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#MeToo in NYC’s Jail System: Why New Department of Correction Policies on Sexual Abuse Fall Short

Activists with the Jails Action Coalition, including women who were incarcerated at Rikers, at the November 2016 Board of Correction hearing where the anti-rape regulations were passed

#MeToo in NYC’s Jail System: Why New Department of Correction Policies on Sexual Abuse Fall Short

In January 2017, the New York City Department of Correction began implementing regulations to address pervasive sexual abuse and harassment in its jails. Rikers Island has an alarmingly high rate of sexual violence: In 2011, the Department of Justice found that 8.6 percent of women incarcerated in the women’s housing unit at Rikers had reported being sexually harassed or abused. The island’s men’s units were only slightly better with rates ranging from 3.4 to 6.2 percent. Both, however, were higher than the national average of 3.2 percent for men and women in prisons and jails.

The new regulations, passed in November 2016, were designed to address and reduce such widespread sexual violence behind bars. They’re also designed to bring the city’s jails into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, which requires jails and prisons that receive federal funding to adopt rules to prevent and address sexual violence.

The new rules require the Department of Correction (DOC) to screen all people for risk of sexual victimization or abusiveness, provide emergency medical and mental health services for those who report sexual abuse, and create new avenues for people in jails to report sexual abuse. But advocates say these rules have not led to an increase in completed investigations or a safer environment for incarcerated people.

Investigations languish for months or even years and so are unlikely to result in objective and fair results. Memories fade, evidence is lost,” Dori Lewis, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said in an email to The Appeal. “Victims don’t get closure and abusive staff aren’t moved or disciplined. Justice delayed can mean justice denied.”

To date, the Department has closed only 228 of the 823 sexual abuse complaints made in 2016 by people detained at Rikers and other city jails. Of the remaining 595 complaints, more than half (391) were for staff sexual abuse or harassment; 204 were for prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse or harassment.

Meanwhile, the number of complaints overall has been rising, an uptick the department has attributed to better signage and reporting mechanisms. A total of 523 allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment were filed between January 1 and July 1, 2017, a sharp increase from the 350 complaints from January to July 2016, according to Faye Yelardy, the Department of Correction’s assistant commissioner for sexual abuse and sexual harassment prevention. Of those, only 21 have been investigated and 502 remain under investigation.

For one 21-year-old man, the DOC’s failure to immediately investigate a sexual assault led to additional assaults. In 2017, he called 311 to report having been raped by another man on his housing unit, according to Brooklyn Defender Services, which provided him with legal and social services. Neither he nor the other man were moved. In the days that followed, the 21-year-old said, he also told a correctional officer and a jail captain about these assaults. It was not until after he was raped again, one week later, that he was interviewed by an investigator. Still, both men were kept on the same housing unit. The rapes continued, explained Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at Brooklyn Defender Services.

More than two weeks later, the 21-year-old spit on an officer; only then was he moved to another, more restrictive housing unit. “He did it out of desperation because he couldn’t otherwise get the move,” Chausow told The Appeal.

Even after being moved, the trauma of repeated assaults continued to affect him. He began threatening to kill his attorney, who was ultimately removed from his case, meaning that the months spent mounting a defense in his criminal case have now been lost.

“His case was derailed by detention and by DOC’s failure to take his complaints about sexual assault seriously,” stated Chausow.

Still, the new regulations have brought some improvements. People in jail can now call 311, the city’s helpline; a nonprofit called Safe Horizons; or the PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) hotline. In addition, they can report to advocacy groups, medical staff and other jail staff. And, according to the DOC, the number of investigators has increased.

In an email to The Appeal, Peter Thorne, the department’s deputy commissioner of public information, wrote, “DOC is committed to preventing sexual abuse and harassment, and we are steadfast in investigating every claim based on our broad standards … DOC has more than tripled its number of investigators in this area from six in 2016 to 19 today, as part of a comprehensive investigatory process that may also include investigations by the [New York City Department of Investigation] and the DA’s office.”

But the agency’s longstanding failure to investigate sexual assaults has made others fearful of speaking out.

Lewis told The Appeal about a client, a gender non-conforming person in a men’s housing unit at Rikers, who was repeatedly sexually abused by one corrections officer in 2015. “He was terrified,” Lewis explained of the client, who uses the pronouns he and him. She declined to name her client in order to protect him from retaliation by other corrections officers. “He did not come forward right away.” When the client finally reported the abuse in December 2015, the officer was removed from working on his unit pending an investigation.

