Even if abuse is reported, the women claim, corrections officers are so unlikely to be disciplined that they openly disregard policies on such behavior.
The lawsuit also claims that the system for investigating complaints of staff sexual misconduct in women’s prisons is inadequate and puts women who report abuse at risk of retaliation.
Despite the purported “zero tolerance” policy of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the suit alleges, a culture has been created that is “functionally indifferent” to the risk of abuse. It is allowed to “persist and flourish,” the suit says, in violation of the inmates’ rights.
The lawsuit, which is replete with detailed allegations of guards involved in forcible sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual misconduct, verbal threats, harassment and voyeurism, seeks class-action status on behalf of all current and future inmates at the three all-women’s prisons operated by the department: the Bedford Hills, Taconic and Albion correctional facilities.
A department spokesman said the agency “takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously.” Though the department does not comment on pending litigation, he said, it “thoroughly investigates each claim expeditiously to ensure that appropriate action is taken against any perpetrator in violation of the law or agency rules.”
Of the state’s total inmate population of just over 52,000, about 2,460, or 4.7 percent, are women, the department said.
The suit identifies plaintiffs as Jane Jones 1 through 6 and officers by letters of the alphabet. In one case, the suit accuses “Officer C” at Bedford Hills of sexually and physically abusing and harassing a 28-year-old plaintiff for about a year. The abuse included repeated acts of sexual intercourse with the officer, to which prisoners are not legally able to consent, the lawsuit makes clear.
At one point, Officer C choked her, leaving bruises on her neck. On other occasions, he grabbed her violently by the wrists and pushed her against the wall, the lawsuit says. It adds that an investigator eventually told the woman that no action would be taken against Officer C “because nothing was caught on camera, there was no DNA, and because ‘inmate statements were not worth that much.’”
Lawyers for the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, which is bringing the case along with the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, said the suit was part of a renewed effort to address continuing sexual abuse of female prisoners.
The suit comes amid growing evidence of widespread brutality and corruption within the state prison system. In June 2016, two murderers escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., setting off a three-week manhunt that cost millions of dollars and terrorized the local population.
A subsequent investigation by The New York Times documented allegations by other inmates that guards had severely beaten them and choked them with plastic bags while seeking information about the escape.
A Legal Aid lawyer said the six women who agreed to be plaintiffs in the sexual abuse suit “all felt strongly that they wanted things to change and that they didn’t want to seek remedies for just themselves.”
“They wanted things to be different for other women,” she added.
Their message, the lawyer said, was: “This is not part of my sentence. I was not sentenced to be abused by officers.”
The lawsuit names the department’s acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, and four other officials as defendants. Guards are not named as defendants.
The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, does not seek damages. Rather, it asks a judge to oversee the development of remedies to end what it calls the “pattern of sexual misconduct” at the women’s prisons, where the plaintiffs are housed. It also demands changes in how the department investigates complaints and disciplines officers.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers obtained an order from a judge, allowing the women to proceed anonymously in the lawsuit, to protect their privacy as sexual assault victims and shield them from retaliation, as Legal Aid had requested.