Adi Talwar

The Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn is a federal detention facility that houses prisoners serving brief sentences, and prisoners with cases pending in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Last Friday, Carlos Richard Martinez, a former lieutenant and corrections officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, faced life in prison after being found guilty on 20 counts, including sexual abuse and deprivation of an inmate’s civil rights.

The indictment is the latest episode in the saga of Brooklyn’s largest jail, which has attracted attention over allegations of poor conditions and a track record of sexual abuse, as brought to light in investigations by advocates and media, and documented in countless legal testimonies over the past several years. But if the trial of Martinez has reached an end, the case has only added grist to a growing outcry over conditions at the MDC, and the failure to prevent sexual assault both there and nationwide.

“Carlos Martinez willfully abused his position of power as a federal correctional officer by repeatedly raping a female inmate entrusted to his care at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn,” said U.S. attorney Richard P. Donaghue in a press release issued by the Department of Justice.

The Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn is a federal detention facility that houses prisoners serving brief sentences, and prisoners with cases pending in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In 2001, Reverend Al Sharpton served 90 days at the MDC after being convicted of trespassing on federal property for protesting against the U.S. military presence on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. The MDC also drew attention to itself in 2015 during a lawsuit brought by eight Muslim detainees, who claimed they had been subjected to chronic arbitrary abuses including humiliation, beatings, solitary confinement, and denial of sleep, edible food or religious materials. A 2003 report by the Justice Department highlighted mistreatment at the MDC of Muslim and Arab men rounded up in the sprawling September 11 investigation.

The sexual abuse that led to last week’s sentencing began when Martinez, a 48-year-old ex-Marine, singled out an inmate whom the prosecution described as particularly vulnerable: a 31-year-old Dominican woman the courts referred to as ‘Maria’. “I didn’t know enough English to be able to explain it,” she said in her testimony. “I didn’t have anybody here.”

Testimony also revealed that Martinez was able to use prison software like Sentry and Truintel to research and accumulate information about Maria, such as the fact that she didn’t have visitors. As a lieutenant, there were no surveillance cameras in Martinez’s office. In contrast, Martinez was able to observe the surrounding halls through a monitor on his desk, keeping watch while Maria was asked to clean his office – it was there that Martinez forcibly raped Maria on four separate occasions, including once just before she was released.

Maria’s attempts to change the situation reflected a remarkable imbalance of power. “Martinez exploited the victim’s fear,” said Donaghue, “of being punished with additional jail time and other disciplinary action.” Like, for example, ‘the SHU’ [solitary housing unit], which a fellow inmate described as “punishment room with little space where you get fed like a dog.”  

“If you wanted to switch jobs it was up the lieutenant – and they wouldn’t do it,” Maria said. “No matter what – no matter what the circumstances are, I’m a criminal. Who’s going to believe a criminal compared to a person with his position?”

Martinez, who has yet to be sentenced, was one of the officers tasked with instructing staff on protocol surrounding sexual misconduct and ensuring that it didn’t happen. Far from being an isolated incident, Martinez is the most recent iteration of a larger systemic failure at the MDC, in which the very people tasked with preventing sexual abuse enabled, ignored and at times perpetrated it.

“It’s something to behold. There’s a long history of it, and it’s been going on a while,” says defense attorney Sally Butler, the majority of whose clients are housed at the MDC. “Sometimes it’s coercive in a physical sense, sometimes psychological. There’s even a bartering system,” in which corrections officers ask for sexual favors in exchange for providing “decent food.”

“They’re really afraid to come forward, as they should be, because they’ll be punished. If a woman is going to come forward, the method for her to do so is to approach somebody in the MDC. There’s just no way to make a complaint without ramifications. If you’re in the system and someone’s abusing you, your pathway out of that is tricky,” Butler adds.

Part of what Butler is describing is known as the code of silence, whereby law enforcement officers shield one another from incrimination through various behaviors, ranging from willful ignorance, to outright lying, to the act of taking an inmate’s claim and relaying it back to the accused officer, as opposed to relevant authorities. For example, transcripts from a separate hearing tell of how two inmates attempted to report the sexual misconduct of former officer Nancy Gonzalez — who was engaged in sexual relations with multiple prisoners and guards — only to have their reports intercepted and delivered back to the offending officer.*

Something similar happened when Maria tried to better her situation. An officer read the transcript of an outgoing telephone call in which she described what was taking place, and then promptly reported it to Martinez. In both instances, the prisoners were put in vulnerable and threatening positions once the officers knew that they’d been accused, transcripts from the trials show.

Butler was unable to put a number on how many officers might be involved either directly or indirectly, or how many knew about the incident and didn’t speak up. But in May of 2017 two other officers at the MDC were also charged with sexually abusing female inmates.

To some critics, the sexual allegations reflect a broader, oppressive culture at the MDC. The National Association of Women’s Judges (NAWJ) conducted audits in 2015 and 2016. The 2016 report reads, “There are no windows so there is no fresh air or sunlight. The women are in the room 24/7, with no opportunity for outside exercise. Several women said the place had been fixed up for our visit to look better than it did regularly… The brochure lists seven employment opportunities, yet one woman said she had begged for employment and received nothing… Warden [Herman] Quay [head warden at the MDC] admitted medical services is a problem and did not defend it. BOP claims it cannot find physicians willing to work in New York prisons. Just like the last time, women complained about not being able to see doctors.”

