In an effort to avoid newly-installed surveillance cameras in search areas, Rikers Island correctional officers take female visitors to nearby bathrooms to strip-search them, according to several women and a new report by the Jails Action Coalition. Five women have now filed notices of claim (which signal an intention to sue the city) with the city’s comptroller over their treatment in Rikers bathrooms, alleging that correctional officers sexually abused them.
In a series of lawsuits over the last several years, women claimed that Rikers Island correctional officers sexually abused them by performing body cavity and strip searches. In the wake of the allegations, the city placed surveillance cameras in the Rikers Island search area in late 2016. But the cameras didn’t stop the abuse, according to the report, which was released today ahead of a Board of Correction meeting. The report details repeated instances of sexual abuse by correctional officers after the cameras were installed — incidents in which officers stripped and searched the body cavities of women who were coming to visit loved ones on Rikers. Separately, in two notices of claim reviewed by In Justice Today, women alleged that officers sexually abused them in the bathrooms of Rikers in early 2017.
“I went inside the bathroom and they told me to sign a piece of paper,” says Ms. K of a February 2017 visit with her boyfriend at Rikers. (Ms. K asked to be identified only by a pseudonym because she fears retaliation from correctional officers.) “And they told me that sheet of paper is to consent for a search.” After signing the form, Ms. K says she was greeted by five officers inside the bathroom, where a table had been set up to accommodate searches. She then had to expose her breasts for a female officer as the officer searched her bra, and then unbuttoned her pants so the officer could search her underwear.
“If you could imagine giving someone a handshake,” Ms. K remembered, “like how you push your hand up and down? She put her hand in my pants and rammed it up against my vagina. Then she went around and pulled my underwear up and gave me a wedgie on my genitals. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was in shock.”
Only after the search was completed was Ms. K told that her boyfriend’s unit was on lockdown and she would be unable to visit with him that day.
Department of Correction policy expressly prohibits strip searches or body cavity searches of visitors to city jails.
Since the fall of 2015, New York personal injury attorney Alan Figman has represented women who allege abuse by Rikers guards. He now has forty-five separate clients who claim abuse (including Ms. K) at Rikers — daughters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, and grandmothers of incarcerated people, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy. Figman said that correctional officers moved the strip searches from the regular search areas to the bathrooms after the Department of Correction installed video cameras in the regular search areas in late 2016.
“These women are being completely violated,” Figman told In Justice Today, “and in some cases it’s because they’re being retaliated against for something the inmate has [allegedly] done. According to New York City corrections protocols, these strip searches are expressly forbidden. The consent forms that the women are signing are for a pat and frisk search, which means you’re not supposed to expose any part of your body.”
Figman doesn’t believe the strip searches are a new development at Rikers, but instead a longstanding practice “designed to intimidate and harass visitors.” Figman says that several women have contacted him with stories of abuse that stretch far earlier than the three-year statute of limitations for such claims, going back to well before he began working on such cases.
The Jails Action Coalition report also details the long and arduous process of visiting Rikers, which New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to close within the next ten years. (The mayor’s plan is to eventually replace Rikers with smaller jails, located closer to prisoners’ families, such as in central Queens or downtown Brooklyn.) In the interim, he’s made the visitation process to Rikers that much harder by issuing stringent new rules limiting the amount of physical contact between visitors and their loved ones who are incarcerated.
Commenting on the report, Department of Correction spokesperson Peter Thorne said, “In order to balance safety with wellbeing, DOC must take security measures that will help reduce the introduction of contraband, measures which strictly prohibit body cavity or strip searches. The Department has taken steps to ensure that all visitors are treated with respect, and we have made it easier for visitors to file complaints and have installed cameras in the search areas for greater transparency. We take all visitor complaints seriously.”
The Jails Action Coalition will be presenting their report at the Board of Correction hearing today. The report offers several recommendations for improving the visitation experience and bringing correctional officers into compliance with city policy, including ensuring enhanced supervision during pat-and-frisk searches of visitors, creating a more child-friendly visitation area, allowing visitors to use the bathroom during the visit, and lengthening visits to more than an hour.
That the Department of Correction would force visitors to submit to invasive searches is especially absurd considering that, according to a 2014 report by the city’s Department of Investigation, correctional officers are responsible for much of the contraband brought into Rikers. Indeed, Ms. K believes that the searches have absoutely nothing to do with contraband, or ensuring the safety of officers or people who are incarcerated.
“It’s about power,” she says. “If you feel above a person and know that you cannot be taken down because other people will have your back, that’s what the cause is behind this. They want to convince you that they have the power and there’s nothing you can say or do to change it.”