Correcting Corrections

Society of Professional Journalists Detroit Excellence in Journalism Awards 2010
Third Place-Single Editorial Category

tacy Barker’s voice breaks as she describes the harrowing experience of enduring a seemingly relentless series of sexual assaults while serving time in Michigan state prisons.

She was freed from Camp White Lake prison in August after serving 22 years for the murder of a man who tried to sexually assault her. Three years prior to that incident, she had been ganged raped by three men; leaving her physically and emotionally traumatized-and hospitalized.

Little did she know that at 22 years old, with a life sentence, the prison system holding her accountable for taking another life would utterly fail to hold itself responsible for nearly taking hers.

A Detroit native, Barker is among the more than 800 women who came forward to join a class-action lawsuit against the state charging it with allowing the systematic sexual assault and rape of inmates by prison guards at female correctional centers. After a protracted legal battle lasting 13 years, the state of Michigan agreed last summer to pay $100 million to settle the lawsuit. Each plaintiff will receive a payment ranging from $2,000 to $1 million.


Barker never thought she would see the day.

“It was July 2009 and a guard called me to the office over the loud speaker and said, ‘You need to call Deb LaBelle,’” Barker says of the message from her Ann Arbor attorney. “I got on the phone and right away. I was told, ‘It’s over. We won.’ I just got off the phone and started crying.”

After serving a total of 22 years, three months and 18 days in prison-half her life-Barker says she felt as if she was released from an ancient gulag on Aug. 25.

“Each day was pure hell,” she says as her voice quivers at the memory. “It was awful. I felt like I was a political prisoner. If you only knew the torture I endured-and that is literally what it was; physically, emotionally and mentally.”

She says shortly after arriving at the Huron Valley facility in 1987, she developed what she thought was a genuine friendship with a guard. She even trusted him in her cell. During one midnight shift, however, he crept into her cell and raped her.

“I was so ashamed that I did not report it,” Barker says. “But then he did it to another girl within 30 days and I felt horrible and I reported it.” So furious was he at Barker, he told her she better keep her mouth shut or he would make sure she was sent to segregation, otherwise known as the dreaded “hole.”

The hole is solitary confinement where a prisoner is isolated in a small cell for up to 23 hours a day and only allowed up to three showers a week.

“I was extremely scared and I felt like he told his friends,” she says. “And right after that, the male officers would target me for pat downs. I would get patted down 10 times in one day. They would tell you spread your legs and assume the position or put your palms on the walls. Of course when they rubbed your breast they would caress it or squeeze the nipple. And when they would go up the leg they would touch your vaginal area through your pants.”

“It takes away everything, your dignity,” Barker says softly. “I kind of felt like I was a piece of meat.”

She says even when she simply tried to resist unwanted physical contact, she would sometimes be sent to the control center to be strip-searched. “They actually stripped me naked and put me on an exam table and had a doctor come in and insert her finger in my vagina and my anal area under the pretension of looking for drugs. I felt that was rape all over again by a medical doctor,” Barker says. “They would do it randomly as retaliation against me just because they could.”

Retaliation was not always physical. It included officers making relatives wait up to two hours before informing Barker they were there. By the time she got the message, they would have left.

LaBelle had been working on another case to get equal rehabilitation programs for imprisoned women. But she noticed those programs weren’t having much impact because so many women appeared to be traumatized.

“I saw younger women who came in and they were rocking and shaking at meetings,” she says. “Finally they told me what was going on.” LaBelle says the assaults were so flagrant that in 1999 an envoy on women’s rights for the United Nations had requested permission to visit Michigan prison facilities to investigate complaints of human rights abuses.

“But Gov. Engler refused to let in the U.N. special repertoire on women’s issues, even though the State Department had approved her,” LaBelle says. “Every other state in the nation allowed her in. Only one other country in the world had refused to cooperate with a similar investigation and that was the Sudan.”

The governor’s intransigence was reflective of the attitude of the Department of Corrections (DOC) which dismissed the charges as false complaints from manipulative and discontented prisoners. In fact, DOC officials, as well as members of the Engler administration and even then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm’s office, practiced denial on one hand and engaged in tactical maneuvers on the other to stop the issue from coming forward in court.

“It completely emboldened the DOC staff,” LaBelle says. “As a result, conditions got worse and more assaults occurred over those last 10 years than over the previous 10 years.”

She says when her legal team first filed the class-action lawsuit in 1996, they asserted that about 100 women had been victimized and they merely wanted to stop the sexual assaults. But the DOC and state put its energy into fighting even that modest request.

“By the time we got to 2009, we were talking about 1,000 women; a ten-fold increase,” LaBelle says. “They just made it worse by the failure to take any responsibility-from our governor, to our attorney general, to the warden. That’s why damages are so high; people said, ‘You knew this was going on. Why did you do nothing?’”

Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., was appointed by then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to the federal National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in 2003. “The problem of sexual abuse of women in Michigan prisons is well known and longstanding, dating from the Human Rights Watch report “All Too Familiar” in 1995,” says Smith. “Michigan has also been quite visible and vigorous in denying the abuse.”

