Juveniles in Michigan’s Prisons

Should Michigan really be placing juveniles into the general prison population?

“It is morally and fiscally the right choice not to place anyone under 18 in state prisons”

        -Deborah LaBelle,  an attorney representing inmates in a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections 



Bridge Magazine’s Ron French, Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, and former state Rep. John Haveman  join WDET host Sandra Svoboda for a discussion on the alleged sexual abuse of youths in prison. The panel discusses a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections that alleges  numerous sexual assaults of young inmates in Michigan’s prison system and the department’s failure to address prison sexual assault.

LaBelle is currently representing a group of juveniles, ages 13 to 17, who say they were sexually victimized in prison. “Rape happens in prison, there’s no dispute of that,” LaBelle asserts. She says her case isn’t just about the sexual abuse, but also the institutional abuse her clients have experienced from guards. She says Michigan’s lack of alternative approaches and policies out of step with other states have led to Michigan having some of the worst issues with young inmates. The placement of young offenders in the adult prison population, she says, is only exposing them to more danger.

French indicates that Michigan’s court system has gone as far as convicting a 12-year-old youth as an adult and says this lack of alternative approaches towards youth crime inhibits Michigan’s ability to provide proper rehabilitative services for youth offenders. His coverage of the issue for Bridge Magazine looks at how the state’s corrections facilities and the prison system overall have not been adhering to their duty to keep prisoners safe from one another as mandated by federal law.

 French says looking at Labelle’s case, “You find this grim consistency that seems to illustrate a lack of concern or a lack of competence.” Historically, French finds, Michigan legislators’ support for “toughness” on crime has led Michigan’s court system to be more prone to sentencing juveniles as adults. Despite a decrease in youth crime and new research showing that juvenile placements in jails and prisons only worsens their situation, the state has not changed its policies, and French says this is now creating more problems for the state’s criminal justice system.

Haveman, who was term limited out of the Michigan House last year, says he made efforts to reform these policies and advocate for more preventive and precautionary policies that would keep juveniles out of jail. He admits his changes may have been misunderstood: He isn’t soft on crime but says he wanted to find more measures that would prevent juveniles from entering the prison system. The justice system, Haveman says, should be playing more of a preventative role than a punitive one.

One caller discusses her involvement in one such program: multi-systemic therapy. This approach assumes  youth crime is a manifestation of anti-social behavior and works with the offenders’ community and surroundings to find root causes of criminal behavior and work to resolve them. In response to the caller, LaBelle says, “This is how you treat youth, if you want to see a broken system look at Michigan’s.”

 Although Haveman’s proposed reforms may not have been adopted, he is hopeful that by reinstating a statewide sentencing commission and working with other organizations, he will be able to encourage the system to change itself and become more responsive to young offenders.

The panel also looks at defining crime and how the Michigan Department of Corrections current policies have not been effective morally or economically. French recalls a similar case LaBelle also filed in which the state paid out $100 million to female inmates who were assaulted by prison staff. The case took over a decade to resolve and the panel agrees that the MDOC’s foot dragging prolonged the suffering but also cost the state much more than it should have.

Click the audio link above to hear their full conversation.

WDET invited representatives from both the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and the Michigan Department of Corrections to participate in the conversation. Both declined, but the MDOC sent the following statement:

We feel it is inappropriate to try this case in the media while the court process is ongoing, but we are confident the assertions made in the lawsuit are false and that when all of the facts are presented in court, the outcome of the case will be in favor of the state.

The department has long had a zero tolerance policy for physical and sexual violence, but over the past few years we have taken additional steps to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  

Some of these steps include:

  • Taking prisoners the courts have sentenced as adults, but who are under the age of 18, and moving them to a single facility where they are housed, have access to programming, meals, and recreation separate, by both sight and sound, from prisoners that are over the age of 17. 
  • Regarding implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the department has hired a PREA Coordinator for the department and assigned PREA staff at all facilities.
  • We have created specialized PREA training for all MDOC employees that routinely work with prisoners.  
  • We screen all prisoners to determine if they may be a sexual aggressor or a potential sexual victim, and implemented a policy to prevent aggressors and victims from housing in the same cell.
  • The department created a PREA hotline that prisoners, families, and concerned members of the public can call to lodge a complaint regarding sexual assault or sexual harassment of a prisoner that will be investigated by the Department. That phone number is 877-517-PREA (7732).


  • There are currently 74 prisoners in our custody under the age of 17 who were sentenced to us by the courts as adults.
  • Those 74 prisoners are all housed separately, by both sight and sound, from adult prisoners and have been since the federal law went into effect in 2013.
  • Prior to that, many of those prisoners sentenced as adults were already housing together, away from adult prisoners.
  • In 2007, we began providing PREA education to all incoming prisoners.