Attorney says Michigan isn't doing enough to protect teens in prison

Mar 3, 2015

Prison bars.
Credit flickr user Thomas Hawk /

If you are a 17-year-old and you break a law here in Michigan, you’re going to be tried as an adult.

Michigan is one of nine states that tries 17-year-olds as adults.

And virtually every state allows prosecutors or judges to pursue sentencing of a 17-year-old as an adult in specific cases.

Once these teens are in the adult prison population, they face the distinct prospect of being raped.

The horrible stories of teens being sexually assaulted led Congress to pass a law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

But the problem persists.

The feature article A Boy Among Men: What happens when you throw a teenager into an adult prison? Guess describes one young man’s ordeal in prison.

The piece explains how rape in prison remains a problem despite the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

PREA commissioners agree that the law itself is only a starting point for a larger cultural change. The personality of the warden is an important factor in whether PREA is taken seriously, and that means implementation can vary widely from place to place even if the policies remain constant. “Prisons are quasi-military,” said commissioner Jamie Fellner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch. “If the people in headquarters wink or shrug their shoulders, that gets passed down the line, from staff to inmates.”

Deborah LaBelle believes Michigan is not doing what it should to protect young offenders from rape in prison.

She’s an attorney based in Ann Arbor, and the director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative with the ACLU.

She spoke with us today on Stateside.