Queens Daily Eagle: Woman Raped by Rikers Guard Wins $500,000 Suit Against City


By David Brand
February 13, 2019

A woman who was repeatedly raped by a Department of Corrections officer at Rikers Island where she was locked up in pretrial detention won a $500,000 settlement against the city and the two officers who she said assaulted her.

The woman, known as “Jane Doe,” was raped by officer Jose Cosme when she was detained at the Rose M. Singer Center. Doe also accused Correction Officer Leonard McNeil of taping her as well, but he was not indicted.

The Legal Aid Society and the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP filed the lawsuit on her behalf in August 2018.

“No compensation will ever come close to righting the sexual violence our client suffered at the hands of Jose Cosme and Leonard McNeil while at Rikers Island,” said Marlen Bodden and Barbara Hamilton, staff attorneys at Legal Aid’s Special Litigation Unit in a joint statement. “This settlement delivers some justice and further underscores the culture of impunity that exists among correctional staff at NYC jails. We hope other people who have suffered similar trauma at Rikers Island or other local jails will speak out and seek justice.”

Doe mailed a piece of her clothing after Cosme raped her in 2015 so that it could be tested for DNA.

Cosme pleaded guilty to a felony charge of Criminal Sex Act and registered as a sex offender.

McNeil is still employed by Corrections but has been on modified duty with no contact with inmates since Aug. 10, 2016, DOC said.

After Doe reported the rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, she faced retaliation from corrections staff, her attorneys said.

“No individual should ever be subjected to the abuse and trauma that our client experienced,” said Brittany L. Sukiennik, an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. “This settlement is a small measure of justice for an exceptionally strong woman who has experienced unfathomable trauma. We are hopeful that cases like this will persuade the City to take any and all steps necessary to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of individuals in custody are protected and held sacrosanct.”

Gothamist: Should The City Cut A Housing Deal With Notorious Landlords? Homeless Advocates Say Yes

As part of his "Turning the Tide" initiative, Mayor de Blasio has said the city would partner with nonprofit developers to buy cluster site housing and turn them into permanently affordable units (NYCmayorsoffice/Flickr)

As part of his "Turning the Tide" initiative, Mayor de Blasio has said the city would partner with nonprofit developers to buy cluster site housing and turn them into permanently affordable units (NYCmayorsoffice/Flickr)

City homeless advocates are urging the de Blasio administration to proceed with a controversial deal to buy nearly 500 “cluster site” apartments from a notorious slumlord, saying that taking over the poorly managed units and converting them into permanently affordable housing for the homeless is the best outcome — even if a bad landlord stands to profit from it.

Last month, the city put the brakes on negotiations to buy 17 buildings in the Bronx and Brooklyn as part of an effort to end its long-criticized reliance on cluster sites, private apartments that the city rents for the homeless. Although the de Blasio administration had announced the pending purchase in December, city officials withheld the names of the owners—who turned out to be members of the Podolsky family, landlords with a long record of abuses who have amassed hundreds of millions in dollars over the years by renting shelter properties to the city.

“The city wants to get out of these units,” said Joshua Goldfein, a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, which represents tenants who live in the buildings. “The ideal solution is to convert them to permanent housing.”

He added: “You hold your nose and make the deal.”

Giselle Routhier, a policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, agreed, saying that having the city buy the units and put them into the hands of a nonprofit developer would be the best outcome for homeless families. Her organization has for years been calling on the city to do away with cluster site housing. The buildings are often in poor condition and run by negligent landlords who overcharge the city. A 2015 city Department of Investigation report estimated that the city paid $2,451 a month on average for cluster units in low-income neighborhoods where average rents ranged from $528 to $1,200 per month.

“The ultimate goal is the same,” she said. “It’s trying to get [the apartments] into better shape.”

But several factors have complicated the sale. In a Daily News investigation several weeks ago that revealed that the Podolskys were the sellers, the paper noted that the market price for the Podolsky portfolio could be as high as $60 million. Around that time, the de Blasio administration put the sale on hold.

Two days before the Daily News story, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors are currently investigating brothers Stuart and Jay Podolsky for tax evasion and overbilling practices related to hotels they own that are rented by the city for homeless families.

