DETROIT -- The state of Michigan has agreed to pay $80 million to settle a class-action lawsuit on behalf of male teens who said they were sexually harassed or assaulted in prison while housed with adults, officials said Thursday.
The deal closes years of litigation. The lawsuit accused the Corrections Department of failing to prevent the assaults, especially abuse that was “open and obvious” by prisoners and staff.
The department had denied the allegations and aggressively fought the lawsuit by appealing — and losing — some key court decisions. It said it wasn't able to corroborate the allegations.
But Attorney General Dana Nessel said the settlement before a series of trials “allows us to move forward and brings closure for the inmates.”
“I believe prisoners are entitled to be treated with respect and basic human dignity," Nessel said. “I know MDOC has made significant strides under the leadership of Director Washington and that the past seven years of litigation do not reflect the values of her administration or the current reality of life inside Michigan’s prison system.”
She was referring to Heidi Washington, who became prisons director after the lawsuit was filed.
“I would agree that during that the trajectory of this case the department has responded to the allegations and improved conditions,” said Deborah LaBelle, the attorney who filed the lawsuit.
It's unclear how many people will seek a share of the settlement, although the pool likely will be 1,000 or more, LaBelle told The Associated Press.
She said a committee will evaluate claims. The state will have no role in how money is distributed.
“We have heard from hundreds, so we know it was widespread and there was a great deal of harm,” LaBelle said. “Youth who were subjected to penetrative assaults qualify for the most. Those who were subjected to sexual harassment, touching, will receive less because the severity of the injuries was different.”
Teens who were in solitary confinement also qualify. Under the deal, any child support or restitution owed to crime victims must be paid out of the settlement.
One-third of the deal, or roughly $26 million, will go to the legal team, which worked on the case for a decade, LaBelle said.
Male teens younger than 18 no longer are in cells with adults but are at an adult prison in Lapeer. Female teens are kept apart from women at the state's only prison for women near Ypsilanti. Twenty-nine of Michigan’s 38,000 inmates are under 18.
Washington wants the Legislature to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to adult prison.
“Unfortunately we still have a system that allows individuals as young as 13 years old to come into our adult prison system. And this has led to where we are today,” she said.
It's not the first time that Michigan has agreed to a major settlement over prison conditions. In 2009, the state agreed to pay $100 million to hundreds of female prisoners who said they were assaulted or harassed by male guards.
Associated Press writer David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, contributed to this story.
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