Lewis says that to retaliate against her client for reporting the assault, officers falsely accused him of violating rules, writing disciplinary tickets that landed him in solitary confinement. In February 2016, Lewis says her client was physically assaulted by staff who told him, “Next time, get some DNA.” More than two years later, Lewis explained, neither she nor the client has learned whether his allegations were substantiated or if the investigation into his complaint was ever completed.

Mik Kinkead of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides free legal services to trans people behind bars, worked with more than 20 trans people in the city’s jails in 2017. All had experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, including inappropriate pat frisks, strip searches, name calling, mis-gendering and sexually suggestive comments. Only four of those clients were comfortable allowing Kinkead to contact the Department’s PREA coordinator and investigations unit. In all four cases, Kinkead received no acknowledgment that a complaint had been made.

“None of my clients report now because they see that nothing has happened,” he said. “They see that officers retaliate against those who do report. They say, ‘This is always how it’s been — and I don’t expect this to ever change.’”

Tennessee Sheriff: Solitary Confinement for 16 year-old Girl is No Different Than a ‘Private Room’

ACLU/HRW report “Growing Up Locked Down”

Tennessee Sheriff: Solitary Confinement for 16 year-old Girl is No Different Than a ‘Private Room’

A 16-year-old Memphis girl charged with first-degree murder in the killing of a teen boy is being held in pretrial isolation at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

The Shelby County District Attorney’s office charged her as an adult in the April 3, 2017 shooting death of 17-year-old Deago Brown. She was just 15 when she was arrested and then transferred to the adult women’s prison.

Tennessee Prison for Women

A spokesperson for Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham’s office said the county sent her to the prison, which is 200 miles away from her home and family, because local facilities don’t have a secure place for her.

As the only inmate there under 18 years of age, however, she has spent the last four months alone inside of a cell the size of a walk-in closet, according to attorney Josh Spickler, the director of Just City, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. She has no contact with other prisoners. She is allowed 30 minutes three times a week to shower, with her hands and feet shackled each time she leaves her cell.

“A developing brain cannot tolerate this treatment,” Spickler said in a written statement.

“If the Sheriff lacks the facilities and staff to detain girls, he must follow the law and find the nearest sufficient jail,” he wrote. Spickler also noted that a youth facility near Nashville in Davidson County has offered to hold the young woman and provide her supportive services and safety.

The young woman has already spent roughly 131 days in solitary confinement, 101 days longer than the 30-day limit contained in the Army Field Manual for the “separation” of terrorism detainees, which is considered a “restricted” interrogation technique.

Yet in an interview with the Commercial Appeal, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Earle Farrell compared her conditions of confinement to a “private room.” Farrell’s claim about solitary confinement is not supported by data.

The devastating and lasting psychiatric effects of solitary confinement have been extensively documented. Solitary confinement is harmful to the mental health of inmates because it restricts social contact, which is a psychological stimulus that humans require to remain healthy and functioning. Prolonged isolation causes anxiety, panic, hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, aggression, depression, and an increased risk of suicide, especially for people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

For juveniles, whose brains are still developing, solitary confinement is even more brutal, its effects even more enduring.

Compounding the psychiatric effects of isolation, adolescents in solitary confinement “are frequently denied access to treatment, services, and programming adequate to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, and rehabilitative needs,” according to a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Department of Justice research found that more than half the children in juvenile facilities who committed suicide while detained were in isolated cells.

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment both prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles. And several local governments have also eliminated solitary confinement for youth detained in adult correctional facilities.

Speaking earlier this month in support of an American Bar Association measure urging state legislatures to curtail the use of solitary confinement, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bernice Donald pointed to the case of Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island at age 16 under suspicion of stealing a backpack and then spent three years waiting for a trial that never occurred, with two of those years spent in isolation. He attempted suicide several times while in solitary confinement, and tried again in 2013, six months after he left Rikers Island. In 2015, at the age of 22, Browder hung himself.

“Shelby County’s failure to provide a safe, age-appropriate detention setting for a 15-year-old girl is a serious matter,” Spickler told The Appeal. “To dismiss it and compare isolation like this to a ‘private room’ is appalling. The conditions of this girl’s detention are unacceptable, and everything we know about teenage brain development tells us we are doing irreparable harm.”