“The lack of decent food, medical care, you’re always preyed upon by one person or another. It’s a stunning indictment,” says Butler, referring to the Martinez trial, “but I don’t think it will change the culture. They’ve added some things – like cameras – but that’s not going to be enough.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to emails and voicemail requests asking for comment on Martinez and the allegations of poor conditions at the MDC.

Butler’s pessimism might owe to the MDC’s history of resistance to change. Long before Martinez and the two officers charged in May were brought to trial, the NAWJ and the New York Times were investigating the MDC over the “unconscionable conditions” afforded to women. The NAWJ provided recommendations in the report cited above. “They came back a year later and all their recommendations were blown off,” says Butler. “They don’t have to change, they’re not going to change, there’s no incentive.”

Concerns about sexual assault in prison are not confined to the MDC or the larger federal prison system — City Limits reported in 2011 that state prisons in New York had among the highest reported rates in the nation of sexual abuse by staff. And those concerns are not new. Fifteen years ago, they led to PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the first federal statute intended to deter the sexual assault and rape of prisoners.

PREA established a commission to research the issue, and charged it with developing standards for correctional facilities. Facilities that adopt the standards have officers undergo mandatory training, and allow PREA auditors to perform evaluations that – in theory – determine whether the facility is compliant.

The incidents at the MDC raise questions about the effectiveness of the law. Not only did the abuse of Maria occur in spite of the statute, but PREA is the law that her rapist, Martinez, was training other officers to follow.

The overall number of allegations reported by facilities has increased, from 6,241 in 2005, to 8,763 in 2011. The latest estimate will be released until November of this year. Some believe that increase reflects the fact that correctional facilities are paying closer attention as a result of PREA.

“I think the PREA standards have had an impact,” says Allen J. Beck, a senior researcher at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “It raised the issue and underscores that it is real and extensive. We’ve identified risks and failures in standards. Some facilities have extremely high rates. Whether the actual rates are going down, we’ll know soon.”

Some of those reported assaults are inmate-on-inmate. But, says, Beck. “At least half of what we find is related to staff.”

Even the higher, recent numbers present what is believed to be only a partial picture of the problem. The Bureau of Justice Statistics suspects that the actual number of sexual victimizations is closer to 216,000.

But PREA was designed to do more than help us acknowledge the problem; it’s supposed to help reduce the vulnerability of incarcerated people.

The MDC managed to pass two PREA audits even as Martinez continued to commit his crimes — one of those audits occurred just days after one of the incidents. In the Summary of Audit Findings, the auditor concludes that “the staff were very knowledgeable concerning their responsibilities involving the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the facility is fully compliant.”

Meanwhile, even the people charged with implementing PREA at MDC publicly mocked it. In court filings, the prosecution revealed that in 2015 Martinez made a post to his Facebook page (the account has since been deactivated) that showed the lieutenant and another officer posing for a photo, the caption reading: “It’s only PREA when you don’t like it.”

The failure of PREA compliance officers and auditors to account for what was going on at the MDC raises questions as to the efficacy of the program, especially since it is not an isolated incident. According to Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention International, some of the most egregious offenders are consistently passing audits. Just Detention International is able to determine this by keeping tabs on which prisons are passing the audits, and which prisons they receive complaints about – the discrepancies can be alarming.

Clements Unit, a prison located on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, passed its PREA audit in 2016 despite a continued stream of allegations of sexual assault, according to Lerner-Kinglake. In its most recent survey of sexual victimization, the DOJ found that 9.5 percent of inmates at Clements Unit reported being victims of sexual misconduct – by staff alone.

Simply because of human error, audits will never be perfect. But over the course of PREA’s enrollment, as observers have taken account of how serious the problem is, structural flaws with PREA have been identified: that the people charged with monitoring sexual abuse in jails are sometimes the very people with the power and opportunity to perpetrate it, that, more generally, PREA auditors would benefit from greater independence from the institutions they monitor, and lastly, that a small number of PREA auditors have essentially cornered the market and consolidated influence.

Just Detention International is in the process of going through hundreds of audits. “Based on a preliminary analysis, the vast majority of audit reports are being done by people in corrections,” said Lerner-Kinglake.

“A small number [of auditors] are dominating the market,” he continued. “They are providing cheap, not-very-thorough audits. In some states, for example, we’re seeing just one person doing all the audits, and many of their reports are just not up to scratch.”

Structural change on the part of the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice would be costly, and for that reason alone it will take serious pressure to bring it about; but the cost of continuing as it has been is surely worse. Somewhere in the ballpark of 216,000 incidents per year.

* Correction: The original version of this article erroneously reported that this episode involved a different correction officer. In fact, the Ronell Wilson incident was discussed at a hearing for an officer not accused of staff-on-inmate misconduct.