Lawsuit Alleges Women Are Held In Worse Conditions Than Men At Upstate New York Jail

The women are kept in cramped, unsanitary quarters, the suit says, and are not permitted the same job opportunities as men held at the same facility.

Lawsuit Alleges Women Are Held In Worse Conditions Than Men At Upstate New York Jail

The women are kept in cramped, unsanitary quarters, the suit says, and are not permitted the same job opportunities as men held at the same facility.

When the women incarcerated at the Oneida County Jail in New York were moved into a different housing unit on Jan. 22, feces, urine, and used toilet paper were strewn about the walls, according to a lawsuit filed last week against the sheriff and the chief deputy of the jail. They had been taken to Henry Unit, which had previously been used as the disciplinary unit for men.

“There was poop everywhere and so much dirty toilet paper just all over the bars,” said Katrina Parkhurst, who was held at the jail from Oct. 4 to April 7. “My cell—it took me probably an hour to clean that myself—because there was just poopy, pissy toilet paper thrown all over the bars. There was, like, food on the floor.” 

The suit accuses the sheriff and the chief deputy of gender-based discrimination. Men in the general population are housed in air-conditioned pods, with access to a dayroom, as well as a recreation area with a basketball hoop and exercise equipment, according to the suit. Each pod has a library that contains games, books, and magazines.

Before the January move to Henry Unit, the women had been housed in a similar pod. After the move, they were held in smaller cells—approximately 5 by 7 feet, compared with about 8 by 10 feet for men, according to the suit. “Someone can sit on their beds and touch their toilet and, if they stretch out, can touch the wall,” said Josh Cotter, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, which filed the suit. When they turned on the faucets in their cells, “at first, they told me, the water was black and there was gunk in it,” he said. 

Women in the jail are also not given the same job opportunities as men, according to the suit. Men can do laundry, food service, car wash, general library, print shop, grounds maintenance, building maintenance, or janitorial work. Women are only permitted to work in laundry, according to the suit. 

The attorney representing Sheriff Robert Maciol and Chief Deputy Lisa Zurek told The Appeal in an email that they are not available for interviews. An attorney for the New York State Law Enforcement Officers Union said he had no comment. 

In Henry Unit, Parkhurst said she had to move to another cell twice because of an ant infestation. In the mornings, she would find ants in her unopened food, she said.  

On April 1, the women in Henry Unit were moved again, to the Charlie Unit, where conditions remained largely the same, according to the lawsuit. 

When Parkhurst used the toilet in her cells in the Henry and Charlie units, others, including male officers, could see her through the bars, she said. Her previous cell had a solid door with a small window, which afforded her some privacy. 

“They stick you in this tiny little area in this tiny little cell and it’s so dirty, it drives you crazy,” she said. “It’s like being in a dungeon.”

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The purpose of the moves was not clearly communicated with the women, according to Cotter. 

“It’s beyond me what the actual reason is or if they even have a good faith reason for treating the women this awful,” said Cotter. 

In March, before the suit was filed, Sheriff Maciol told the local newspaper Observer-Dispatch that the women were moved because the number of female detainees was decreasing. Maciol and Zurek also told the paper that the cells in Henry Unit would have been cleaned after the men were moved out. 

“They obviously get all the services that we’re required to give them,” Maciol told the Observer-Dispatch, who noted the cost of housing women in the pod. The pod required the jail to maintain 116 cells and use another officer, even though there weren’t enough women incarcerated to fill them, he said.

Zurek told the paper that the state had ordered so-called closed-max detainees to be separated from the general population. Those who are classified as closed-max, according to Zurek, include those held on more serious charges, or those with mental health or medical issues. Before the move, all of the women lived in the same unit, according to Cotter. 

Before the January move, Parkhurst could shower every day and call her mother daily, she said. But in the new units, she was able to shower only about once every three days and call her mother about once every other week. The phones and showers were in the same location, and only one incarcerated person is permitted to be in the area at a time, according to Parkhurst. 

In the pod, “we had a rec room,” Parkhurst said. “We had an area meant for eating and an area meant for like you know just hanging out, playing cards, watching TV.” After the move, the women had less space and little to do other than sit in their cells, according to the suit. While in the Charlie and Henry units, they were permitted to go outside just once a day for an hour to a “tiny fenced-in area with a basketball hoop,” said Parkhurst. There is no library in either of the units they were moved to.  

“There was a library guy that came around,” she said. “He brought us two books once a week. When we were in the pod, they had a little room that had a bookshelf that had different books on it. We could just read whatever.”

Parkhurst said she and others tried to change their conditions.

“We filed grievances upon grievances upon grievances and nothing was ever done about it,” she said. “I hope something gets done about it cause they don’t deserve that. No matter what someone’s done in life, people don’t deserve to be treated that way.”

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