The family has a long rap sheet. In 1984, they were among a group of landlords indicted for using harassment tactics to force out tenants, which included the use of “professional vacators” who were hired to make living conditions unbearable for tenants. Two years after that, the Journal reported, Stuart and Jay Podolsky pleaded guilty to 37 felonies that included grand larceny and coercion.

In 2013, the family was profiled in a lengthy New York magazine story titled “Why Run a Slum If You Can Make More Money Housing the Homeless?”

In addition to detailing the family’s empire of shelters and SROs and their elaborate effort to hide their ownership of the buildings, the story revealed that then mayor-elect de Blasio had raised more than $35,000 from shelter landlords linked to a nonprofit management company that was connected to the Podolskys. He eventually returned some of the contributions.

David Satnick, an attorney for the Podolsky family, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yet even in light of all of the family's well-chronicled history, de Blasio has denied knowing about the Podolskys.

“I want to caution, I don't know this family. I don't know the history of this family,” de Blasio was quoted in a Daily News story last week.

In the same story, City Hall spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg said, “He doesn’t know details about the family. They are not close. They are not friends.” She added: “He doesn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of people mentioned in New York magazine stories five years ago.” Rothenberg and Department of Homeless Services officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment by Gothamist.

Over the years, de Blasio has made a mission out of cracking down on bad landlords. In 2010, as a newly minted public advocate, he created the “NYC worst landlords” registry, which is based on housing violations. He also arranged to have a link to the list appear on Craigslist, so as to make it easy for apartment hunters to identify bad actors.

Legal Aid's Goldfein said he believes that city officials knew who they were dealing with in the Podolskys. Prior to negotiations, the Legal Aid Society had encouraged the city to investigate cluster site providers for malfeasance. "We believed they would have found evidence that would have strengthened their hand," he said. "But at this point, the buildings have a market value that will be paid by someone, and the residents and future tenants will be better off if the City has control of what happens to them."

As homelessness continues to soar to record levels, with the most recent count in December showing 63,498 homeless people sleeping in the city's shelter system, the city does not appear to have any good options. Goldfein said that should the city nix the deal, it could elect to stop renting from Podolsky and begin the difficult transition of finding the homeless tenants new residences, but that might also pave the way for the Podolskys to try to deregulate their units and profit from market-rate rents.

Another option is to force the sale of the buildings through eminent domain, but that could take years, Goldfein said.

What made the Podolsky purchase so appealing to the city was that the family’s portfolio is so large; in one fell swoop, it would provide permanent affordable housing for more than 1,000 vulnerable New Yorkers, according to the city. “There’s not going to be another deal like this one," Goldfein said.

The Takeaway: Class Action Lawsuit Against ICE Claims Video Teleconferencing Violates Detainee Due Process

In this March 2, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers meet in the garage of a New York federal building, as they prepare for a series of early-morning arrests.  ( AP Photo )

In this March 2, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers meet in the garage of a New York federal building, as they prepare for a series of early-morning arrests.  ( AP Photo )

In June of last year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York Field Office announced that it would start holding hearings for detained immigrants exclusively through video teleconferences.

An organization called Brooklyn Defenders Services, alongside the Legal Aid Society and the Bronx Defender's Office filed a class action lawsuit against ICE because of this move.

Andrea Saenz is an attorney with the nonprofit Brooklyn Defenders Services and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. They provide free lawyers to detained immigrants with low income.

Then we take a broader look at how video teleconferencing is heavily relied on in immigration detention cases across the country.

WNYC’s Beth Fertig is joins us to discuss what this trend looks like nationwide.

Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear this segment. Don't have time to listen right now? Subscribe to our podcast via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts to take this segment with you on the go.

NYT: Videoconferencing in Immigration Court: High-Tech Solution or Rights Violation?

A lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday said a policy that has immigrants appearing before judges by videoconference was unconstitutional.

A lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday said a policy that has immigrants appearing before judges by videoconference was unconstitutional.

By Christina Goldbaum
Feb. 12, 2019

Facing serious overcrowding in immigration courts, federal authorities in New York adopted a high-tech solution last year: Immigrants would be kept in detention centers for their legal proceedings, appearing before judges only by videoconference.

Now, a new lawsuit claims that the policy infringes upon immigrants’ constitutional rights in a deliberate attempt to speed up and increase deportations.

