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Lawsuit says rape common for juvenile offenders placed in adult prisons

Prison bars
Ken Mayer
prison cell

A group of young male prisoners is suing the state of Michigan.

The prisoners allege they were subjected to sexual harassment, rape, and in some instances sexual trafficking, as a result of the state's policy of housing juvenile offenders age 17 and younger in the same facility as adult offenders.

"Placing children in adult facilities puts them at five times a greater risk of rape than if you keep them in a juvenile facility," says attorney Deborah LaBelle, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners.

LaBelle estimates at least 500 prisoners age 13 to 17 were affected by the state's policy, which recently changed in August.

She says most states do not put children in adult prisons.  Michigan, Florida and Louisiana are the exceptions.

State officials say they are in full compliance of a new federal law, called the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlin says, in a written statement:

The Prison Rape Elimination Act that passed Congress in 2003 called for developing national standards. The standards weren’t finalized until 2012 and went into effect on August 20, 2013. One of the PREA standards for prisons and jails calls for the separation of 17 and younger offenders from 18 and older offenders. We are complying with the PREA Act and as of August 20th, we do separate 17 and under prisoners from 18 and older prisoners

The lawsuit says the state acted with deliberate indifference to the risks facing the youthful offenders. 

One inmate says prison guards permitted him to be sexually trafficked to other prisoners by his cellmates.

Others say they were punished with long stints in solitary confinement for complaining about rapes, or refusing to leave their cells for fear of being raped again.

The lawsuit also alleges female guards sexually harassed and sexually assaulted male juvenile offenders in adult prisons.

LaBelle recently won a 2009 settlement with the state over sexual harassment and assault of female prisoners by male guards. 

The state paid $100 million dollars to settle the case, and agreed not to put male prison guards in women's prisons.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.