DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan appeals court on Wednesday dismissed a major class-action lawsuit by young male prisoners who said guards failed to stop older inmates from sexually abusing them.
The court ruled on technical grounds, not the strength of the allegations, determining that changes to the state's civil rights law in 1999 barred prisoners from filing any lawsuits of this type.
"Not only can the Legislature impose limits on how prisoners interact with the courts, it can wholly preclude them from filing certain claims," judges Michael Riordan and Pat Donofrio wrote. They suggested prisoners could pursue their claims through individual lawsuits using different legal theories.
The lawsuit contends that 200 or more male prisoners, typically ages 16 or 17, were forced to engage in sex acts with adult prisoners and staff, with some abuse "open and obvious." It says sexual assaults occurred at prisons throughout the state before the Corrections Department assigned all male inmates younger than 18 to a prison in Lapeer. That transition began in 2012.
"This case has been defended at a great cost to the taxpayers, and we hope this ruling will bring it to its conclusion," prisons spokesman Chris Gautz said. "While we take these allegations very seriously, it's been our position that the allegation that rampant sexual abuse was taking place in our prisons is false."
In 1999, lawmakers amended state law to say prisoners are not covered by civil rights protections that typically apply to services provided by public agencies. A federal judge in 2007 said the exemption was unconstitutional. But the appeals court said Wednesday that it didn't have to abide by that decision.
Deborah LaBelle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she will ask the Michigan Supreme Court to intervene.
"It's a significant issue when the state argues that children under their control should not have the protection of the state's civil rights (law) for sexual abuse and mistreatment," LaBelle said.
Judge Jane Beckering wrote a separate 25-page opinion, reluctantly agreeing with a portion of the majority's decision but strongly disagreeing over the prisoner exemption in the civil rights law. She said the Michigan Constitution directs lawmakers to "protect the civil rights of all persons."
A similar lawsuit citing violations of federal law still is pending in federal court in Detroit.
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