Stolen items included a Pandora charm necklace and an iPod, as well as nickels, dimes, and quarters from a change jar they left the pennies behind. They also stole a. John later said he was drunk during the break-in. She called the police, who came and picked it up.
John decided to plead guilty, figuring he would only get a short stint in a juvenile facility. But John had turned 17 by the time of the third home invasion, and in Michigan that meant he would automatically be prosecuted as an adult. In , a 17 year-old prisoner named Rodney Hulin Jr. When correctional officers cut him down, Hulin was comatose, and he died four months later.
Hulin had been raped, beaten, and forced to perform oral sex within three days of his arrival at the unit. He asked to be placed in protective custody and was turned down. After his suicide, a picture of his small shoulders and thin face circulated on major news networks and Hulin became a symbol of two related phenomena. The other was prison rape.
It was widely known that younger, smaller inmates were at constant risk of sexual assault. He becomes a slave in the fullest sense of the term. Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. The report included harrowing first-person accounts.
PREA was passed unanimously. The lawmakers and advocates who pushed the law to passage hoped it would create standards to protect particular classes of prisoners. Recent news reports on PREA have focused almost exclusively on the plight of transgender and gay inmates, but originally the spotlight was on a much larger population: the young and inexperienced.
Struckman-Johnson served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which formed as a requirement of the law. The commission held a series of public hearings , and one of the first to testify was Steven Babbitt, who had entered an adult prison at age 18 for a non-violent theft. After multiple rapes, he had found an inmate to protect him from others in exchange for an exclusive right to sex.
This inmate referred to him as Stephanie and forced him to wear makeup and shave his legs. It was not a rare scenario. It is impossible to know how many of the teenagers sent to adult prisons in recent years have been sexually assaulted, in part because so many of them have been afraid to report. Rape outside of prison is known to be under-reported, and the same is true within prison walls, especially because prisoners face the possibility of retaliation by both correctional staff and other prisoners.
Some corrections officials have pointed out that sexual assaults regularly occur in juvenile facilities as well as in adult ones. Citing that statistic, some members of the commission initially argued for a blanket ban on putting anyone under 18 in an adult facility. Today, year-olds are automatically tried as adults in nine states, while year-olds automatically face adult charges in North Carolina and New York.
And you must ask Congress to provide it.
If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk.
The second time David raped him, John says David held a homemade weapon to his throat. It was a toothbrush, wired up with four or five shaving razors.
Then, one morning around 6 a. He could see that it contained meat sticks and bags of chips. These kinds of exchanges were common; he figured the other prisoner might be trading the food for the use of his cell as a quiet place for tattooing or some other illicit activity. Official policy forbade prisoners from visiting other cells, but officers frequently looked the other way. His cellmate was in bed. Feeling greasy after his kitchen shift, John started to undress so he could take a shower. As he took off his pants, he saw the mesh bag of food. He looked over and realized the man in the bed was not David.
It was the prisoner who had handed over the bag of food. This prisoner had a jar of Vaseline, but it did not do much; after he left, John found blood on his clothes. John says he was raped several more times by both his cellmate and strangers. He was forced to perform oral sex, and he still remembers brushing his teeth twice to get the taste out of his mouth. He never told medical staff about his anal bleeding because he felt embarrassed, though because of a foot injury he was able to get painkillers.
John would later be asked why he did not tell correctional staff, since in theory they could have taken steps to protect him. He assumed the staff knew what was happening. From their station at the end of the hall, the officers would see men going in and out of his cell and they would not intervene. Two months after his arrival, John finally reached a breaking point. Around 2 p. John pushed his hands away. John wrestled his way out, and emerged from the cell barefoot. Hanging a left, he ran to the guard station, and begged them to assign him to a different cell. The officers allowed John to grab his few possessions and move down the hall, closer to their station.
His new cellmate was not a predator, but by then John had been tagged as easy prey. Two days after he was moved, another prisoner cornered him in his cell and raped him. It seemed like other prisoners had figured out his schedule—when he would be alone in his cell, or in the shower. He developed strategies to avoid being attacked; on days when he got off work early, he would try to get into the shower—a communal room with a dozen shower heads and no privacy—alone before the afternoon shift change, when the prison locks down and nobody can move from where they are.
That way, he could take a or minute shower with nobody around. But he did not always succeed. A few days after he switched cells, three inmates found him alone in the shower. One kept an eye on the hallway while the other two took turns holding him down and penetrating him. John says he resisted, but he knew that if he was caught fighting and got a misconduct ticket, he might hurt his chances of parole.
So he acquiesced. Soon after the shower rapes began, John met a white prisoner in his late 20s with blonde hair and a pierced tongue. A former cocaine dealer, he was now a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. The two were caught in the shower by an officer in late July. John was sent to solitary confinement for two weeks as punishment.
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After about a week in solitary, John started to tell a series of authority figures, including the deputy warden, that he had been assaulted. John later said that he was never asked to give a detailed statement about what he had endured. When later asked if he felt as though the staff cared about his situation, he waffled. But there were trade-offs; now he would work in sanitation and laundry. Recreation was minimal; he technically got an hour of gym a week, but when the designated hour conflicted with his laundry shift, he had to give it up. John made repeated requests to return to general population, even though he would be at greater risk of sexual attack.
