Hundreds of young men in Michigan say they were sexually assaulted while serving time in adult prisons when they were still teenagers. The state's Department of Corrections, they allege in a class action lawsuit, failed to provide them with adequate protection.
Last month, the Michigan Supreme Court cleared the legal path for these men to sue the state of Michigan for damages.
Elvir and Dominic say they were sexually assaulted while incarcerated as teenagers. For that reason, we are not publishing their surnames. Deborah LaBelle is the lead attorney in the class action lawsuit that both men are are involved in.
Dominic first went to a juvenile correctional facility at 14 years of age after being arrested for armed robbery. But after he entered an adult prison at 16, he says that correctional officers allowed other prisoners to enter his cell and sexually assault him.
“I had to endure gang members trying to rape me, like actually breaking into my prison cell — the cell that I was supposed to be protected in by the correctional officers,” Dominic said.
Elvir was 15 years old when he first entered prison after being convicted for home invasion. There, he says that he and other incarcerated minors experienced sexual harassment on a regular basis. Elvir says that he was sexually assaulted by a correctional officer.
“It started from the gate. There was no pause throughout the whole time, there was no — there was no breath,” Elvir said. “It was rough. It was more than rough.”
LaBelle says that there are potentially more than 1,000 young men who experienced sexual abuse between the ages of 14 and 17 while incarcerated in adult prisons in the state. According to LaBelle, more than 500 have come forward and reported their assaults so far. She notes that while it’s legal in Michigan to incarcerate youth in adult prisons, the state is also obligated to supervise those children and provide them with protection once they’re there.
Some incarcerated youth — including Elvir and Dominic — endured solitary confinement after speaking out about their assaults.
“Either because youth fought to protect themselves or because after they were assaulted, [the prisons] didn’t know what to do with them, many of them spent months and months and months in solitary confinement alone,” LaBelle said.
This year, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down an amendment to the Michigan Civil Rights Act that had previously stated that the civil rights of incarcerated people were not protected. Now, LaBelle and her colleagues are moving forward with two lawsuits: one in federal court and one in state court.
She says that the state case is asking for damages for the youth who say they were sexually abused in prison. The federal case is asking for damages as well, but it's also looking to get a ruling that would end the practice of putting minors in solitary confinement.
“If you put a child in a closet for three days, the child protection agency would be there. So to put a 14 and 15 year old for 30, 40, 60 days in an isolation cell… It doesn’t work. it’s just pure, cruel punishment and damage,” LaBelle said.
Elvir says the trauma he experienced in prison continues to impact his daily life. Although he recognizes the mistakes he made as a child, Elvir says he “shouldn’t have been sentenced” to the abuse he endured while incarcerated.
“I was sentenced to three years. Not three years of rape, not three years of sexual harassment,” Elvir said.
LaBelle says that the class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan will begin in January 2020.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.