Lansing, Mich. Ten female inmates who say male workers raped and sexually abused them in a state prison were awarded $15.5 million Friday in what may be the first of several trials.
The jury's decision was unanimous, and the panel's foreperson took the rare step of apologizing to the women on behalf of Michigan citizens.
Washtenaw Circuit Court Judge Timothy Connors allowed the plaintiffs to speak to the jury.
The Department of Corrections plans to appeal. Spokesman Russ Marlan said the department fired workers if the allegations were substantiated, but that many of the allegations did not come out until trial.
But one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs said state attorneys called the women liars and questioned the inmates' credibility at trial. The jury agreed with the prisoners, attorney Deborah LaBelle said, finding a sexually hostile prison environment existed at Scott Correctional, the state knew about it and failed to protect the women.
"For the first time, these women were told that they're believed and they're humans and this is not something we do to people in the name of the state," LaBelle said.
In recent years, male guards have been moved out of female prisons in Michigan as required by an agreement reached with the U.S. Justice Department in 1999, which came after the state was sued based on a federal investigation into sexual abuse complaints.
The case that was decided Friday in Washtenaw County involved a representative sample of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits. LaBelle said there are 490 current or former female inmates, whose cases could be heard 10 at a time.