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.’”