.”
But Ruhlman wasn’t just one of 14,000 corrections employees: he was in charge of rape prevention at the prison where most of the state’s juvenile inmates are housed – inmates that, according to a PowerPoint presentation shown to MDOC officials in 2004, are five times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault in prison than are older prisoners.
“It would suggest to me that he is not the person you want in that position. A lot of what we are talking about is respect for boundaries,” said Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington D.C., who served on a commission that issued recommendations to protecting young inmates after PREA’s passage.
“Those messages don't suggest that. Even if it's sexual banter with staff, it's very unlikely it would just remain with staff.”
About a month into Ruhlman’s job as PREA coordinator, MDOC was sued by current and former prisoners alleging that prison officials had not done enough to prevent sexual assaults of juvenile prisoners by older inmates. Read Bridge’s account of the lawsuit.
A month after that, Ruhlman posted the Bieber prison rape joke to his public Facebook page, a decision that lawyers in the prison lawsuit may attempt to use as evidence of the prison system’s indifference to the dangers faced by young inmates.
The state denies the allegations, and MDOC officials note that the department has educated incoming inmates on how to avoid sexual assault since 2007. New prisoners, for instance, are shown a rape prevention video and given a pamphlet that offers advice on avoiding sexual abuse. There are also signs posted at prison entrances stating the system’s commitment to preventing sexual assault.
Nevertheless, the Facebook post appeared to be a hit with some of Ruhlman’s colleagues, including “likes” from two women listed as MDOC employees.
The Facebook posting came to light in April 2014, when attorneys representing the young prisoners found the posting on Ruhlman’s Facebook page. At the time, the state had listed Ruhlman as its first witness in an upcoming hearing in a federal lawsuit making the same allegations as the case now in Washtenaw Circuit Court.
Ruhlman removed the post after being contacted by a journalist writing an article about the prison rape lawsuit.
Ruhlman left the PREA coordinator position in November 2014. He continues to work at MDOC.
Ruhlman is also accused of sexually harassing a co-worker. Ruhlman and the Michigan Department of Corrections are being sued in federal court by a female guard who claimed Ruhlman sent her explicit text messages, emails and Facebook postings requesting sexual favors.
The woman was later fired.