This project was conducted with generous support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Peter Z. got his first job as a correctional officer in 1996, when he was a burly 6-foot-tall, 210-pound 24-year-old. About the same time, the then 25-yearold Jeanette P.—short and full figured at 5-2 and 170 pounds—started her six-to-12-year sentence for robbery. She had been using drugs and alcohol for at least 12 years, eventually including heroin and cocaine, with her longest period of abstinence being eight months. She also had four children.
When the two met at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison about 50 miles north of New York City in 1996, Peter knew that DOCS policy barred him from having overly familiar relationships with inmates, he testified in August at a civil trial. But after they met, Jeanette started to see him as a friend, she testified at a recent civil trial. When she was transferred to Albion in 1997, she sent two letters to a friend of hers who knew him, saying, “Tell him I said hi,” she testified. In December 1998, when Jeanette and Peter were both coincidentally transferred within weeks of each other to Bayview, they started to become more familiar with each other.
For the first several months, Jeanette and Peter considered each other platonic friends. During his breaks, he would always come see her, Jeanette testified. “I was flattered ‘cause I was incarcerated for God knows how many years, and he was the first officer that would pay mind to me. So yes, I was flattered,” she testified. “I was incarcerated for many years, and I had long hair. I was always stated down [dressed in a state-issued prisoner’s uniform]. I never wore makeup, and he was the first officer in many years, a man, that actually paid mind to me.”
But on April 5, 1999, their relationship started to become sexual, according to a statement Jeanette gave investigators. That day, Peter asked her to come to the stairway next to the mess hall, stairwell C, to clean it. There, for the first time, they kissed and petted each other. In August 1999, they started having sexual intercourse, Peter testified, while the two were in stairwellC, ostensibly to clean it.
Soon after Jeanette and Peter’s first sexual encounter in August 1999, they started having sex in her room, in the honor dorm—a small housing unit on the third floor reserved for inmates whom prison officials deemed mature enough to handle more freedom. By March 2001, Jeanette and Peter had had sex at least 15 times in her room, he testified in August. Eventually they also had sex in the officer’s station—risking discovery by any potential passersby—on the roof of the building and in the gym, he testified. The two engaged in sexual activity whenever Peter worked in the honor dorm during the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift or when he was the roundsman—a correctional officer who doesn’t have a fixed post and makes security rounds throughout the facility. They also did it whenever he was the extra—a surplus officer without a specific assignment on a particular shift—and whenever he otherwise had the chance to come to Jeanette’s room.
When Peter got there, he would turn off his radio, reducing disturbances, she testified. Peter would be in Jeanette’s room for an hour or more with the door closed when he was the officer on duty in the honor dorm, according to a statement inmate Allavy Hill made to investigators. Their encounters would last five to 10 minutes and never involved condoms, because he didn’t want to bring them into the facility for fear he would be caught, according to a statement Jeanette gave investigators. For part of the time—at least until November 2000—she was taking officially authorized birth control pills to regulate her menstrual cycle.
Other inmates were aware of the affair. One, Audrey Pleasant, told investigators that she saw Jeanette sitting on Peter’s lap and Peter going into her room and closing the door. Jeanette and Peter both testified that other officers knew about it. According to Peter and Jeanette’s testimony, six correctional officers knew about it and three helped facilitate it. (All officers that they allegedly told denied knowing about it during the trial or weren’t called as witnesses.)
After Jeanette and Peter started having sex, Jeanette later testified, she began to feel as if she was falling in love with him. Peter testified that he also had romantic feelings for her. They passed notes to each other through inmate Adelaide Alvarez, according to a statement Alvarez gave investigators. Peter gave Jeanette greeting cards and love letters, his baby photo, his telephone number, and address, Jeanette told investigators. He even gave her a wedding band for Christmas one year. At the time, she believed the ring meant they would get married and “live happily ever after,” Jeanette testified.
