DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – “The only time you’re safe is when they lock the doors and everyone is in their cell,” said Kenny Thornsberry, who served time in Jackson State Prison at age of 18.

Kenny Thornsberry. (Family photo)

Kenny Thornsberry. (Family photo)

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For teens convicted of some crimes – prison becomes an emotional and physical struggle for survival.

Everyone starts at Jackson prison, says Thronsberry, where there is no separation. “You still walk to eat, you still walk to …  medical, dental so all those times you are just hanging out with them all day.”

Juvenile prisoners have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, alleging rape and other abuses.

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Labelle, who is part of the team representing the John Does, said there is more than just one element to the case.

“This case is about what happens to youth when you do put them in an adult prison. The sexual abuse and assaults by adult prisoners and staff, the Tasering, shackling and placing them in excessive solitary confinement.” she said.

The landmark Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, in part, requires juvenile prisoners be separated from adult prisoners.

Chris Gautz, a public information officer for MDOC, says 74 male prisoners, 17 and under are separated from adult prisoners in Michigan’s thumb area. “They have their own housing unit – they are separated sight and sound from adult prisoners. The same would be true for our female prisoners that are under the age of 17 – they have their own secure units at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility and the same is true for them where they have their own yard area, their own common area and their own housing units. So they are also separated sight and sound from adult prisoners.”

He says incoming prisoners are screened to determine if they are sexual preditors or sexual victims so not to be housed together.

“They are quick to throw them in and make them pay the price for their mistakes but then there is nothing to help. No back up,” says Frances Giordano, mother of Kenny Thornsberry. “There’s no, ‘let’s get you through this in the right way’ the counseling part, the mental health part of things what makes you tick and let’s fix it – the bad part.”

Thornsberry pictured with his mother. (Family photo)

Thornsberry pictured with his mother. (Family photo)

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Giordano says that “he had trouble with … decision making and that’s what got him in the position he was in.”

Thornsberry went to Jackson prison when he was 18 and remained in Michigan prisons for over six years. Thornsberry had consensual sex with his then girlfriend a freshman in high school and was convicted under the Romeo and Juliet law.

Gautz says the state is confident they will come out on top.

“The department of corrections has provided more than a half-million pages of documents and more than 550 videos as part of the discovery process to the plaintiffs, none of which provide any support for the allegations made in the lawsuit. So, we’re confident that when all the facts are presented in court, rather than a few strategically placed allegations presented to the media, that the outcome of this case will be in favor of the state,” he said.

Holmes Youthful Trainee Act: State law allows a judge to place a youth between 17 and 20 who is alleged to have committed a crime and who has pleaded guilty to that crime to be placed in prison or on probation without a conviction to avoid a criminal record. Excluded from this program are youth who are charged with a felony for which the maximum punishment is life imprisonment, a major controlled substance offense or a traffic offense. This action protects the privacy of the offender while on trainee status. If the youth successfully completes the program, there is no criminal record. Imprisonment or probation cannot exceed three years, according to MDOC.

Attorney LaBelle says the program puts these younger offenders at greater risk.

“You’re going to do your probation, but you are going to do it in prison – in the adult prison – and so once they get in there, they are subject to the same harms as everybody else,” says LaBelle. “They aren’t actually convicted of anything – they are doing probation. Hundreds of youth doing probation in the Michigan Department of Corrections adult prison and they are getting hurt very badly.

Governor Rick Snyder has recently signed expanded law for the HYTA program.

State Representative Marcia Hovey-Wright of Muskegon is one of the sponsors. “You know we are trying to keep them out of the adult prison system for their safety but also … to put them on a better path toward being self sufficient and then gaining job skills and being able to have gainful employment in a legal way.”

Hovey-Wright says many juvenile prisons have been victim to sexual assault and violent crimes.

Michigan is one of the top 5 states in the nation with the number of youth put directly into the adult prison system when they’re under the age of 18.

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All this week, WWJ’s Brooke Allen takes a look at juvenile offenders placed into the adult prison system.