New York’s Imprisoned Women Brave Risks to Sue Sexual Abusers Under New Law

New York’s Adult Survivors Act briefly waives the statute of limitations to file sexual abuse lawsuits. Some of New York’s imprisoned women are risking retaliation from guards in order to file cases alleging horrific treatment at the hands of the state.

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New York’s Imprisoned Women Brave Risks to Sue Sexual Abusers Under New Law

New York’s Adult Survivors Act briefly waives the statute of limitations to file sexual abuse lawsuits. Some of New York’s imprisoned women are risking retaliation from guards in order to file cases alleging horrific treatment at the hands of the state.

Content Warning: This story contains depictions of sexual harassment and abuse.

Kim Brown says she met a lieutenant at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 1996 or 1997 when she was sent to his office for disciplinary reasons. But the officer seemed unusually interested in her.

“He started calling me down, and I didn’t understand why,” she told The Appeal. I didn’t do anything.” Their initial meetings were “under the guise of interviewing me about things that were going on in the facility,” she said. “And then it became light. He would offer me a drink.”

Brown eventually relented to the pressure from a man with near-total control over her life inside the prison—a situation she now sees as sexual abuse. Today, Brown feels she finally has one way to fight back: She is among nearly 1,000 women filing claims so far this year as part of New York’s Adult Survivors Act (ASA), which briefly waives New York’s statute of limitations requirements to file sexual abuse lawsuits.

But while the new law is intended to address past harm, Brown is one of only a small number of women likely to be doing so from prison. For incarcerated people like Brown, filing a claim—or even talking about what happened to them—carries unique risks. Among numerous claims, currently or formerly incarcerated people have alleged that guards have coerced women into performing oral sex in plain view of others, refused to allow imprisoned people to file complaints under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, forced women to perform sex acts by threatening discipline; locked people in prison facilities and assaulted them; and a host of other serious incidents.

In both legal filings and interviews, formerly incarcerated women described to The Appeal a culture in which sexual abuse at the hands of New York prison staff is widespread but rarely reported or discussed. Advocates said they have hesitated to discuss the ASA with prisoners for fear of retaliation from prison staff.

“One thing I keep thinking about is, how do we not [put] a target on them?” said Serena Liguori, of New Hour for Women and Children–Long Island, a nonprofit that aids women and families impacted by the justice system.

Many women in prison were already survivors of sexual abuse before becoming incarcerated, which survivors say can make it harder to speak out about prison abuse. For this reason, Liguori, who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills in the early 2000s, said she accepted her own abuse by staff as normal.

“Like this is my—it’s unfortunate, but this is like part of my sentence,” she said. “Like I don’t deserve any better.”

In response to the allegations contained in the recent filings by incarcerated women, Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), told The Appeal that while he could not offer comment on possible or pending litigation, the department “has zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and unauthorized relationships.”

Brown’s story is not atypical.

At first, Brown was flattered by the lieutenant’s attention, which she said made her feel, briefly, “normal.” But she was also disturbed by how he followed her to work and ordered her to spend entire days in his office. At the time, she wanted to see herself as a willing participant. In hindsight, Brown says she was “coasting” through life on a dissociative autopilot, a technique she developed after surviving childhood abuse.

“I was an unwitting victim, which makes it even worse,” she said. “I would rather have known that I had been victimized because then I could have grieved. I could have been angry.”

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Custodial sexual abuse has been common in prisons since their inception. Some women agree to sexual interactions out of fear or even loneliness; others to obtain essential goods like food or cigarettes. But the bestowal of these favors, known as grooming, opens women up to an exchange over which they have no control. In 1996, New York state passed a law formally declaring that prisoners are legally unable to consent to sexual contact with staff.

“A woman who is incarcerated cannot escape her abuser,” said Anna Kull, a lawyer with Levy Konigsberg, a law firm filing numerous ASA claims this year.

In 2003, Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA was designed to target the culture of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons—the law created an exhaustive national standard of reforms to prevent and address prison rape both among prisoners and by prison staff. PREA theoretically stipulates that prisoners must be able to report abuse by guards to third parties. But the women who spoke with The Appeal consistently said there was no way to bypass staff members, who can quickly put up roadblocks if they don’t want allegations aired.

And while PREA created a set of guidelines for prison systems to follow, it did not give imprisoned people the right to sue if an abuser or correctional department violates the law.

Facilities frequently pass PREA audits, even when facing public allegations of abuse. Albion Correctional Facility, for example, received a glowing PREA audit in 2020. The auditor reported that the facility met or exceeded all standards, including, in the latter category, “zero tolerance for sexual abuse and sexual harassment” and “agency protection against retaliation.” But when representatives from the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), an independent organization that monitors and provides oversight of state prisons, visited Albion in 2022, imprisoned people informed them that guards had created a culture of widespread sexual abuse and retaliation. When CANY contacted DOCCS about the allegations, the department cited the 2020 PREA audit in its defense.

Separately, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the ASA into effect in May 2022 as part of a spate of new national laws inspired by the #MeToo movement. Hochul referenced the anti-sexual abuse campaign when she signed the law.

“To those who thought they got away with horrific crimes they committed, I just have one message: Your time is up,” she said. The law formally took effect in November.

The ASA does not only target individual abusers. Like New York’s 2019 Child Victims Act, the law allows survivors to sue institutions—or for women in prison, the state—and in doing so, offers an opportunity to address systemic sexual abuse.

The ASA does not explicitly mention imprisoned people, but publicity around the ASA has focused on women sexually abused by staff in the New York State prison system. Thus far, all available ASA claims involving incarcerated people have come from women’s facilities. Custodial abuse is not unique to women, though a recent government survey found that two-thirds of victims who experience sexual misconduct or harassment by prison staff are women.

