An investigation by the Detroit News exposes Michigan’s continuing failure to protect female prisoners from sexual abuse by guards, despite vowing to do so in an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in 1999. Michigan’s 2,000 female inmates remain in jeopardy, predatory guards often go unpunished and taxpayers face a mounting bill from inmate lawsuits that already exceeds $4 million, the News found.
At the heart of the problem is the department’s failure to change practices that allowed abuse to flourish in the 1990s. Investigations of inmate complaints are often incomplete or superficial. Sexual misconduct complaints are still routinely dismissed on technical grounds, sometimes for the way forms are filled out. The department has never punished officers for failing to report sexual assaults even when there is compelling evidence employees knew of the abuse for months or years yet did nothing. The department continues to punish inmates whose charges do not stand up under scrutiny to discourage false complaints. The practice, which requires victims to offer overwhelming evidence, has chilled reports of assaults, inmates and prison advocates contend. From 2000 to 2003, inmates filed 169 complaints of sexual abuse. In the 145 cases where the outcome is known, prison investigators determined 34 of the claims were true, 67 could not be proved or disproved and 44 were unfounded.