Ten female inmates who say male workers raped and sexually abused them in a state prison were awarded $15.5 million Friday in what may be the first of several trials.
The jury's decision was unanimous, and the panel's foreperson took the rare step of apologizing to the women on behalf of Michigan citizens.
Washtenaw Circuit Court Judge Timothy Connors allowed the plaintiffs to speak to the jury.
"I'm heading back to prison today," one of the women said, the Detroit Free Press reported. "I feel strong today because of you. I thank you for believing in us."
The Department of Corrections plans to appeal. Spokesman Russ Marlan said the department fired workers if the allegations were substantiated, but that many of the allegations did not come out until trial.
He said the women testified that they did not report abuse because they were afraid of retaliation. "If we are to investigate an allegation, we need to know about it," Marlan said.
But one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs said state attorneys called the women liars and questioned the inmates' credibility at trial. The jury agreed with the prisoners, attorney Deborah LaBelle said, finding a sexually hostile prison environment existed at Scott Correctional, the state knew about it and failed to protect the women.
"For the first time, these women were told that they're believed and they're humans and this is not something we do to people in the name of the state," LaBelle said.
In recent years, male guards have been moved out of female prisons in Michigan as required by an agreement reached with the U.S. Justice Department in 1999, which came after the state was sued based on a federal investigation into sexual abuse complaints.
Hundreds of plaintiffs
The case that was decided Friday in Washtenaw County involved a representative sample of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits. LaBelle said there are 490 current or former female inmates, whose cases could be heard 10 at a time.
"I don't know what it takes to get them to listen to the problem," she said. "When you deny there's a problem, it allows it to happen again and again and again. I'm tired of women calling the office saying they were raped."
The 10 women in the initial case will receive amounts ranging from $335,000 to $3.6 million, depending on several factors, including the frequency and extent of abuse, according to the Free-Press. Once interest is tallied, they could receive about $30 million. The lawsuit was filed in 1996 but had been tied up in courts.
Seven of the plaintiffs are current inmates — three serving life terms — and three are former prisoners. They all were or are incarcerated at Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, one of Michigan's three female prisons.
Marlan said one of the women who won her case Friday was previously convicted of making a false accusation of sexual harassment. None of the corrections workers accused of abuse are still working for the department, he said, and the state has made changes including no longer allowing male officers to escort female prisoners to medical exams.
But LaBelle said sexual assaults continue to be a problem.
This week, a male guard was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting a female inmate in 2005 at the Huron Valley facility in Ypsilanti.