This piece was reported through The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

Three years ago, the young man who would later be known as John Doe 1 shuffled into the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. The town of 11,000 residents, which sits in the remote center of the state, houses five prisons, and over the years, it has earned the nickname “I Own Ya.” John, who was 17, had already gotten over the initial fear of going to an adult prison—he had spent several months at a county jail near Detroit and an intake facility in Jackson—but he also knew he would be spending longer at this lonely outpost, a minimum of three years for a couple of home invasions. It was still wintery in April, and his state-issued jacket was poor protection against the drafts coming through the broken windows, shattered by men who had passed through before. “It was pretty ragged,” he recalled recently, “a tear down.”

The rituals of intake were familiar. Standing in a line with several dozen other men, John stripped off his navy blue scrubs, squatted, and coughed to prove he wasn’t hiding anything. Once inside, he could try grimacing to look tough, as he had in his early mugshots, but he couldn’t hide his skinny frame or his high-pitched voice.

Over the next few days, while bringing trays of food around the blocks for his new kitchen job, John would learn that he had been placed in one of the nicer units (another he saw “looked like a basement, with the lights busted out”). But he also noticed that he was one of the youngest prisoners on the block. The other prisoners noticed too. He was what they called a “fish.”

His first cellmate was an older man, black like John, who was serving a life sentence, and he didn’t say much. But something about him seemed a little off, and that night, John says he awoke and saw this man sitting at a desk, wide awake, and staring right at him. John requested and received a new cell assignment. His second cellmate was also a lifer, and friendly enough, but after a few days the man asked to be paired with another lifer, so John was moved again.

It was around this time that the letters started sliding under his cell door. John would get a lot of letters from other prisoners over the next few months, and while they weren’t always explicit, some certainly were. “You are one sexy nigger,” one read. “You need a white man to show you how to act ... When the opportunity comes I want to sneak in your house and hit that.” Another letter said he had a “fan club.”

John didn’t take these letters seriously; he threw many of them away. He settled into GED classes and shifts serving breakfast and lunch. From the prison library he pulled volumes ranging from the poems of Langston Hughes (“They’re so simple, but they explain so much”) to thriller paperbacks by Dean Koontz and James Patterson.

His new cellmate, whom we’ll call David, had already served a little more than a year out of a minimum of eight for robbery. He was in his early 20s, over six feet with a tuft on his chin and a thin mustache. They talked about their families and the crimes that had gotten them locked up.

But then David said something that struck John as strange. He asked him if he would ever get involved sexually with a man. John knew himself to be heterosexual; he had lost his virginity to a girl the year before. “I just kind of laughed it off,” he recalled.

And then it happened. One night after the last count before bed, John says, his cellmate suddenly attacked him, pulling down both of their pants and wrestling him onto the bottom bunk. John tried to resist, but he was less than 140 pounds, and next to David’s bulk of more than 200 he stood little chance as this powerful man forced his way in, slowly and painfully and in silence, without a condom or lubricant.

John would later estimate that it lasted seven minutes. When David was finished, he told him to keep quiet. John obeyed; though still a fish, he had been down long enough to know that snitches suffer fates worse than rape.


In 2003, while John was still in elementary school, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, now usually known as PREA. It was intended to make experiences like his far less likely. But like many ambitious pieces of legislation, its promise has proved difficult to realize. The law required studies of the problem that took far longer than initially intended, and adoption of the guidelines they produced has been painfully slow, resting on the competence and dedication of particular employees. PREA has not been a complete failure, but it is also far from delivering on its promise, and John’s story illustrates many of the hurdles that have impeded the law and still lie in its path.

There is a toughness about John that evaporates into shyness the moment he opens his mouth. Though he’s short and muscular, with hair he sometimes keeps in cornrows, his voice is soft, high and wheezy. He often runs out of breath after long sentences, so he speaks in clipped, self-conscious bursts. This comes from his asthma, which, in addition to several long scars that run along his legs and stomach, is the result of a moment that defined his childhood: When John was 4 years old, his single mother decided that she couldn’t take care of him anymore, so she left him inside their apartment and set the building on fire.