But the Hallmark card version of the Peter-Jeanette romance was only one side of a complex reality, at least according to Jeanette. According to her, no later than the summer of 1999, even before Peter and Jeanette had sex, Jeanette began to show some indication that she wasn’t comfortable with their relationship. One day, she drafted a figurative eviction notice, dated June 2, 1999, and addressed it to Peter. The handwritten notice declares that she is forever evicting him from her life. The notice reads, in part, “This house of love has turned to anger, unlike yourself and your vicious inhuman treatment of the tenant and their rights. I ask that you return the keys to my heart and your deposit cannot be returned because of broken promises and damaged mind.”
It’s unclear what prompted the drafting of this note and whether Jeanette ever gave it to Peter, but by September 2000, Jeanette testified, she was clear that she wanted to end the relationship, in part because she’d heard he was with involved with other inmates. She also told an investigator, “My relationship with C.O. Peter was a bad one. He never did anything for me. He never brought me anything. Every time I asked him for something, he never brought it in.”
When she told Peter that she wanted to end the relationship, he got upset, threw a tantrum and began manhandling her, she testified. She also alleged, in Lewis and Freeman’s lawsuit, that Peter grabbed her around the neck and hit her with a pool cue (Jeanette joined their lawsuit when it was filed in 2003 and dropped out in 2009, upon Peter’s insistence, she testified). Pleasant told investigators she recalled overhearing an argument in which Peter called Jeanette a “bitch” and Jeanette called him a “faggot.”
Jeanette feared—according to her testimony—that no one would believe her if she reported him and that DOCS would transfer her from Bayview, where at least it was possible for her to see her four children. If she weren’t incarcerated, she testified, she would have handled the alleged violence differently. “I would have moved, if he already knew where I lived. Or I would have told my brother. Or I would’ve called the cops,” she testified.
Every time they argued, he assaulted her, grabbing her by the arms and slamming her against the wall, Jeanette told an investigator. When Jeanette threatened to report Peter to his superiors, Jeanette testified, he told her, ‘”Go ahead. You know what’s going to happen. You’re going to get drafted [transferred], and I’m going to remain at my job.” So for several more months, Jeanette testified, she continued having sex with Peter because it was easiest.
Then in February 2001, their relationship became even more complicated: Jeanette believed she was pregnant. Peter told her to wait until he got a transfer to a new facility before telling people about it, according to a statement she gave investigators. Then, in March, he told her he would leave the job, marry her and take care of her and the baby, she told investigators. (Peter testified that he learned about the pregnancy in March and did plan, at that time, to marry her.)
Jeanette and Peter knew that if she were pregnant, it was inevitable that the prison’s upper management would discover their open secret. The official responsible for supervising all line officers—the deputy superintendent of security, Kenneth Werbacher—testified that in February and early March 2001, he still didn’t have an inkling that anything was going on between her and Peter. That began to change in early March, when Sergeant Sammy Green couldn’t find or reach Peter, because he was in Jeanette’s room. When Peter turned up in the lobby, red and nervous, Green suspected that something was wrong. An investigation began.
Before Peter’s front began to crumble, Jeanette had requested to be transferred to another facility so she could get away from him. Within a few days of Peter’s pivotal misstep, she was moved to a new floor. And two to three weeks later, she was transferred to Beacon, where she finally informed officials of her pregnancy and eventually began to cooperate with their investigation. At around the same time, Jeanette began talking to an attorney about filing a lawsuit in connection with her ordeal. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “I hope everything goes okay with this claim for real. I can have my moms go on a long vacation, take care of my girls and the baby.”
Within four months, Peter resigned and was arrested. That autumn, just before Jeanette gave birth to a healthy child, Peter pleaded guilty to rape in the third degree—for having sex with a person incapable of consent by reason of some factor other than being under 17 years old. For the crime, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in state prison, he was sentenced to one to three years in prison. His incarceration began Dec. 18, 2001, and he spent nearly two years in prison.