Even in protective custody, John was not immune from sexual advances. While putting away chairs after church services one day, a black prisoner in his early 30s tried to kiss him and grab his rear. John was offered more protection deals, and he eventually agreed to kiss a white prisoner in his early 20s.
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Both prisoners were smiling prior and after the open mouth to mouth contact. Both prisoners snuck into the restroom around the wall where they were out of sight. After the incident in the library, he and the other prisoner received misconduct tickets. For 25 days, neither was allowed to go to the yard or use the phone. If you leave me I will stab you.
The assault was observed by officers, and the other man was sent into solitary confinement. He continued to send John threatening letters and later, John said, he spit on him. John was slowly growing more confident.
In May , a correctional officer made an announcement on the prison-wide intercom reminding John to take his HIV medication. It was around this time that John received a letter from an attorney named Deborah LaBelle. Working with a small staff out of an office in downtown Ann Arbor, LaBelle had been suing the Michigan Department of Corrections since the mids. Some, like John, had been sold for sex by their cellmates. Others had been groped by female guards. One young prisoner reported that officers had threatened to facilitate his rape if he complained of poor treatment.
Like many of the young men, this one had attempted suicide. All of this had happened in spite of what would appear to be good faith efforts. Michigan had long experimented with separating youth in its own facilities. During the summer of , the department began to show a video about how to avoid sexual assault to incoming prisoners. John later saw this video, though he did not take it seriously; he said it resembled a public service announcement from the s.
The state created a curriculum and trained personnel to screen incoming inmates for vulnerability. Spytma, who served nearly 40 years in various Michigan prisons before his parole last summer. It made sense in terms of the programming they are offered, as well as counseling and the education classes they receive, to have these young prisoners at one facility, rather than have them spread around in facilities across the state.
But once prisoners turn 18 they can be placed elsewhere in the system. LaBelle found that strict separation of young inmates was not sufficient—prisons needed better ways of assessing whether an individual prisoner is vulnerable to sexual assault. There is, after all, little meaningful difference between and year-olds in this regard.
Screening for youth was supposed to be part of PREA implementation, but there were signs that this was not necessarily working. LaBelle deposed Kimberly Dabner, the PREA coordinator for two facilities, whose job was to review allegations of sexual misconduct, handing cases off to an investigator and inputting data.
In late , LaBelle filed state and federal class action lawsuits on behalf of youth who had been sexually assaulted, accusing the prison system of failing to protect them. She expects that number to grow as word spreads within the prisons. Although the laws under which she is seeking damages are far older than PREA—she is relying on state civil-rights laws and a Supreme Court case, Farmer v. In February , LaBelle sought a protective order for potential plaintiffs, since she had learned that prison staff were calling out youth and asking them to sign pre-prepared statements saying they had never been sexually attacked.
When it came to the details of any prisoner's story—including the rape incidents John described—the department refused to either admit or deny them because "the identity of the prisoner has not been revealed. Patricia Caruso, who headed the Michigan Department of Corrections from until and is now a corrections consultant, notes that her state has enacted cutting-edge policies to curb sexual assault, including a ban on male officers in female housing units. While Caruso noted that young prisoners are usually considered vulnerable, she recalled instances where older inmates had called their young cellmates wild and impulsive and asked for reassignments.
Over her eight years as director of the department, Caruso came to believe that many of the problems her prisons—and others around the country—face in dealing with young inmates are not primarily the fault of corrections officials. Instead, she blames the superpredator-era laws that drive youth into adult prisons. In recent years, there have been growing efforts to repeal laws that send youth to adult prisons. Neuroscience research has found that adolescent brains keep developing well past age 20, meaning that youth are primed for rehabilitation, but also may be more permanently scarred by the rapes, fights, and stints in solitary confinement that come with incarceration.
PREA has been credited with helping raise awareness of the threats young inmates face. A congressional bill that would have allowed juvenile gang members to be prosecuted in adult federal courts lost steam after U. The trend is trickling down to the states. In New York, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—even in Texas, where former Governor Rick Perry said his prisons would not fully comply with PREA—officials are considering laws that would raise the age at which someone is automatically sentenced to an adult facility from 16 or 17 to Such laws have already passed in Massachusetts and Illinois.
Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia recently barred juveniles from being held in adult jails before trial. This shift may take a long time to reach Michigan. It is a place of undeniable racial tension; white conservatives have left and bunkered down in the suburbs, while the city has gone bankrupt and many of its black residents have become trapped in homes with no running water or electricity. The fear that fueled a rise in incarceration nationwide a generation ago still feels palpable as a nightly string of rapes, robberies, and murders continues to dominate local news coverage in the city and its vast vicinity of wealthier outskirts.
At a recent hearing in Texas, a legislative committee considering raising the adult prosecution age from 17 to 18 learned that failures to protect year-olds in adult facilities could, with the help of PREA, lead to costly lawsuits. Michael Pitt, an attorney from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak who is working with LaBelle, entered the room with the boisterous air of uncle who had not seen his nephew in years.
They hugged. John had cut his hair short and wore a pair of thick-framed glasses. He had been up for parole several months earlier, but was denied, and Pitt wondered whether this might be because of his role as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Prison officials then took the media contingent to the medical centre. The mortality rate for the previous financial year at the prison stood at three. And I am working towards something that will help keep me alive once I get out of here.
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