Lawsuit: Sex abuse continued at Michigan women’s prison after settlement

Lawsuit: Sex abuse continued at Michigan women’s prison after settlement

Paul Egan
 
| Detroit Free Press

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LANSING – Two women who were sexually assaulted while they were state prisoners can proceed with their lawsuit against their convicted abuser and three of his supervisors, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Norman Laughlin, 55, of Milan, a storekeeper who worked in the warehouse at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, was sentenced in September to 90 days in jail and five years of probation and required to register as a sex offender, after he pleaded “no contest” to two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. A defendant pleading no contest — which is treated like a guilty plea at sentencing — neither admits nor disputes the charges. 

Laughlin’s 2020 conviction for offenses in 2016 and 2017 at Michigan’s only prison for women shows that sexual abuse continued at Women’s Huron Valley even after the state in 2009 agreed to pay $100 million to settle lawsuits alleging systematic harassment and abuse by male corrections offices against female prisoners.

The lawsuit in front of U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson has heard evidence that in addition to sharply restricting the use of male officers in the living areas of the prison, the state installed more than 1,400 cameras — far more than are in place at any other state prison — in the wake of the historic settlement.

But the prison warehouse, where Laughlin worked and evidence shows repeatedly abused and harassed female prisoners, had no cameras until 2016, after which it had only four cameras, and many blind spots, according to evidence in the case.

Laughlin, who was not involved in the abuse that led to the 2009 settlement, groped women’s breasts and genital areas, invited them to masturbate, slapped their butts, exposed himself, and made offensive sexual comments, according to evidence in the case. Women prisoners called him by his first name and he ate lunch with the prisoners and was friends with prisoners and former prisoners on Facebook. The most recent reported abuse was in January 2018, when one of the women testified Laughlin tweaked her nipple and exposed himself to her.

The Free Press has documented a litany of problems at the women’s prison, including overcrowding, leaky roofs, and a scabies outbreak that raged through the prison for about a year before prison officials properly diagnosed and treated it.

Michelson ruled Wednesday that the two women Laughlin was convicted of sexually assaulting can proceed with their lawsuit against him and three supervisors.

A reasonable jury could find that Toni Moore, the prison business manager who supervised the warehouse and other areas, and former wardens Anthony Stewart and Shawn Brewer “were deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk that Laughlin was sexually abusing female prisoners,” Michelson wrote in a 46-page opinion.

“Female prisoners remain at high risk,” said Deborah Gordon, the Bloomfield Hills attorney representing the two women. The Free Press does not normally name victims of sexual assault.

“The opinion is significant because the wardens were held accountable even though they did not have direct knowledge of the assault.”

Michelson dismissed claims against former Gov. Rick Snyder, department Director Heidi Washington, and four other MDOC officials who she found were not in a position to know about Laughlin’s abuse.

Ryan Jarvi, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which is representing all defendants except Laughlin, declined comment on the opinion. So did Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. Both cited the fact the lawsuit is still ongoing. Guy Conti, an attorney for Laughlin, declined comment.

Laughlin joined the department in 2000 and worked at the women’s prison from 2009 until January 2018, when he was suspended. Laughlin was fired in August 2018, according to evidence in the case.

Neither woman reported the abuse to anyone at the Corrections Department while they were prisoners. They were released in 2018 and 2019.

But Michelson found that some prison officials had evidence on which they could have acted sooner.

Early in 2017, Laughlin was observed on cameras entering a housing unit without first announcing “male in the area,” as required by department policy. Laughlin also was seen dining with prisoners and a prisoner was observed calling him “Norm,” according to testimony.

More: Prison will close to visitors while all 2,000 women treated for scabies

More: At Huron Valley women’s prison, some cells have no space for chairs

Those observations prompted a March 2017 investigation that led to an August 2017 settlement agreement under which Laughlin was suspended for 10 days. The court heard evidence that Laughlin’s abuse continued between February, when infractions were first observed, and August, when he was suspended.

Also during that six-month period, officials received three complaints — or “kites” —about other improper behavior by Laughlin. One prisoner, who is not a plaintiff in the case, complained to Timothy Howard, who was Laughlin’s immediate supervisor and is not a defendant in the case, that other prisoners were treating her badly, with Laughlin’s encouragement. She also said Laughlin flirts with the prisoners and “opens their bags to play,” advising: “Just watch the cameras.”

Howard was suspended in 2017 and fired in 2018 for having a sexual relationship with a parolee from the women’s prison who had worked in the warehouse, according to evidence in the case. Howard forwarded the kite to then Deputy Warden David Johnson and Moore, who was Howard’s supervisor, including a note that said he thought the prisoner who wrote the kite was “a bit unstable.”

There is little or no evidence anyone followed up on that prisoner’s complaint, Michelson said.

In July 2017, the same prisoner complained again, in a kite that said Laughlin had a girlfriend who was a prisoner and would “caress her hard and show his overfamiliarness to her.” The complaint also said Laughlin constantly flirted with the prisoners, who “bend over to expose their cleavage and he loves it.”

One of the two plaintiffs in the case testified Howard laughed about those complaints, but he did forward the kite to Moore. She sent the complaint on to Johnson, but added a note saying the complaining prisoner appeared to have “a fixation on Norm Laughlin.”

Michelson said there is no paperwork showing how the prisoner’s complaint was investigated and Johnson testified in a deposition he did not remember.

Then in August 2017, shortly after Laughlin agreed to a 10-day suspension, Moore received an anonymous written complaint from another source, saying Laughlin was having sex with a prisoner and the problem “needs to be dealt with immediately.” Moore also forwarded that kite to Johnson, who testified he did not remember what happened with it, Michelson said in her opinion.

Then, in November 2017, another letter arrived at the prison, addressed from a law firm, but signed only with initials, saying Laughlin had molested a specific prisoner in the warehouse, the abuse had been reported to Howard and Moore, but nothing was done. That complaint also said Laughlin was Facebook friends with eight female prisoners or parolees.

Brewer, who had taken over from Stewart as warden in July 2017, received the November letter in January 2018 and barred Laughlin from the prison grounds, pending an investigation, according to evidence in the case.

All the prisoners interviewed denied any misconduct. Laughlin was found to have violated a work rule related to overfamiliarity because of the Facebook friendships, but the investigation found sexual abuse or harassment was not substantiated. The Facebook friendships were also the basis for Laughlin’s August 2018 firing, court was told.

In 2018, two months after her release, one of the plaintiffs complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about sexual harassment by Laughlin. The federal agency closed the complaint, saying there was no employer-employee relationship, but it led to two more MDOC investigations, plus a Michigan State Police investigation, court was told.

Both Corrections Department investigations found “insufficient evidence” of sexual misconduct by Laughlin, but the police investigation resulted in six criminal charges. Laughlin later pleaded no contest to two of them.

“My clients could not safely tell their story while they were incarcerated,” Gordon said in a Wednesday email.

“There is a strong culture of silence in the prison system,” Gordon said. The department “purports to have a complaint system but the evidence we obtained was the process was sloppy; minimal attempts were made to maintain confidentiality. Prisoners are afraid to risk retaliation from staff or other inmates.”

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter

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Published at Thu, 18 Feb 2021 04:58:00 +0000

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