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Police Accountability and Public Defender Groups Demand Transparency on NYPD Gang Policing

Police Accountability and Public Defender Groups Demand Transparency on NYPD Gang Policing

Since its initiation in 2013, the NYPD’s gang policing program has operated with little outside scrutiny. Based on evidence it has kept almost entirely hidden from public view, the police have targeted and surveilled entire social networks inside low-income communities, breaking down doors in pre-dawn military-style raids that have resulted in over 2,000 arrests in just the past year and a half.

Instead of local district attorneys charging the young men and women arrested by the NYPD, most of the indictments are in the form of federal RICO charges, which tie alleged members of the “gang” or “group” to the most serious offense any member has committed. Because of the severity of the federal sentences faced by many defendants, the overwhelming majority take plea deals, meaning that the NYPD and federal prosecutors often need not divulge evidence they have against these alleged “gangs.”

But some level of transparency may soon come to the NYPD’s gang policing program. In a letter sent February 5, a coalition of more than 25 police accountability and public defender groups called on the City Council to hold hearings about the constitutionality of the program, which uses a secret database of “gang members” to target communities of color and, in particular, those who live in public housing. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent a separate letter on the same day, urging the council to look into whether individuals can challenge their inclusion on a gang database, and whether this violates their “due process” rights.

“Right now, the program is being conducted with zero oversight,” Marne Lenox, an attorney for the Legal Defense Fund told The Appeal. There are “zero safety precautions to ensure that folks aren’t erroneously in the database, and it exposes the NYPD to zero accountability for their policing actions.”

The letter from the police accountability and public defender groups is addressed to Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety.

“We believe that, like the widespread stop-and-frisk strategies that the NYPD relied upon in the recent past, gang designations are likely to be overinclusive and inaccurate,” the letter says. “Unlike the stop-and-frisk records, gang databases are secret, do not require even a suspicion of criminality, and are often not subject to judicial review. Indeed, the NYPD has not publicly disclosed whether there is any way to challenge gang designations, or whether people may ‘age out’ of their designation, for example, as they mature and go away to college.”

CUNY law professor Babe Howell has researched the NYPD’s gang policing program for years, and has traced how the NYPD turned to large-scale gang raids shortly after a federal judge declared its stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional.

The advocacy and legal groups also point out that the NYPD’s designation of immigrants as potential gang members could make them targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through information sharing between the NYPD and ICE, even though New York City bills itself as a “sanctuary city,” in which that is, for the most part, not supposed to happen.

In Chicago, which is also a “sanctuary city,” a gang database error led to one man’s violent arrest by ICE, which may have accessed the information through the National Crime Information Center. New York City’s detainer lawprohibits this type of information-sharing, but advocates say that without knowing exactly who is on the database and who has access to it, holding the NYPD accountable is nearly impossible.

The letter from LDF and CCR, which is in support of the letter sent to Richards, questions the constitutionality of the program.

“The geographic targets of the raids, coupled with the resulting racially disproportionate arrests and the NYPD’s past conduct, warrants public hearings to determine whether the City is engaged in unconstitutional actions,” the letter reads.

Ritchie Torres, who chairs the council’s new Committee on Oversight and Investigations, told The Appeal that he’s open to holding joint hearings with Richards’s public safety committee on the NYPD’s use of gang policing.

“We’re seeing more gang takedowns than ever before, on a scale we’ve never seen before,” Torres said. “These takedowns have been so large that it leads to questions of whether we’re targeting the drivers of violence or are we casting the net too wide? If we’re casting the net too wide, then we’re undermining the end goal of criminal justice reform and of curbing over-criminaliztion.”

In previous City Council oversight hearings, the NYPD has been less than forthcoming about its surveillance and policing practices. Torres doesn’t think this time would be very different.

“The NYPD in my experience is almost never forthcoming,” said Torres. “It would be wishful thinking that they would. There will most likely be intense resistance to oversight.”

Councilman Richards declined to comment for this story.

Similar calls for transparency are also being made in Chicago, where activists and researchers have recently launched a reporting project to shed light on its gang database, in which 95 percent of the 65,000 individuals included are Black or Latino.

On February 7, the coalition of groups calling for more transparency into the NYPD’s gang policing program gathered on the steps of City Hall to demand that the city council begin oversight hearings. The LDF’s Lenox insists this is just one way the groups will attempt to bring transparency to the NYPD’s use of gang policing and further steps may be necessary to force the police to release more information.

Also that day, Legal Aid announced a new initative, dubbed the “Do It Yourself FOIL Campaign,” which will encourage and help people who think they might be on the NYPD’s gang database to use the Freedom of Information Law in the hope of shedding even more light on the secret database.

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