John’s mother went to prison, and he went to live with his grandparents in a northern suburb of Detroit. (His story, in which names have been changed, is based on interviews, documents, and a deposition in an ongoing lawsuit.) He had a hard time bonding with his grandmother. “I kind of got a feeling that she didn’t want me,” he said, “but she took care of me because I was my mother’s child.” He started seeing a psychologist, who diagnosed him with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders and urged the family to enter therapy together but, as he remembers it, his grandmother refused and instead asked for him to be put on medication. He started taking Adderall, a stimulant, that “made me feel like I was wired and that I couldn’t sleep or eat,” and Seroquel, an anti-psychotic that “was the complete opposite … It put me to sleep. I was like a zombie.”

Around this time, while John was in middle school, his grandfather died. He was devastated: “I felt like he was the only person that wanted me.” One night, John drew a bath and tried to drown himself by taking sleep aids and falling asleep in the tub. His grandmother managed to revive him.

As he entered high school, John attempted the makings of what we call a normal teenage life. He was close with his two sisters. He studied art books from the library. His grandmother couldn’t afford to buy him gear to play soccer, but he found a karate studio that would let him take classes in exchange for teaching, and eventually he acquired a green belt.

During his freshman year, John reconnected with his mother. She still took drugs and worked as a prostitute, and she convinced him to help her shoplift. “She would wear a backpack and put stuff in it and have me walk out with it,” he recalled. As she struggled financially, he tried to help her by stealing from other students at school. He was caught with another student’s music player, and along with fighting and truancy, he developed a record that would get him sent to alternative school for his senior year. Things continued to deteriorate at home. John drank. He was charged with domestic violence after his grandmother wouldn’t let him leave the house and he threw a small fan against the wall. She later convinced prosecutors to drop the charges.

On a summer evening before his senior year, John says he got a ride after karate from an older male member of his extended family—he still won’t say whom, an omission that has never looked good for him. They drove to a mobile-home park just beyond Detroit’s northernmost suburbs, and pulled up to one that appeared empty. John propped a metal folding chair up against a window, climbed up, popped out the screen, and made his way inside. This happened several times. Stolen items included a Pandora charm necklace and an iPod, as well as nickels, dimes, and quarters from a change jar (they left the pennies behind). They also stole a .45 caliber pistol. Usually, the homeowners weren’t around, though one time John encountered a 9-year-old boy. John later said he was drunk during the break-in.

When John returned to his grandmother’s house, he was so scared of the gun that he tossed it into their backyard and told her he had found it there. She called the police, who came and picked it up. Eventually, they found John’s fingerprints on one of the windows from the mobile park, and figured out the gun had been stolen from one of the houses. John decided to plead guilty, figuring he would only get a short stint in a juvenile facility.

But John had turned 17 by the time of the third home invasion, and in Michigan that meant he would automatically be prosecuted as an adult. He was also charged with “criminal sexual conduct” after the 9-year-old boy told the police John had molested him. John disputed this accusation, but following his court-appointed attorney’s advice he pled guilty to a home invasion and “no contest” to the sex crime. He mistakenly thought “no contest” was akin to not guilty, but for purposes of sentencing it is not, and the judge considered it when deciding to send John to prison for a minimum of three years and a maximum of 20.

When prisoner advocates talk about PREA’s passage over a decade ago, they use use words like “miracle” and “victory.” But those same advocates acknowledge that this rare moment of bipartisanship was born out of tragedy. In 1996, a 17 year-old prisoner named Rodney Hulin Jr. had torn up his bed sheet, tied it above the door of his cell in the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County, Texas, and jumped down from the top bunk of his bed. When correctional officers cut him down, Hulin was comatose, and he died four months later.

Hulin had been raped, beaten, and forced to perform oral sex within three days of his arrival at the unit. He asked to be placed in protective custody and was turned down. After his suicide, a picture of his small shoulders and thin face circulated on major news networks and Hulin became a symbol of two related phenomena. One was the prevalence of new laws that allowed youth to be sent to adult prisons, rather than juvenile facilities, for non-violent crimes (Hulin had committed second-degree arson, resulting in less than $500 of property damage). The other was prison rape.

Among prisoners and their keepers, Hulin’s experience was hardly notable. It was widely known that younger, smaller inmates were at constant risk of sexual assault. Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys, wrote that when he got to Alabama’s Atmore Prison in 1937, he found that young men were beaten into submission and eventually “sold themselves around on the weekends just like whore women of the streets.” In 1980, Louisiana prison-newspaper editor Wilbert Rideau won national journalism accolades for an essay called “The Sexual Jungle,” in which he wrote that “rape in prison is rarely a sexual act, but one of violence, politics, and an acting out of power roles.” Being raped, or “turned out,” he explained, redefines the male victim “as a ‘female’ in this perverse subculture, and he must assume that role as the ‘property’ of his conqueror or whoever claimed him and arranged his emasculation. He becomes a slave in the fullest sense of the term.”

Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape. The report included harrowing first-person accounts. “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously.

The lawmakers and advocates who pushed the law to passage hoped it would create standards to protect particular classes of prisoners. Recent news reports on PREA have focused almost exclusively on the plight of transgender and gay inmates, but originally the spotlight was on a much larger population: the young and inexperienced. “There was an assumption from the beginning of PREA that we wanted to protect the vulnerable,” says Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a University of South Dakota psychologist. “Age was a given. It’s the number one vulnerability.”

Struckman-Johnson served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which formed as a requirement of the 2003 law. The commission held a series of public hearings, and one of the first to testify was Steven Babbitt, who had entered an adult prison at age 18 for a non-violent theft. After multiple rapes, he had found an inmate to protect him from others in exchange for an exclusive right to sex. This inmate referred to him as Stephanie and forced him to wear makeup and shave his legs. It was not a rare scenario.

It is impossible to know how many of the teenagers sent to adult prisons in recent years have been sexually assaulted, in part because so many of them have been afraid to report. (Rape outside of prison is known to be under-reported, and the same is true within prison walls, especially because prisoners face the possibility of retaliation by both correctional staff and other prisoners.)

Some corrections officials have pointed out that sexual assaults regularly occur in juvenile facilities as well as in adult ones. But many non-violent crimes lead to probation, rather than incarceration, when they’re handled by the juvenile system, and a 1989 study found that inmates under 18 in adult prisons reported being “sexually attacked” five times more often than their peers in juvenile institutions.

Citing that statistic, some members of the commission initially argued for a blanket ban on putting anyone under 18 in an adult facility. Commissioner Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University who is working on PREA implementation to this day, wanted the age cut-off to be 21. But she points out that this would not have been “politically realistic.” In the decades just before PREA passed, a number of states had enacted laws sentencing more youth to adult jails and prisons.

Many of these state laws were inspired by the image of juvenile “superpredators,” a term coined by the influential political scientist John DiIulio Jr., who in 1995 warned of “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches.” DiIulio later renounced his own theories, citing a change of heart during his Catholic prayers; by 2001, he was telling The New York Times he would work “on prevention, on helping bring caring, responsible adults to wrap their arms around these kids.” But the laws he helped inspire have largely remained.

Today, 17-year-olds are automatically tried as adults in nine states, while 16-year-olds automatically face adult charges in North Carolina and New York. Lawmakers, prosecutors, and victims’ rights groups have argued that some crimes are heinous enough to indicate an adult’s sense of responsibility, so nearly every state allows youth under 18 to be sentenced as an adult in specific cases, usually giving the choice to prosecutors or judges.

After PREA passed in 2003, the bipartisan commission announced it would obtain data on prison rape, write a report, and recommend a set of policy proposals “after two years.” The complexity and scope of the problem proved daunting, and it took nearly six; the report was released in 2009.

The next stop was Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, which spent three years (two more than they had initially planned) deliberating over the law and translating its recommendations into final standards. The department added a requirement that inmates under 18 could not be placed in a housing unit where they would “have sight, sound, or physical contact with any adult inmate through use of a shared dayroom, or other common space, shower area, or sleeping quarters,” and called for “direct staff supervision” in instances where contact could not be avoided.

PREA specifically barred the commission from recommending standards “that would impose substantial additional costs” for prison administrators, and many told the commission that placing youth who were convicted as adults in their own facilities would be impossibly expensive. “We must house adolescents and adults separately,” Martin Horn, head of the New York City Department of Correction, said at a 2006 hearing in Miami. “This takes time, this takes staff, and this takes money. And you must ask Congress to provide it.”

Today, states only have to promise that they’re working to comply with PREA’s many requirements, including the separation of youth under 18 from older prisoners. If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk. “You see a lot of states just making assurances,” said Carmen Daugherty, policy director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, “and it seems like they can do it indefinitely, year after year after year.”

The second time David raped him, John says David held a homemade weapon to his throat. It was a toothbrush, wired up with four or five shaving razors.

The third and fourth times, David just left the weapon on his desk, in clear view, and relied on John’s fear to keep him passive.

