“This is quite the landmark settlement,” says Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal Review.
Wright is referring to a $100 million deal reached this summer by the state attorney general and lawyers representing hundreds of women in Michigan prisons. The women, represented by Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, claimed they’d been sexually abused by male guards or prison staff in incidents from March 1993 through this August. Two other Ann Arbor attorneys, Molly Reno and Dick Soble, also litigated for the women.
The legal action dates to 1996, when the first of three lawsuits was filed; they were eventually consolidated into one class-action case involving more than 500 women. The allegations ranged from constant “pat downs” to rape.
The first trial, involving ten of the class members, was heard before a Washtenaw County jury in 2008. The jury not only ruled in favor of the women, its members took the extraordinary step of apologizing to the plaintiffs as representatives of the citizens of Michigan. The state appealed the verdict, lost, and then settled the remaining cases.
While female prisoners are abused in other states, LaBelle says, Michigan’s “culture of denial” was “extreme.” She praises the prisoners for their courage in talking to lawyers, saying some were further harassed for speaking out. And they praise her in return.
“The only person I had to protect me and believe in me was Deborah LaBelle,” says one former prisoner. She says that one male guard assaulted her and others (all “very young–serving long sentences”) for years.
Wright, an expert on prisoner cases, believes the settlement to be the “highest ever involving a prison where the defendants are government employees and there is a strong likelihood the judgment will be paid.” The state has also banned male guards from women’s living quarters.
Of the settlement, $71.3 million will go to the hundreds of female prisoners who have joined the suit; the exact number is yet to be determined. LaBelle and nine other lawyers will divide up $28.7 million. She’s already gearing up for her next cause: advocating for juveniles sentenced to prison.