Still Waiting for Rules to Prevent Rape on Rikers

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A Department of Correction graduation ceremony in 2013.  In 2011 and 2012, two city facilities had among the highest reported rates of sexual abuse in the country.

Edward Reed/City Hall

A Department of Correction graduation ceremony in 2013. In 2011 and 2012, two city facilities had among the highest reported rates of sexual abuse in the country.

Nearly a year ago, the New York City Board of Correction voted unanimously to enact revised guidelines to address the high rates of sexual abuse in the city’s correctional facilities. As of last week, those rules have yet to be published.

In February, Executive Director Martha King said the board would publish its rule updating its Prison Rape Elimination Act standards this month. But board member Robert Cohen said during the Board of Correction’s May 10 meeting that the release was held back because the New York City Department of Correction has failed to comment on the rule, which Cohen said is drafted and ready to go.

“The BOC’s efforts in this area keep being stifled,” says Kelly Grace Price, a member of the Jails Action Coalition, which held a rally after the meeting protesting the board’s rule delay.

In April of last year, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James petitioned the Board of Correction, which oversees the Department of Correction, to make improvements to its minimum standards so that they’re consistent with PREA — the 2003 federal law that requires states to implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and rape incidents in its prison and jails. The act mandates that correctional facilities follow policies and procedures to prevent, detect and report sexual assault and rape, and reprimand assailants. PREA also requires cities and states to collect and release data on sexual abuse reports.

The Public Advocate’s 26-page petition outlined a list of PREA-related rules for the board to consider as it tackles the issue of sexual violence on the embattled Rikers Island and other DOC facilities. Among the rules, Public Advocate James called for the board to mandate reporting and data collection, hiring and training improvements, protections for transgender inmates and detainees, and resource assistance to inmates making reports. The board voted in June 2015 to adopt the Public Advocate’s proposed rules, noting that the board may modify or amend the petition’s language.

Price says it’s suspicious that the Board of Correction is beholden to the agency it governs in order to release the rule to the public. “That’s insane to me,” Price said to the board during Tuesday’s meeting. “Maybe I’m missing something.”

The board did not return a request for comment.

Lawsuits allege a pattern of assaults

The rule’s delay comes on the heels of a $10 million lawsuit filed against the city by Candie Hailey, who charges she was subjected to repeated sexual and physical abuse by Rikers Island guards. Hailey spent over two years on Rikers awaiting trial on charges that she stabbed a 3-month-old baby during a melee in 2012. She was acquitted of those charges last May, reported the New York Daily News.

The Correction Department told the Daily News it is investigating Hailey’s claims. “The vast majority of our officers carry out their duties with care and integrity, and we are taking many steps to ensure that all staff adhere to the highest professionalism,” a DOC spokesperson told the paper.

“Her experience is not unique,” says Price, a former Rikers detainee. She says she saw firsthand how guards used their position of authority to abuse and control inmates. “It’s shocking, but it’s endemic of the culture of brutality and the culture of entitlement of the guards.”

Similar complaints have been lodged against the Department of Correction over the years. In February, a female Rikers guard was arrested and charged with raping a male inmate and conspiring to bring him drugs; the guard claims the incident was consensual, but under New York penal code, inmates can not legally consent to sex. In November 2015, a federal lawsuit was filed against the department on behalf of a female prisoner who says a correction officer forcibly raped her last March on a bus transporting her and five male inmates to Rikers.

Another lawsuit filed over the summer alleges that a transgender inmate held at the Robert N. Davoren Complex was harassed and repeatedly raped by a guard, who then gave gifts as bribes so the victim would not report the assaults. In October 2010, a guard was arrested and charged for groping and sexually harassing a transgender woman detained at the Manhattan Detention Complex in September 2009.

And last May, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of two female inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center — Rikers’ only all-women jail — who say Correction Officer Benny Santiago raped and sexually assaulted them repeatedly. The lawsuit accuses the Department of Correction of botching investigations into reports lodged against Santiago, also named a defendant, and continued to employ him despite complaints.

Furthermore, the lawsuit states, the department’s “deliberate indifference” towards sexual violence allowed Santiago and other inmates to retaliate and continue to abuse the two women.

“There is absolutely no excuse for the sexual assault occurring on Rikers Island,” Public Advocate James, whose office filed a declaration in the case, tells City Limits. “Every New Yorker must be protected from heinous sexual crimes.”

“We will continue to call on the BOC to fix this widespread problem until all our inmates are safe,” she adds.

The Department of Correction, though, maintains it is actively addressing sexual violence on Rikers Island. The department said it’s working with the Moss Group, a criminal justice consulting firm in Washington, D.C., to refine jail practices to comply with PREA. The agency also said it continually trains staff and executive leadership on PREA standards and procedures, and employs a PREA compliance manager in all DOC facilities. A hotline for private reporting to non-uniform staff has also been established and cameras will soon be installed in inmate areas.

The Department of Correction also quietly put into effect this month its own directive on preventing, reporting and investigating incidents of sexual abuse and harassment.

“Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte’s top priority is safety, and that includes sexual safety,” said a Department of Correction spokesperson.

Price finds the new guidelines highly suspect for two reasons. First, she notes, the directive is dated for December 2008, but was not enacted until nearly eight years later. Second, the policy seems to only recycle existing standards and procedures, and leaves out important PREA elements and harm reduction principles, Price says.

“It looks at first glance like this is an attempt by DOC to define procedure for itself,” Price told City Limits in a follow-up interview. “This now published directive will only work against them as it codifies the egregious lack of care and reporting oversight in the DOC’s methods.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s office did tell City Limits that, while the board doesn’t require sign off from the Department of Correction, but it does often consult with the agency before creating rules.

“It is appropriate to consult and align with DOC on any regulatory action to ensure it can actually be operationalized,” the spokesperson said.

A lack of data seen

While advocates say sexual abuse is systemic and persistent in DOC facilities, the numbers are hard to come by. And it seems the city isn’t sure of the data itself. At a New York City Council hearing in December, Department of Corrections officials evaded questions by councilmembers on statistics and policies. “We don’t have that information at this time,” was their common refrain.

What is known, though, is that, between 2011 and 2012, two of Rikers Island facilities — Singer and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, a high security jail for male detainees — had some of the highest rates of staff sexual misconduct: 5.9 percent, respectively, of inmates said they were sexually abused by staff, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That’s three times higher than the national average for jail inmates, which is 1.8 percent, reports the Justice Department.

There’s also a drastic difference between national and city rates of sexual abuse by any person, including other inmates. Nearly 9 percent of women held at Singer and 6.2 percent of men held at Bantum reported being sexually abused by a staff or an inmate, according to the Justice Department. Nationally, that number is 3.2 percent.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees healthcare at Rikers, reported to the Public Advocate’s office that 116 sexual abuse incidents — 61 committed by staffers — were divulged to a medical provider in 2014, but only two of those reports were passed on to police. But the Department of Correction won’t release additional information, according to the public advocate’s office. In a statement to the Board of Correction last May, James said the agency refused to provide her office with sexual abuse statistics or say if reports have been investigated and substantiated. The department, on the other hand, contends it reports all sexual allegations to the New York City Police Department.

Price doesn’t buy it. “The city is trying to bury it like they’re trying to bury all their problems on Rikers,” she says.

Like James, the coalition has been unsuccessful in obtaining solid statistical data. The DOC has denied multiple FOIL requests the coalition has filed, she says.

The Department of Correction has not responded to a FOIL request filed by City Limits on April 19 asking for abuse statistics and disciplinary reports. A May 5 follow-up was also ignored.

“Just release the numbers,” says Price. “You can’t hide these numbers forever.”

A bill introduced in March by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley would force Department of Correction’s hand. The bill, currently in committee, would mandate the agency to provide quarterly public reports on sexual abuse incidents in city correctional facilities and the outcomes of investigations into those cases.

Crowley’s office did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

State system wrestles with the same problem

The problems on Rikers Island are a microcosm of what’s happening statewide, though. A 2011 City Limits investigation into the state’s prison system found that guards sexually assault female inmates with impunity — more so than the official numbers would suggests. Five years later, the Legal Aid Society filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, charging that sexual abuse against state inmates is still pervasive and ignored.

The suit, lodged in February on behalf of six female prisoners, alleges that reports of sexual abuse at the Albion, Bedford Hills, and Taconic correctional facilities — the department’s only all-women prisons — are poorly investigated and offending guards are rarely punished, despite DOCCS’ so-called “zero tolerance” policy. By failing to adequately respond to sexual assault allegations and enforce rules, the complaint states, the department has created “a culture of indifference” that allows prison staff to sexual assault prisoners and prevents victims from coming forward.

Female inmates who do report abuse, though, often face retaliation for speaking up — their abused may continue to assault them, deny them necessary items like toilet paper or tampons or refuse them phone calls, the suit says.

“Understand the power the correction officer has,” says Dori Lewis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “They have control over almost every aspect of your life.”

DOCCS told City Limits in a statement: “While the [department] cannot comment on pending litigation, it has established a culture within its facilities where sexual abuse is not tolerated. Through expanded community-based victim support services allowing inmates to feel safer coming forward, to the prompt, thorough, and objective investigations being conducted by DOCCS’ Office of Special Investigations, Sex Crimes Division, the Department is determined to hold abusers accountable through both discipline and prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by law.”

The state corrections department adopted its PREA directives in 2011. As for the city, Board of Corrections member Robert Cohen said last week that the board should release its PREA rule by the next meeting, which is scheduled for June 14. The board expects the Department of Corrections to comment on the rule by then.

That, of course, is tentative, he noted.

As far as the city’s policy is concerned, advocates say that until the rule is finalized — and even after — they will continue to loudly and publicly pressure the city to end rape on Rikers.

“They’re trying not to address the issue in a way that causes attention to it,” she says. “[But] this issue isn’t going away.”