In November 2022, the law firm Slater Slater Schulman told the New York Times they expected to file at least 750 claims for clients abused in prison. In February, law firm Levy Konigsberg told The Appeal that they plan to file at least 250 more. Claimants have alleged abuse in most of the state’s women’s prisons. Many allege abuse at multiple facilities, and some women, incarcerated years or even decades apart, allege abuse by the same corrections officers.

“I think I was definitely taken aback by the similarities of their stories,” Kull said. “Women who don’t know each other, who have never spoken to each other, who have come from all walks of life, but have had very startlingly similar experiences at these facilities.”

While the ASA allows survivors to bring sexual abuse claims, it doesn’t make it any easier for those claims to succeed. And incarcerated survivors have historically struggled to be taken seriously. Past court claims have tended to be successful when victims obtained DNA evidence.

The ASA claims appear to confirm decades of official reports describing systemic sexual abuse and staff impunity in the state’s women’s prisons. The most recent, which documented sexual abuse and retaliation at Albion Correctional Facility, was published by CANY in January 2023.

“Sexual abuse is preventable,” said Kim Shayo Buchanan, a legal academic who has written about systemic sexual abuse in prison and currently serves as the Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Policing Equity in New York. “If it’s common for guards to be having sex with [prisoners], that is a choice that the institution has made.”

A significant number of ASA claims filed thus far involve Bayview Correctional Facility, a small prison for women in Manhattan that was closed in 2012. A 2008-2009 federal survey found that Bayview had one of the highest rates of sexual abuse by staff in the country, a problem that was identified by CANY as early as 1985.

One woman, listed as LK DOE 21 in legal filings, was incarcerated at Bayview between 1993 and 1994. She said she had run-ins with a corrections officer who frequently commented on the size of her breasts. One day, the guard entered her room. ​​”The rules were, when an officer enters the floor or comes to make rounds on the floor, he’s supposed to say, ‘Male officer on duty,'” she told The Appeal. Instead, he showed her a piece of paper. “It was a ticket,” she said. “And he asked me to suck his dick.”

Not wanting to jeopardize her chance for early release or be sent away from Bayview, where her grandmother could visit her, DOE 21 did as the officer told her. DOE 21, who says she was also abused by a doctor at Taconic Correctional Facility, told The Appeal she had only spoken of the encounter twice before.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “It disgusts me. Every time I think about it, I just get tears in my eyes. You don’t even know what goes through me.”

The guard continued to grope and fondle DOE 21 throughout her time at Bayview, but she also believed he was abusing others. Her suspicions were not unfounded: Multiple other women’s claims, across many years, describe the same officer entering women’s rooms while they were sleeping or cornering women in secluded areas like the stairwell or the officer’s bathroom.

Julie Herrnkind was transferred to Albion in 2019 and says she witnessed a woman performing oral sex on a guard at his desk on one of her first days at the facility. She also says that she was sexually harassed by a different guard while she was on suicide watch. Herrnkind, a rape survivor, informed two prison employees—the PREA Deputy, who is charged with ensuring PREA compliance, and the PREA Captain, who monitors against retaliation—about the incident. She emphasized that the officer was a man, a clear breach of DOCCS protocol. Herrnkind approached the PREA Deputy to submit a report, but the PREA Captain cut her off, telling her she couldn’t.

“Then what am I gonna do?” Herrnkind asked. “You’re gonna learn how to jail at Albion,” the PREA Captain said.

Another woman, listed as LK DOE 26, was 19 when she arrived at Albion in 2004. She told The Appeal that the “system within a system” was clear to her early on.

“We always called it a system within a system because Albion had their own rules,” she said. “Every jail has their own rules, and their own manner of handling situations.” She noticed that some guards cared less about rules than others, “and it was usually the same officers that would cross their lines or boundaries,” flirting with the women or making comments about their bodies.

The woman says one such officer assaulted her in 2008 after locking her between double doors where she worked in the library. Like most officers, this guard roamed freely. DOE 26 says there was nowhere in the facility where she felt safe.

“There were times that I would be in the bathroom, and I would hear the door open, like another officer coming in and like, my heart would begin to race because like, if he knows I’m in the bathroom, he can just come in,” she said.

LK DOE 31, who was at Albion between 2001 and 2003, cited the same employee in her claim. The man brought her cigarettes and, later, alcohol. But as their interaction escalated and became sexual, DOE 31 realized the danger of her position.

“It was so tricky,” she said. “Let’s say you do something wrong now, he could easily have my urine pulled. For the same alcohol that he bought for me.”

Despite the ASA’s enactment, incarcerated women will, for the time being, continue to contend with the ongoing institutionalized sexual abuse that existing claims describe. The claims—corroborated by official reports—cast doubt on the adequacy of current protection measures and indicate that rules are arbitrarily enforced. This information, advocates say, will only be valuable if policymakers and the public choose to act on it.

But, in addition to the legal hurdles the women coming forward now face, they also must continue to fight society’s stigmas against the incarcerated. The challenge, Liguori, of New Hour, said, is that “most everyday people don’t really want to find a way to identify in any way with women in prison.”

In court, formerly incarcerated survivors will also face racial and gender biases that may have contributed to their incarceration, as Black, Indigenous and queer women are overrepresented in the prison population.

“Whatever the law says, gender normative expectations and racial biases are going to shape the perception of whether what happened to them counts as sexual abuse,” Buchanan said. “That being said, the only way to change that is for people to insist on their full humanity.”

Despite these challenges, women like Brown see the ASA as their first genuine opportunity to speak out.

“The #MeToo movement didn’t exist here,” she said. “And now it does. Yeah, ‘Me too.’ Because, you know, we’ve been hearing about people having legal recourse for abuse that they sustained at the hands of X, Y and Z. But that branch has never been extended to us here.”

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