Then, one morning around 6 a.m., while out on the yard for recreation, John says he saw David receive a mesh laundry bag from a prisoner he didn’t know. He could see that it contained meat sticks and bags of chips. These kinds of exchanges were common; he figured the other prisoner might be trading the food for the use of his cell as a quiet place for tattooing or some other illicit activity. (Official policy forbade prisoners from visiting other cells, but officers frequently looked the other way.)

That afternoon, John returned to his “house,” as prisoners call their cells, and saw his cellmate’s key—in this prison, every inmate had a key to his own cell—sitting on the desk. His cellmate was in bed. Feeling greasy after his kitchen shift, John started to undress so he could take a shower. As he took off his pants, he saw the mesh bag of food. He looked over and realized the man in the bed was not David. It was the prisoner who had handed over the bag of food. The man rose from the bed, grabbed David’s toothbrush weapon, held it to John’s cheek, and forced him down. This prisoner had a jar of Vaseline, but it did not do much; after he left, John found blood on his clothes.

John says he was raped several more times by both his cellmate and strangers. He was forced to perform oral sex, and he still remembers brushing his teeth twice to get the taste out of his mouth. He never told medical staff about his anal bleeding because he felt embarrassed, though because of a foot injury he was able to get painkillers.

John would later be asked why he did not tell correctional staff, since in theory they could have taken steps to protect him. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. He assumed the staff knew what was happening. From their station at the end of the hall, the officers would see men going in and out of his cell and they would not intervene. The rapists would put a towel over the cell door’s window, which was not allowed but must have been noticed by officers making their rounds. John says some of the officers would even make jokes, calling him a “fag,” a “girl,” and a “bust-down.”

Two months after his arrival, John finally reached a breaking point. Around 2 p.m. one day, David tried to touch the middle of his back. John pushed his hands away. David forced him up against a locker and wrapped his hands around John’s neck. John wrestled his way out, and emerged from the cell barefoot. Hanging a left, he ran to the guard station, and begged them to assign him to a different cell. He didn’t mention the rapes, only his cellmate’s attempt to choke him. The officers allowed John to grab his few possessions and move down the hall, closer to their station.

His new cellmate was not a predator, but by then John had been tagged as easy prey. Two days after he was moved, another prisoner cornered him in his cell and raped him. It seemed like other prisoners had figured out his schedule—when he would be alone in his cell, or in the shower. He was called a “fuckboy,” a term for the men who are “gay for pay,” trading sex for food or other favors, even though John said he never did.

He developed strategies to avoid being attacked; on days when he got off work early, he would try to get into the shower—a communal room with a dozen shower heads and no privacy—alone before the afternoon shift change, when the prison locks down and nobody can move from where they are. That way, he could take a 20- or 30-minute shower with nobody around.

But he did not always succeed. A few days after he switched cells, three inmates found him alone in the shower. One kept an eye on the hallway while the other two took turns holding him down and penetrating him. “They said, ‘Shut up, be quiet, we have that thing with us,’” meaning a weapon, he recalled. John says he resisted, but he knew that if he was caught fighting and got a misconduct ticket, he might hurt his chances of parole. He also didn’t want to get stabbed. So he acquiesced. “It got easier because I could go away in my mind.” Eventually, John says, he was raped so many times he lost count.

Soon after the shower rapes began, John met a white prisoner in his late 20s with blonde hair and a pierced tongue. A former cocaine dealer, he was now a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. “He said that if I masturbated him he’d protect me from the other prisoners.” To John’s thinking, this passed for a good deal, since many vulnerable prisoners end up trading intercourse for protection.

The two were caught in the shower by an officer in late July. “Both prisoners were fully naked and neither appeared to be an unwilling participant,” the officer wrote in a misconduct report, adding, “At no time did these prisoners have staff authorization to engage in sexual activity.”

John was sent to solitary confinement for two weeks as punishment. Removed from most human contact, he started to feel “like I was going crazy.” But he also felt safer.

The prison where John has lived since he was moved into protective custody (Maurice Chammah/The Marshall Project)

After about a week in solitary, John started to tell a series of authority figures, including the deputy warden, that he had been assaulted. He didn’t always tell them who was responsible, or about every single instance, but he made it clear he was afraid of further sexual attacks. One officer wrote that John “indicates that prisoners are at his door and he does what he can to survive in this environment.”