After his release, he and Jeanette developed a custody agreement. Peter began paying child support, and the couple considered rekindling their relationship—but to no avail.
With Peter’s guilt established, the question begging for an answer became how was the couple able to carry on a sexual affair for nearly two years—even engaging in sex in the officer’s station—without so much as arousing the suspicion of the prison’s upper management? Answers to that question began to emerge in January 2004, after Jeanette filed her lawsuit against New York State in the Court of Claims— the exclusive forum for litigation seeking damages against the state. The lawsuit alleges that DOCS was responsible for what happened to her.
The answers that emerged from the lawsuit illustrate how an employee might game the system and demonstrate the challenges of assigning blame when he does.
DOCS attorney Suzette Rivera presented testimony that officials didn’t suspect Peter and Jeanette, because before April 2001, Jeanette never told them and Peter took care to cover his tracks. Officials testified that they had no reason to suspect Peter would do such a thing: He had undergone a criminal background check and a battery of tests before becoming an officer, including a psychological fitness test, and passed all of them. There were no prior complaints against Peter, according to DOCS testimony. And Jeanette was considered a mature inmate.
Rivera, an attorney in the New York State Office of the Attorney General, also presented testimony that as soon as officials began to suspect there was an inappropriate relationship between the two, they took action.
Martin Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the former commissioner for New York City’s Department of Corrections, testified on DOCS’ behalf as an expert witness. He argued that prison supervisors cannot be omniscient. “We can’t be everywhere at once,” he testified.
“There’s not always going to be another officer or supervisor observing what that specific officer does. We must rely on the individual officers to perform their duties as they were trained to perform them.”
There were no cameras in the stairwells where they had sex and no alarms on the doors leading to the stairwells. But cameras alone would not have prevented the affair, Horn testified. “Even where cameras are installed, there are blind spots,” he testified. “Cameras don’t look inside individual cells or rooms that inmates live in, neither do cameras in toilet and shower areas. In any situation where the facility is covered by cameras, there are places that aren’t subject to camera coverage.”
Horn testified that there were 24-hour periods during Jeanette’s and Peter’s affair when prison officials assigned not a single officer to supervise the honor dorm and no DOCS employee came to the third floor at all. During the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, when inmates were supposed to be in programs, no officer was ever assigned there.
But, Horn contended, the level of supervision in the dorm was appropriate, because the inmates assigned to the honor dorm were more mature.
Robert DeRosa, an expert witness for the plaintiff, saw matters differently. DeRosa testified that DOCS’ supervision of Peter left him “free to roam the building and access areas” and “to carry on this relationship unabated.” He testified, “No one challenged it.” When supervisors made security rounds, officers called ahead to alert one another that their bosses were coming.
The routine security inspections of his supervisors did not deter Peter, because they were predictable, Peter testified. The couple never feared having sex on the roof, because, Jeanette testified, “Nobody was coming up to the roof.” Roof checks by other guards occurred every hour, giving them sufficient time, she testified.
“When you have a facility managed like this, it’s pretty much open game for people to do what they want. That’s pretty much what happened here. Peter was allowed to do what he wanted over a period of time,” DeRosa testified.
Jeanette’s trial ended Nov. 16, after four days of testimony. If the judge rules in her favor, it would be at least the second time that an inmate or former prisoner has won a case alleging that DOCS is responsible for sexual abuse committed by a prison employee. Later this year, the Court of Claims could hear cases from two other women alleging that DOCS is responsible for their sexual abuse. One is correctional officer Donald L.’s victim, who already won a federal civil case against him.
Her Court of Claims lawsuit alleges that DOCS was negligent and careless in several ways, saying that prison officials should have locked the classroom where she was raped to prevent Donald from accessing it, because it was not in use. The lawsuit also alleges that Donald was negligently hired, improperly trained and improperly investigated. Through a relative, Donald did not comment.