Six female prisoners sue New York Corrections Dept. over sexual abuse

© Shannon Stapleton
Multiple cases of male corrections officers sexual abusing female prisoners were brought to light in a class action suit filed against the New York Department of Corrections, which alleges a “culture of indifference” has allowed sexual abuse to flourish.

“Staff sexual abuse is a serious problem in New York’s women’s prisons,” said Veronica Vela, staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, in a released statement.

The lawsuit describes cases of alleged sexual intercourse, harassment, and abuse in the three all-women’s prisons operated by the department: the Bedford Hills, Taconic and Albion correctional facilities.

One plaintiff, Jane Jones 1, a 24-year old woman who has been incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility since 2011, alleges she had been abused for nearly three years. The abuse involved kissing, oral sex, repeated touching, and repeated sexual intercourse. The corrections officer gave her drugs, alcohol, and herpes. The plaintiff described how the officer chose places away from surveillance cameras, and how “officers call ahead to alert the officer on duty at the post that a supervisor is on his or her way.”

The plaintiff reported the sexual abuse in writing to the DOCCS Commissioner, who began an investigation. The officer involved had previously been accused of sexually and physically abusing other female prisoners and bringing them prohibited contraband.

The complaint alleges that a culture of indifference exists within the DOCCS women’s facilities that allow sexual abuse by staff against prisoners to flourish. It also accuses the department of failing to protect the women in custody, investigate complaints, and discipline officers, despite being aware of the pervasive problem.

The Legal Aid Society and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP law firm filed the suit against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on behalf of the unnamed plaintiffs in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on Friday.

The defendants include Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Steven Maher, chief of investigation for the department, as well as other high-ranking corrections officials.

The agency “takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously,” said Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the prison system, in a statement issued to USA Today.

“While we do not comment on pending litigation, it is important to note that DOCCS thoroughly investigates each claim expeditiously to ensure that appropriate action is taken against any perpetrator in violation of the law or agency rules,” he said.

The six female plaintiffs in Jones v. Annucci represent the estimated 2,300 women prisoners in DOCCS custody, all of whom, the lawsuit alleges, face a substantial risk falling victim to sexual abuse while in custody. Most of the women had either a history of child abuse or been victims of domestic violence, or both.

One plaintiff, Jane Jones 4, who was molested as child and gang raped by the age of 16, was subjected to sexual abuse at the Albion Correctional Facility before being released on parole. She later ended up in the Bedford Hills facility, however, where she was subjected to sexual abuse including voyeurism, propositioning, and touching by one officer, and kissing and fondling by another.

In a separate case, another plaintiff was sexually and physical abused and harassed by an officer for over a year. Jane Jones 3, a 28-year old woman described how an officer had made sexual comments, exposed himself, demanded oral sex, and forced her to have sexual intercourse, grabbing her, choking her, and leaving her bruised around her neck.

“DOCCS claims to have a zero tolerance policy to sexual abuse in its prisons, but as we allege in the Complaint, that policy is zero tolerance in name only,” said Vela in a statement.

“The Department has long known of ways to reduce the risk women face in its prisons but fails to take needed measures to protect the women in its custody. We hope that our case can accomplish what years of individual litigation, arrests of officers and legislative efforts have not,” she added.

The suit does not seek damages, but asks a judge to oversee the development of remedies to end what it calls a “pattern of sexual misconduct” at the women’s prisons. It also demands changes in how the department investigates complaints and disciplines officers.

The Legal Aid Society said that the last time female prisoners were included in Department of Justice Statistics on sexual victimization in prisons, New York state prisoners self-reported the highest rate of sexual abuse by staff in the nation.

The suit comes amid growing evidence of widespread abuse and corruption within the state prison system. In June, two murderers escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility, setting off a three-week manhunt that cost millions of dollars and terrorized the local population.

Following the jailbreak, the New York Times reported that other inmates alleged that guards had severely beaten them and choked them with plastic bags while questioning them about the escapees.