John later said that he was never asked to give a detailed statement about what he had endured. When later asked if he felt as though the staff cared about his situation, he waffled. “Somewhat,” he said, “and then again no.” The final PREA standards, which took effect in August 20th, 2012, demanded that allegations of rape “must be investigated properly, thoroughly, and objectively.” John told the authorities about the assaults in late July, roughly three weeks before the standards took effect, so nobody was failing to abide by PREA when they did not investigate John’s allegations.

Instead, they moved John across the street to Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility, which has a large “protective custody” unit. The transfer paperwork refers to John as a “homosexual who is being pressed by other inmates,” though he never declared himself to be gay.

As he celebrated his 18th birthday, John’s new placement in protective custody meant that he no longer faced constant attacks. But there were trade-offs; now he would work in sanitation and laundry. He was not allowed to take rehabilitative classes with names like “Cage Your Rage” and “Thinking for a Change” that would improve his chances of parole. Recreation was minimal; he technically got an hour of gym a week, but when the designated hour conflicted with his laundry shift, he had to give it up. PREA made it possible for the prison to deny him exercise if there were “exigent circumstances” and demanded that programming be offered “to the extent possible.”

John made repeated requests to return to general population, even though he would be at greater risk of sexual attack. According to prison records, he told officials he wanted “greater opportunity to be out of cell, outdoors, and participate in more activities.” In particular, he knew he might need the classes in order to be granted parole. One of his lawyers, Anlyn Addis, put it succinctly: “He has to risk greater harm to get free.” But the Security Classification Committee, now well aware of the dangers he faced, rejected his requests, declaring that he “could be easily victimized” in general population.

Even in protective custody, John was not immune from sexual advances. While putting away chairs after church services one day, a black prisoner in his early 30s tried to kiss him and grab his rear. John did not fight back; he later said he’d wanted to avoid a misconduct ticket that might jeopardize his parole. So when the officer encountered the two prisoners, he noted that he’d seen them “kissing each other with an open mouth and inappropriately touching each other on the buttocks.” The misconduct ticket was dropped when John explained why he had not fought back.

John was offered more protection deals, and he eventually agreed to kiss a white prisoner in his early 20s. When they were caught in the law library, the guard's report noted that John had been a willing participant: “Saw [John] grab onto [the other prisoner's] shirt collar and pull [the man] close to him & then they kissed one another on the mouth. Both prisoners were smiling prior and after the open mouth to mouth contact. Both prisoners snuck into the restroom around the wall where they were out of sight. This open mouth contact clearly was consensual & for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of both parties.”

John didn’t deny any of this. In interviews, he said he has never had consensual sex with a man, though during his time in prison, he's agreed to do things “short of” sex, such as touching and kissing—things he said he felt he had to do to protect himself from further violent rapes. When asked about his sexual preferences, he called himself heterosexual but added, “Now I don't feel a desire for either sex.” He is not sure whether he'll ever be able to resume relationships with women. “It's debatable.”

After the incident in the library, he and the other prisoner received misconduct tickets. For 25 days, neither was allowed to go to the yard or use the phone. In a kite—a secret letter—the other prisoner wrote to him, “You are always gonna be in my heart. I know I’m in yours. If you leave me I will stab you.” Soon afterwards, John ran into the prisoner on the way back from the gym. “He hit me in the face,” John said. The assault was observed by officers, and the other man was sent into solitary confinement. He continued to send John threatening letters and later, John said, he spit on him. “I said I'd go to the hole [solitary confinement] if they let him come back over here.” The man was sent to another facility.

John was slowly growing more confident. In May 2013, a correctional officer made an announcement on the prison-wide intercom reminding John to take his HIV medication. John—who is not HIV-positive—filed a grievance, arguing that the officer had “purposefully put my life in jeopardy with defamation of character.” He said he collected written statements from other prisoners, arguing that such a false claim would brand him as homosexual and put him at risk of attack. The prison officials did not find his appeal persuasive; their notes claim that John provided “neither evidence nor information that substantiates his allegations.” His grievance was denied.

It was around this time that John received a letter from an attorney named Deborah LaBelle. Working with a small staff out of an office in downtown Ann Arbor, LaBelle had been suing the Michigan Department of Corrections since the mid-1980s. In 2009, she had won $100 million in a class-action suit for female prisoners who had been sexually assaulted by male guards (among them John’s mother when she’d served time for lighting their apartment on fire). LaBelle had testified before the prison-rape commission, and along with the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had tried to force the state to overturn the sentences of juveniles sentenced to life without parole.

