The culture of sexual abuse in New York prisons

The Law of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma and Law Offices of Daniel McGuinness filed an Amended Complaint in federal court today detailing harrowing allegations of severe, pervasive, routine, and tolerated sexual abuse by prison guards against six women. According to the allegations in the complaint, women have been raped by guards all over the state — from Lakeview Shock Incarceration Center near Lake Erie, to Taconic Correctional Facility just north of New York City.

Prison rape by male officers is so common, so poorly investigated, and so tolerated, that a culture of sexual abuse exists in the state prisons. The new complaint explains:

From 2015 to 2019, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) housed approximately 2,500 female inmates, around five percent of the total inmate population, in six facilities throughout the state. These women were guarded by male officers, who routinely engaged in illegal sexual activity with individual victim inmates over long periods of time. Under the New York Penal Law, an inmate can never consent to sexual activity with an officer. See N.Y. Penal Law § 130.05. Nonetheless, DOCCS supervisors cultivated a culture that allowed male staff to prey on female inmates to satisfy their sexual desires. Male staff were barely supervised and left alone with women under their control for long periods of time in unmonitored areas of the prisons. They had a system of warning each other if a supervisor was approaching and created a climate of fear and intimidation against any woman who complained about sexual attention from an officer.

Rather than investigate officers’ sexual abuse of female inmates in good faith, DOCCS investigators blamed the victims and coerced them into making statements, threatening punishment against those who chose to remain silent and discrediting many of those who spoke up. As rapes and sexual assaults of female inmates continued with alarming frequency, the defendants covered up the assaults by giving lip service to official policies and disciplining individual staff members only when their sexual abuse of inmates became too egregious and notorious to ignore.

The multiple rapes and sexual assaults of these six Plaintiffs and others described in this Complaint could have been prevented. DOCCS officials, including both administrators and guards, knew of the danger facing female inmates. They knew that multiple confirmed rapes had occurred in their facilities. They knew individual inmates were complaining of rapes that were “unsubstantiated” because the victims were routinely and unfairly discredited based solely on their status as inmates. They knew that guards were grooming inmates for sexual contact and coercive “romantic” relationships over long periods of time. In some cases, they knew of and tolerated blatantly inappropriate relationships between officers and inmates. They knew substantiated incidents of sexual abuse were ten times higher in DOCCS’s female facilities than male facilities. They knew the policies that needed to be corrected and how to fix their broken culture.

The supervisory defendants named in this Complaint nonetheless chose not to act, allowing these rapes and sexual assaults to occur and continue.

Jane Stone Amended ComplaintThe amended complaint seeks money damages on behalf of six women who were victimized by guards in the New York State prisons. It describes in excruciating detail how officers would rape women in supply closets, laundry rooms, and housing cubicles.  Savvy guards would groom women for sexual assault over time, then retaliate if they complained. Most of all, they would cover up for one another, while prison administrators remained deliberately indifferent to the plight of the victims.

The plaintiffs in the amended complaint are trying to recover for their injuries under the Civil Rights Act and the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishment.” Since the landmark decision in 2015 known as Crawford v. Cuomo, it has been absolutely clear in New York that cruel and unusual punishment includes any sexual abuse by guards. The Civil Rights Act provides a remedy, albeit a difficult one to enforce due to the doctrine of qualified immunity and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, both bad laws that in some circumstances can protect abusive guards.

The six women victims are represented by attorneys Daniel McGuinness, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, Victoria Medley, and Benjamin Notterman. The case is expected to proceed to motions and discovery in the fall. Click here to read the full amended complaint.

Photo by Jimmy Chan from Pexels

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