Sexual assault worsens crisis in Rikers, prison officers say
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A female correctional officer was attacked and strangled by a man who had been convicted of sexual assault. Another, a veteran officer who had worked at the Rikers Island prison complex for over 15 years, was groped as she escorted inmates through a crowded hallway. A police officer said an inmate grabbed his genitals as he tried to cuddle the man in a cell.
New York City prisons face a serious staff shortage that contributes to violence and lawlessness in institutions, and officers say sexual harassment and assaults by inmates are making the crisis worse.
Policewomen, who make up nearly half of the city’s active correctional officers, are particularly at risk. Male officers are also affected, but may be less inclined to speak out due to shame and stigma.
“I didn’t sign up to be someone’s punching bag,” said the choking officer, a 34-year-old single mother who has continued to work since recovering from Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic. The New York Times withheld his name to protect his privacy.
The Corrections Service and officers’ union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, say they are making new efforts to track and deal with sexual assaults against prison employees. There have been 24 such reports so far this year. Neither the ministry nor the union released data on sexual assault separately from other types of attacks until this year.
“Sexual violence against our dedicated staff is absolutely unacceptable,” a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement. “We are working with the Bronx DA and unions to ensure that the victims of these heinous assaults receive the justice and support they deserve.”
This year’s cases involved 19 allegations of inmates sexually assaulting uniformed correctional workers, according to department data. All but one of the employees were women. Nine arrests were made in connection with the allegations, the department said; three more are expected next week.
The other five cases concerned charges of sexual assault of detainees against female civilian staff. So far, an arrest has been made in these cases.
The department said it was stepping up efforts to tackle sexual assault under the leadership of Sarena Townsend, a newly appointed deputy commissioner. Ms. Townsend heads the Correction Intelligence Bureau, which oversees investigations of criminal behavior in prisons. She was previously a sex crimes prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
The department said it is also strengthening its trauma support services and sharing data related to sexual assault and harassment in leadership meetings.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark oversees the Rikers Island Prosecution Office. Ms Clark told city council last month that since grand juries resumed in March, the office had issued indictments in 45 cases involving assaults on Rikers staff and assaults by inmates on d ‘other inmates. About 325 investigations involving assaults on staff members remained open, Ms Clark said.
She warned that lawsuits alone could not stop the crisis and that the increase in numbers was “crucial to stabilize the Rikers.” She urged the Correctional Service to act quickly to restore order.
“The situation is urgent, deadly and unreasonable,” Ms. Clark said. “We cannot afford to wait for another incident.”
At a press conference outside the Rikers Complex last week, two lawmakers vowed to take action to increase penalties for sexual assault and harassment of correctional officers.
Adrienne E. Adams, a member of the Queens Democratic City Council, said she would introduce a bill requiring the correctional service to release statistics on sexual assault in the city’s prisons.
She said she would also introduce a resolution calling on state officials to make the forced touching of a correctional officer a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and classifying aggravated sexual harassment by a correctional officer. correction, including verbal abuse and obscene gestures, as a misdemeanor rather than a civil offense.
“We don’t condone this kind of behavior in American businesses,” said Ms. Adams, whose mother was a longtime correctional officer. “We cannot allow this to continue to happen to correctional officers.”
Queens MP David I. Weprin, a Democrat who heads the Corrections Committee, said he would introduce a bill to increase penalties.
Corrections said they supported the changes. A spokeswoman for Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said the governor’s office will be reviewing the legislation.
“Governor Hochul has zero tolerance for any harassment or sexual assault, and we will review the legislation and work with lawmakers to protect New Yorkers,” said spokeswoman Hazel Crampton-Hays.
Keisha Williams, who became a correctional officer in 2000, was elected to the union board last year, as were Antoinette Anderson and Ashaki Antoine. Together, the women decided it was time to call attention to the long-standing problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in prisons, and they took the matter to Ms Adams.
“We see too many women who are sexually assaulted or harassed and no one is doing anything about it,” Ms. Williams said in an interview. “If we were on the street and that was happening, they wouldn’t put it under the rug. “
She said the department had failed to deal with or deter such crimes. She said she was tampered with about four years ago while escorting inmates to a living area on Rikers Island.
“My heart has collapsed,” she recalls.
She remained shaken, questioning and blaming herself, even though she came to understand that what had happened was not her fault.
The episode, she said, underscored the psychological toll prison work can take. Union officials said female correctional officers regularly suffered verbal abuse and were exposed to men masturbating and throwing fluids.
Ms Williams and her colleagues invoked the #MeToo movement, which has raised awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace. The women said correctional officers, most of whom are people of color, were left out of the conversation. Union president Benny Boscio Jr. at one point called “Us too”.
The union and the city were locked in acrimony as conditions in Rikers deteriorated. The union filed a complaint in July accusing officials of creating an inhumane work environment at the complex during the pandemic. The city then sued the union, accusing it of being behind a slowdown in the work. (The city then dropped its pursuit.)
The correctional service employs more than 7,000 officers and had nearly 5,550 people in custody last week, according to official data.
The correctional officer who was strangled said an inmate lured her into a pantry in June 2019, then attacked and strangled her. She said she believed he was trying to rape her and fought back as hard as she could until other police and inmates came to help her. She said she was still feeling the effects of the neck, back and ankle injuries she sustained.
“I said, ‘I can’t die here,’” the officer recalls. “I can’t miss my daughter’s birthday, I can’t miss her life. She was my strength.
The inmate was initially charged with attempted murder and pleaded guilty to attempted assault in the first degree. He was sentenced last month to seven years in prison.
Marc Bullaro, retired assistant deputy director at Rikers and assistant assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, blamed changes in prison policies, such as limits on the use of punitive segregation, for assaults against officers.
“The uniformed personnel have lost all authority,” Bullaro said.
He called for mandatory minimum sentences for assault against correctional officers that cannot be reduced through plea negotiations or served alongside other sentences.
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