When she learned that many of these “juvenile lifers” had been sexually assaulted, LaBelle started corresponding with a broader population of young prisoners. Some, like John, had been sold for sex by their cellmates. Others had been groped by female guards. One young prisoner reported that officers had threatened to facilitate his rape if he complained of poor treatment. Another had been given misconduct tickets after refusing to leave solitary confinement out of fear of being raped: He said he spent an hour of recreation alone each week in an enclosed cage while older inmates stuck their penises through the bars, threatening to hurt him if he didn’t perform oral sex. Like many of the young men, this one had attempted suicide.

All of this had happened in spite of what would appear to be good faith efforts. Michigan had long experimented with separating youth in its own facilities. In 2004, the state was one of many that accepted a federal grant to help implement PREA (they would receive a total of more than $1.5 million by 2013). The next year corrections official Nancy Zang (who declined to be interviewed for this article) told the commissioners, “I personally, along with my assistant, trained every warden, deputy warden, assistant deputy warden [and] executive policy team member in the Michigan Department of Corrections relative to the requirements” of the new law. During the summer of 2007, the department began to show a video about how to avoid sexual assault to incoming prisoners. (John later saw this video, though he did not take it seriously; he said it resembled a public service announcement from the 1970s.)  

In 2010, Michigan went a step further, developing its own policies based on the Department of Justice’s draft standards. The state created a curriculum and trained personnel to screen incoming inmates for vulnerability. Some prisoners say they’ve noticed a change. “With the advent of PREA, they are a lot more proactive,” says T.J. Spytma, who served nearly 40 years in various Michigan prisons before his parole last summer. “They do take care to keep someone vulnerable out of a room with someone known to be predatory.”

Over the past few years, the Michigan Department of Corrections has begun to implement PREA’s “youthful inmate standard” by separating inmates under 18 from older ones. Department spokesman Chris Gautz said that in October 2012, “we began a concerted effort to move all of the young men … that are in our custody” to a single prison, the Thumb Correctional Facility, roughly an hour north of Detroit. “Prior to PREA the law did not require keeping prisoners under the age of 18 separate—sight and sound—from adult prisoners,” he explained, “but MDOC was largely doing it anyway. It made sense in terms of the programming they are offered, as well as counseling and the education classes they receive, to have these young prisoners at one facility, rather than have them spread around in facilities across the state.”

But once prisoners turn 18 they can be placed elsewhere in the system. LaBelle found that strict separation of young inmates was not sufficient—prisons needed better ways of assessing whether an individual prisoner is vulnerable to sexual assault. (There is, after all, little meaningful difference between 17- and 18-year-olds in this regard.) Screening for youth was supposed to be part of PREA implementation, but there were signs that this was not necessarily working. LaBelle deposed Kimberly Dabner, the PREA coordinator for two facilities, whose job was to review allegations of sexual misconduct, handing cases off to an investigator and inputting data. “Do you know if PREA has any specific requirements with regard to youthful offenders?” she was asked, according to a deposition transcript.

“I do not know,” she replied.

“Do you know how PREA defines a youthful offender?”


In late 2013, LaBelle filed state and federal class action lawsuits on behalf of youth who had been sexually assaulted, accusing the prison system of failing to protect them. A trial is expected later this year if the prison agency does not reach a settlement with LaBelle’s team, which is currently in contact with roughly 250 prisoners who were under 18 between 2010 and 2013 and claim to have been sexually assaulted. She expects that number to grow as word spreads within the prisons. Although the laws under which she is seeking damages are far older than PREA—she is relying on state civil-rights laws and a 1994 Supreme Court case, Farmer v. Brennan, which says prison officials are liable for inmate violence if they are “deliberately indifferent”—her research has exposed the shortcomings of PREA in general and Michigan’s implementation in particular.

The lawyers’ exchanges with the state attorney general’s office, which is representing the prison agency, have often been tense. In February 2014, LaBelle sought a protective order for potential plaintiffs, since she had learned that prison staff were calling out youth and asking them to sign pre-prepared statements saying they had never been sexually attacked.

At a hearing, a state attorney described false reports from some youth and told the judge, “We want to be careful … I know for emotional grab it’s important to say things like ‘children’ and ‘little kids,’ and stuff like that … If you look at their records, these are people who have been convicted of first degree murder, multiple armed robberies, sexual assaults, tortures, carjackings, kidnapping; these are not minor events. They are muscular; they’re active, they’re wild—because teenagers without adult supervision can be that way—and they’re dangerous.” The attorney said his office “had a great deal of difficulty in trying to identify anybody who had actually been harmed, anybody who said they were under a current threat.”

