CINCINNATI (CN) – A class of former and current juvenile inmates housed with adults who say they are exposed to an increased risk of sexual and physical assaults argued before the Sixth Circuit on Thursday to revive their civil rights claims.
The Michigan juvenile inmates’ federal lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland in February for failure to exhaust their administrative remedies.
The class action complaint alleged that at least “500 children ranging in age from 14-17 years” were incarcerated with adult prisoners by the Michigan Department of Corrections.
According to the lawsuit, the policy “subjects youthful prisoners to heightened and substantial risk of physical and sexual violence and abuse and sexual harassment at the hands of adult prisoners and prison staff.”
Detailed in the complaint are abuses allegedly suffered by the anonymous juvenile inmates at the hands of adult prison mates, including rape, the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, solitary confinement and being placed on suicide watch. The plaintiffs alleged Eighth Amendment and due process violations.
Judge Cleland granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, however, and ruled that the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, cannot be applied retroactively to the inmates’ claims of sexual assault.
“First,” he wrote, “nothing in the text of the regulation or the PREA grievance process indicates that the regulation carries an ‘express command’ of retroactive effect. … There is also no doubt that retroactive application … would ‘increase [the State’s] liability for past conduct’ … [and] would expose defendants to a variety of new liabilities for conduct occurring before [PREA] was enacted.”
Thursday morning’s arguments in the Sixth Circuit centered on the claims of three John Doe plaintiffs, two of which filed grievances under the statutory framework established by PREA.
Attorney Deborah LaBelle argued on behalf of the inmates and called the grievance process “very confusing,” but said her clients “cooperated [and] did everything they could” to exhaust their administrative remedies.
LaBelle told the panel that PREA does not place time limits on grievances filed by inmates, and that her clients were told their claims were being processed under the PREA framework, even though the incidents they reported occurred before the law’s adoption by the state.
The attorney also spoke about John Doe 9, an inmate who never filed a grievance because he feared retaliation by other inmates and prison staff.
LaBelle told the panel that John Doe 9’s refusal to file a grievance exempted him from exhaustion requirements.
Michigan Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast argued on behalf of the state, and focused on Judge Cleland’s insistence that PREA was not intended to apply retroactively.
“[PREA is] not intended to look backwards … to stale claims,” she told the panel.
Meingast also spoke candidly about John Doe 9, and said his refusal to file does not exempt him from exhaustion requirements.
“He said ‘I shouldn’t have to file a PREA claim because I’m scared,’” she told the panel, “[but] you can’t sit in your cell and do nothing.”
Meingast cited the inmate’s relocation to a different facility that would have allowed him to file a grievance without fear of retaliation.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore asked LaBelle about the retroactivity argument during the attorney’s rebuttal.
“I don’t think it’s a retroactivity issue,” the attorney answered. “All you have to do is file your grievance and have it processed [to meet exhaustion requirements].”
U.S. Circuit Judges Deborah Cook and Julia Smith Gibbons rounded out the all-female panel.
No timetable has been set for the court’s decision.
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