Michigan’s current governor may have a reputation for supporting the oppressed, but that’s not what LaBelle observed at first. “While attorney general, Granholm did two destructive things. She supported the republican bill to take [incarcerated] women out of the protections of the state civil rights act-she said she did this at Engler’s behest. But she turned her attorney generals loose to use the tactics of delay and obstruction and to argue that prisoners should not be protected by the state’s laws,” LaBelle says. “I do think she was part of the problem. But then she saw the light and became part of the solution. When she became governor, she was responsible for stepping in and becoming part of the remedy, respecting the human rights of the women, recognizing the damage that had been done and working to stop the abuse.”

LaBelle says she believes there was an element of racism in the state’s refusal to even consider complaints from inmates who they declared had minimal civil rights protections as wards of the state. About half were White and half were Black. She says, “When they saw the number of African-American victims involved in this, the attorney general’s response was it was voluntary, a kind of prostitution, and they were doing it for drugs.

“I don’t believe they would have presumed this stereotype if the women who were going to trial were all White,” LaBelle explains. “So race did play a part in the denial. I think race played a part in further diminishing the humanity of the women who were being hurt.”

The DOC never admitted guilt. The department’s official statement about the settlement reads that it “entered into a global settlement to resolve pending litigation against the Department involving female prisoners’ claims of sexual assault, abuse and harassment by male corrections officers.”

No administrator or supervisor was ever held accountable for the crimes. Only 30 individual guards across the corrections system were prosecuted and convicted, receiving “punishments ranging from probation to prison time,” says LaBelle. She points out that 30 percent of DOC prison staff are believed to have been perpetrators-more than 200 people.

Georgia Manzie, a 56-year-old Saginaw resident, knows all too well the suffering women inmates in Michigan’s correctional facilities have endured. In the late ’70s, she served three years in state prison after being convicted of the killing of a violently abusive boyfriend who was assaulting her. While in prison she became aware of sexual assaults of female inmates and the conspiracy among supervisors to keep it quiet.

Now a lawyer and president of Manzie Consulting, a prison reform advocacy company based in Detroit, Manzie praises the work of Labelle. Still, she is disappointed that some women were excluded from getting a share of the claim. When it was time for women to submit claims to become part of the class-action suit, Manzie believes the court and the plaintiff attorneys should have done better outreach.

Still, the settlement is unprecedented and is having ramifications in Michigan and beyond. “The lawsuit has impacted women by showing them that the silent voices can be heard. It has impacted the prison system by showing them that there is in fact a problem,” says Barker. “The MDOC has in fact taken steps to rectify the horrible situations that occurred over the years.”

Says legal expert Smith, “I believe that the people of Michigan sent a strong message that no one is above the law and no one is under the law-that everyone is accountable and everyone deserves protection. The $100 million settlement has made many states stand up and take notice. Congress is aware of the judgment as is Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff.”

It wouldn’t have happened if imprisoned women weren’t willing to risk retaliation and report abuse. About Barker, says LaBelle, “She was one of the first woman to stand up and report. After that [first] suit was settled without them changing conditions, she helped build a class of women to go forward.”

Having worked for free on the case for 13 years, LaBelle and her team of 10 lawyers were awarded 28 percent of the $100 million settlement by the judge.

Barker, 44, was awarded $349,000 as part of the $100 million settlement. In 1995, she won $95,000 from a sexual assault lawsuit. And in 2000, she won another $200,000 for sexual assault-all while an inmate in Michigan’s DOC. LaBelle was her attorney for each.

“I’m doing well,” says Barker, who now lives in Ann Arbor. “I’m working for a Detroit nonprofit called Points of Change.” Her boss is Harry Simpson, whom she met 17 years ago while incarcerated when he came to conduct HIV Peer Education Training for the Michigan Department of Public Health.

“At that time I told him I would one day come to work for him. However, I was still under a mandatory life sentence,” she says. “He just laughed and said, ‘Baby girl, don’t you have a mandatory life sentence?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I’m coming home and when I come home I’m going to work for you.’”

Three months after being released, Barker called Simpson. “I met with him on a Saturday and started work that Monday. And now I have my own office,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s unbelievable. I’m his executive assistant.”

Working on her healing, Barker participates in a Catholic Social Services support group. Even while enduring victimizations in prison, she never stopped striving to improve her life. She received an associate’s degree from Mott Community College and bachelor’s degree with honors from Western Michigan University while incarcerated.

In August, Barker will start courses in Central Michigan University’s health administration services master’s degree program. She’s clear about her plans for the future: “Some of my goals are to obtain my doctorate degree, become the CEO of my own nonprofit focusing on at-risk youth and to ultimately become a multimillionaire philanthropist.”

Although Barker was sentenced to life in prison, in 2000, a federal court ruled that the Oakland county judge and prosecutor violated her rights by not explaining to the jury that a woman has a right to use deadly force to prevent sexual assault. Still, the parole board refused to release Barker from prison until last year. They unknowingly helped transform her into a fierce force for good.

“My message to the perpetrators of my mental, psychological and sexual abuse is: thank you,” says Barker. “Because of you, I’m stronger, fearless, grounded, ambitious and determined to become a productive member of society. Because you tried to kill off my spirit and break my faith, both are even stronger and more resilient.”


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