In its January 2014 answer to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the Michigan Department of Corrections denied all of the allegations, insisting it had been acting in accordance with PREA ever since the law was implemented in August 2013. When it came to the details of any prisoner's story—including the rape incidents John described—the department refused to either admit or deny them because "the identity of the prisoner has not been revealed." As of February 2015, the department would only comment to the media on the lawsuit to say, “We are confident the assertions made in the lawsuit are false and we are vigorously defending the department.”

Patricia Caruso, who headed the Michigan Department of Corrections from 2003 until 2011 and is now a corrections consultant, notes that her state has enacted cutting-edge policies to curb sexual assault, including a ban on male officers in female housing units. Speaking by phone from the 2015 conference of the American Correctional Association, she said that many outsiders, including the PREA commissioners, have been “more interested in stories that were stories” than in trying to understand the thousands of decisions corrections officials must make every day, many of which are shaped by contradictory and complex pieces of information.

While Caruso noted that young prisoners are usually considered vulnerable, she recalled instances where older inmates had called their young cellmates wild and impulsive and asked for reassignments. “Even teenagers who haven’t been convicted of a felony have behavior issues,” she explained. Echoing many of her colleagues, and the arguments of the state attorney at the February 2014 hearing, she said that young inmates sometimes report they’re feeling threatened, “because they want to get something.”

Over her eight years as director of the department, Caruso came to believe that many of the problems her prisons—and others around the country—face in dealing with young inmates are not primarily the fault of corrections officials. Instead, she blames the superpredator-era laws that drive youth into adult prisons. “When you get into the nuances of how you deal with this, a prison with a thousand or more prisoners, think about how hard it is to manage” this population, she said. Teenagers “don’t belong there.”

In recent years, there have been growing efforts to repeal laws that send youth to adult prisons. Neuroscience research has found that adolescent brains keep developing well past age 20, meaning that youth are primed for rehabilitation, but also may be more permanently scarred by the rapes, fights, and stints in solitary confinement that come with incarceration.  

PREA has been credited with helping raise awareness of the threats young inmates face. A 2006 congressional bill that would have allowed juvenile gang members to be prosecuted in adult federal courts lost steam after U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton, who chaired the national prison rape commission (and was described by another commissioner as “no softie”) wrote in a letter to lawmakers that they should “refrain from inadvertently putting youth at serious risk of sexual abuse by placing them in adult facilities.” Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently announced his support for reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which would strengthen efforts to separate juvenile offenders from adults.

The trend is trickling down to the states. In New York, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—even in Texas, where former Governor Rick Perry said his prisons would not fully comply with PREA—officials are considering laws that would raise the age at which someone is automatically sentenced to an adult facility from 16 or 17 to 18. Such laws have already passed in Massachusetts and Illinois. Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia recently barred juveniles from being held in adult jails before trial.

This shift may take a long time to reach Michigan. It has been two decades since Detroit was a fixture in the national news for its legendary crack trade and the waves of arson and vandalism carried out by teenagers the night before Halloween every year (a ritual famously known as “Devil’s Night”), but the city continues to have one of the highest rates of violent crime in the country. It is a place of undeniable racial tension; white conservatives have left and bunkered down in the suburbs, while the city has gone bankrupt and many of its black residents have become trapped in homes with no running water or electricity. The fear that fueled a rise in incarceration nationwide a generation ago still feels palpable as a nightly string of rapes, robberies, and murders continues to dominate local news coverage in the city and its vast vicinity of wealthier outskirts.

In 1996, Michigan Governor John Engler signed what he called the nation’s “toughest” juvenile crime laws, and those laws are still in place (despite a program that allows some youth to expunge their criminal record if they plead guilty and complete a short sentence). There is no youngest age at which someone can be prosecuted as an adult in Michigan, and in 2000 the state famously convicted a 13-year-old named Nathaniel Abraham* of murder, though he was not sent to an adult facility. Although the goal of the laws was to target violent crimes by “superpredators,” the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency recently found that of the 19,000 crimes committed by 17-year-olds in Michigan over the last 10 years, 60 percent were non-violent thefts, home invasions, and drug possession.

