For years, rights groups warned that male guards were sexually assaulting female inmates in Michigan prisons. Those warnings went unheeded, says the Detroit Free Press in the first of a five-part series. Now, state taxpayers may pay a price too. More than 500 women are suing. They stand to collect $50 million so far, with more trials to come. A class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections has yielded verdicts reaching an estimated $50 million, when interest and fees are included, for only 18 women. With most yet to testify, and lawyers for the state insisting they have no intention of settling, Michigan’s beleaguered taxpayers could face hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
“A prison is not supposed to turn you back out to society with more harm than when you came in,” said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor civil rights lawyer has helped the women. “No one, no one in this country, no one in a civilized society is sentenced to be raped and assaulted in prison.” The state’s defense: Why didn’t they speak up? Many women said they were routinely molested by guards who took advantage of rules that required them to meet a daily quota of pat-down searches for weapons, drugs, or other contraband. Inmates said guards ran their hands over the women’s legs, buttocks, and breasts under the guise of security. When it became clear the guards wouldn’t be punished, some fondled women in front of other inmates and guards, or openly masturbated in the prison yard. It is illegal for guards to have sexual contact with prisoners, even by consent. Some guards convinced women to submit to ongoing sex for “protecting” them from fellow guards. The state said it investigated any allegations it knew about and the claims of abuse were exaggerated. “To say the department just sat back and did nothing, just let everybody run the place is just totally false,” said Allan Soros, an assistant attorney general.