Michigan Owes Millions to Sexually Abused Female Inmates

January 05, 2009 01:45 PM
by Rachel Balik
For 15 years, the state of Michigan has failed to address complaints that female prisoners were being sexually assaulted; now taxpayers could pay millions of dollars in damages.

Female Inmates Experience Years of Sexual Abuse

The state of Michigan has habitually ignored complaints from human rights groups that prison guards were groping, molesting and raping female inmates. Now, a class-action lawsuit first filed in 1996 may cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. So far, 18 women have testified against the Michigan Department of Corrections and have been awarded a total of $50 million. Others have yet to testify; more than 500 inmates have joined the suit.

The state claims that it did nothing earlier because most of the women had failed to report the alleged assaults at the time, and in any case, it could not give credibility to the testimony of convicted criminals.

Background: State ignores complaints

In 2005, The Detroit News did a special report detailing the state’s refusal to acknowledge or address the complaints from female inmates. The report was the culmination of a five-month investigation conducted by the newspaper; it covers the history of legal actions against the state, including the 1996 lawsuit, and the state’s lack of response to allegations of sexual assault.

In 1995, the U.S Department of Justice ruled that the constitutional rights of female inmates were being violated, but even after that ruling, the state of Michigan took little to no action. It took four years for the state to respond to the Justice Department’s suit. Although it promised significant reform, evidence suggests that these reforms were poorly implemented or never actually completed. Furthermore, the state amended the Civil Rights Act so that inmates were prevented from suing their alleged attackers.

Faced with continued lawsuits, the state eventually closed the office of Legislative Corrections Ombudsman, which was responsible for conducting the investigation.

Related Topics: Ignoring sexual harassment; a rise in abuse

Recently, the only female truck driver employed by Atlantic City’s sanitation department sued the city for ignoring her complaints of sexual harassment and failing to remedy the situation. She first reported the incident in 2006 but nothing was done, and the harassment continued.

But Human Rights Watch and other organizations are pushing for better protection for women across the country. In December 2008, HRW publicized a new U.S. Department of Justice survey that indicated that rates of domestic violence and rape were increasing. From 2005 to 2007, the U.S. saw a 42 percent increase in domestic violence and a 25 percent increase in rape. HRW has made suggestions to the Obama administration on how to curtail these disturbing numbers, and is conducting a full-scale investigation of how the criminal justice system is responding to these crimes.

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