Correcting the Department of Corrections

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If the great Russian novelist quoted above entered some of Michigan’s prisons, he’d find officials, some paid with our tax dollars, complicit in the rape and abuse of minors by adult inmates. He would find basic violations of law and common decency in places that are supposed to “correct” violators of the law. The very conditions that make the assaults possible are violations of federal and state law and are part of a huge lawsuit being brought by survivors of intense and regular prison violence.

Ann Arbor attorney Deb Labelle brought the suit against the Michigan Department of Corrections based on failures of staff to protect prisoners from violence and the systematic failure to keep minors separated from adults. It’s a class action lawsuit on behalf of 500 minors age 14–17 who are were housed in adult prisons and inadequately supervised to protect them from assault, abuse and degradation. Michigan is an outlier, one of only eight states that fail to separate minors from adults with “sight and sound” barriers required by federal regulation and, in Michigan’s case, state regulation as well.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is “John,” whose incredible and harrowing tale of repeated sexual violence is detailed in an article from the Marshall Project that also appears in the Atlantic Magazine. John lived with his grandparents after his mom went to prison for crimes connected to her drug addiction.. It was during that time that he was diagnosed as being bipolar and having post-traumatic stress disorders and given meds that made him feel “like a zombie.” He tried to commit suicide after his grandfather died. Being reconnected with his mother only set him on track for prison, as she still struggled with addiction and insisted that John help her steal to support her habit.

After committing a series of break-ins he wound up at age 17 in an adult facility where, like many younger inmates, he was sexually assaulted and sold for sex by another inmate. Complaints and attempts to protect himself were either futile or, ironically, could be interpreted as misconduct. In many cases like John’s, prison staff facilitated the assaults by allowing perpetrators access or had sex with prisoners themselves.

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) back in 2003. But it has yet to have the needed impact or enforcement. Last year the PREA coordinator for the Thumb Correctional Facility, William Ruhlman, shared a Facebook post that featured a large black inmate coming onto a white prisoner with Justin Bieber’s face superimposed on his photo. The caption read “Beliebe me, I’ll be gentle.” Ruhlman added a smiley face to the post to indicate it was a joke. Ruhlman removed the post and refused interviews. MDOC has vehemently repudiated the posting but nothing’s really changed.

Instead of correcting the situation, working to make prisons safer, Attorney General Bill Schuette has fought the lawsuit tooth and nail, losing 12 appeals and a good chunk of tax dollars in the process. It’s unlikely Michigan’s AG would ever recognize what it takes for prisoners to step up to be a part of the lawsuit. He represents the ethos that has made Michigan the only state to put youth as young as 13 in adult facilities. But the lawsuit being brought by Labelle and the 500 inmates represents a new day. It represents a good chance that Michigan will no longer pay staff who facilitate rape and have sex with prisoners. Even our prisons can represent our values and not those of the criminal element we ostensibly seek to correct by sending them there.