Although it is unclear whether LaBelle’s lawsuit will impact the state’s laws, its potential financial cost to the state has begun to quietly circulate among policymakers around the country. At a recent hearing in Texas, a legislative committee considering raising the adult prosecution age from 17 to 18 learned that failures to protect 17-year-olds in adult facilities could, with the help of PREA, lead to costly lawsuits. House Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, who sponsored PREA in 2003, recently told U.S. News and World Report that “damages could reach billions in some states.”

John was sitting alone in the visitation room at Bellamy Creek on a Friday morning in January, surrounded by brightly lit snack machines and stacks of children’s books. Michael Pitt, an attorney from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak who is working with LaBelle, entered the room with the boisterous air of uncle who had not seen his nephew in years. They hugged. John had cut his hair short and wore a pair of thick-framed glasses. Pitt said the glasses made him look “professorial,” and John grinned sheepishly. He’s now 20-years-old.

As Pitt updated him on the case and told him to expect a big push for publicity in the media (“we don’t want to be in the back of the newspaper”), John pensively rested his cheek against his outstretched thumb and index finger. He had been up for parole several months earlier, but was denied, and Pitt wondered whether this might be because of his role as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. John admitted, “It crossed my mind.”

Wary of predators and any trouble that could further jeopardize his parole, John keeps to himself these days, reading, watching the news on a small television in his cell, and painting, inspired by the Dali and Matisse he remembers from books his grandmother once gave him. He eventually hopes to go to college or culinary school and become a chef. (Months earlier, when Pitt asked him how he plans on getting into college, his one word answer—“applying”—was the only hint of teenage snark in his otherwise earnest demeanor.)

Although he is still attracted to women, John has a hard time imagining how he’ll form new romantic relationships. He still has flashbacks and nightmares—common symptoms of post-traumatic stress among rape victims, in prison or out—which are sometimes spurred by tiny details: the smell of saliva or shower mold, the feel of tiles like the ones his face was pressed into, a breeze that mimics the breath of an attacker on his neck. His shame can feel like a coating, “like I can’t wash it off, like people can look at me and tell.”

At the same time, John appears ready to be called as a witness should the case against the prison agency go to trial. He has become something of an expert on prison rape. When asked about racial dynamics—many believe that black prisoners tend to rape white prisoners in a kind of revenge for power dynamics in the outside world—John shrugged and said, “If you’re vulnerable it doesn’t matter what color you are.”

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.”

As John learned when he heard guards calling him a “fag,” some officials still make light of prison rape. In January 2014, William Ruhlman shared a photo on his public Facebook page. Ruhlman was the PREA coordinator for the Thumb Correctional Facility, where the state sends inmates under 18. The photo Ruhlman posted depicts the singer Justin Bieber’s mugshot superimposed on a white prisoner. A large black man is holding his arm. “Beliebe me,” the caption reads, “I’ll be gentle.” Ruhlman tagged a friend and added a smiley face.

A screen grab of a Facebook photo posted by prison official William Ruhlman

Ruhlman took the post down from public display after he was contacted for comment and refused to be interviewed. When it was brought to the MDOC’s attention, a spokesperson responded, “The private social media postings that this or any of our other 14,000 employees make during off hours do not reflect the position of the Michigan Department of Corrections, or the great strides we have taken to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.” Caruso, the department’s former director, said that she hadn’t seen the post and insisted that every correctional officer she'd ever met took the issue seriously and found prison rape jokes “abhorrent.”

Incidents like this suggest that PREA’s message has yet to be fully internalized by the people who run the prison system, but on the national level advocates remain hopeful of the law’s potential. “Over time, following those rules just becomes habit on the part of staff and it reinforces the message being communicated by wardens and other officials,” says Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs who has written several reports on youth incarcerated with adults. “Culture shifts take time, but they are mobilized by statutes, legal rulings, and other enforceable requirements.”

Sitting in the visitation room on that recent winter morning, John pondered how long it could take to change the culture of rape in prison. It is an effort in which he could play a pivotal role, especially if he takes the stand at a high stakes trial, but also whenever he gets out, grows up, overcomes his shyness and his shame, and tells his story to others. “I feel like prison is 25 years behind the real world,” he said that morning. “In order to understand, you can’t be in the world looking in. You have to be in, looking out.”

* An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified 13-year-old convict Nathaniel Abraham as Nathaniel Abramson. We regret the error.