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in the Federal District Court in Manhattan, asserted that detained immigrants could not fully communicate with their lawyers and participate in proceedings when their only interaction with immigration court was through video.

As a result, the lawsuit said, immigrants who might otherwise be granted the ability to stay in the United States instead could be deported. The suit cited several instances when videoconferencing had harmful effects on immigrants and their hearings. ADVERTISEMENT

One immigrant spent three extra months in detention because his jail’s one videoconferencing line connecting inmates to immigration court had been double booked.

Another was afraid to testify about his sexual orientation because Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers at the detention facility where he was being held were listening as he spoke to the court in a videocall.

The interpreter for a third had difficulty understanding an immigrant as he sobbed through his two-hour testimony, because his words were muffled over the audio feed of the videoconference.

ICE has justified videoconferencing as an efficient way to address the backlog at the immigration court on Varick Street in Manhattan.

An ICE spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending litigation.

But the lawsuit said the videoconferencing was “merely pretext for the true reasoning behind the policy — limiting due process, access to the courts and counsel for immigrants in an effort to rush deportations and deport more people.” Editors’ Picks

Immigration courts have been overwhelmed by cases for over a decade, but the suit put a spotlight on efforts under the Trump administration to tackle the backlog by speeding up proceedings. The strategy has drawn criticism from immigration lawyers, advocates and judges, who argue that expediting proceedings can rob immigrants of a fair trial.

To address overwhelmed dockets, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April 2017 that the Department of Justice would bring on an additional 125 immigration judges, at least 44 of whom have been hired.

Mr. Sessions also imposed policy changes the Justice Department called common-sense reforms to increase the efficiency of immigration courts.

But immigration lawyers argued that prioritizing speed has come at the expense of due process.

“This push toward efficiency over due process is particularly Trumpian,” Andrea Sáenz, the supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, said. The videoconferencing policy in New York is part of a larger trend of addressing the backlog by focusing “on what the government or ICE thinks is faster or cheaper, instead of giving people full and fair hearings,” Ms. Sáenz said.

The plaintiffs in the federal suit include Brooklyn Defender Services, the Legal Aid Society and the Bronx Defenders, all of which offer free legal services to immigrants facing deportation as a part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a program funded by the New York City Council. Low-income people in immigration detention do not otherwise have a right to a lawyer if they cannot afford one.

In previous years, judges frequently used their discretion to close some cases they deemed “low priority,” to take them off their dockets indefinitely and reduce the backlog.

But Mr. Sessions restricted judges’ ability to do so, arguing in a decision in September that closing certain cases was “not a free-floating power an immigration judge may invoke” solely to create space on their docket. Advocates said this has added to the backlog. Sign up for the New York Today Newsletter Each morning, get the latest on New York businesses, arts, sports, dining, style and more.

In June, the ICE field office in New York announced the policy in which detained immigrants would appear in court by videoconference instead of being brought to the court on Varick Street.

At the time, ICE officials presented the policy as a security measure, after a group of demonstrators gathered outside the court to protest the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

The announcement also came three days after President Trump suggested that people who came into the United States illegally be sent back to their home countries without due process, the suit noted.

“When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

Even when the Varick Street protests ended, the New York policy remained in place. The use of videoconferencing “is more efficient, providing an economic savings to taxpayers, while continuing to ensure the safety of ICE employees, the court, the public and the detainees,” an ICE spokeswoman said in a statement in December.

Videoconferencing is sometimes used in regions where judges are hours away from the jails, prisons and detention facilities where immigrants are held to help expedite procedural matters, such as scheduling hearings or accepting documents.

A 2015 study by the U.C.L.A. law professor Ingrid Eagly found that deportation proceedings of detained immigrants heard by videoconference were adjudicated more quickly, in fewer days and with fewer trials, than those heard in person. But detained immigrants whose cases were heard through videoconferencing were also more likely to be deported.

In New York, the introduction of videoconferencing for all proceedings meant that lawyers could no longer conduct on-site interviews to determine if a detained immigrant was eligible for free legal services, discuss how a client wanted to proceed in their case, or review strategies and clarify facts confidentially.

Videoconferencing “does not always paint a complete picture” of a detained immigrant, said Judge Amiena Khan, speaking as the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the judges’ union. “Sometimes it’s more difficult to interact, to judge eye contact and nonverbal cues like body language,” all of which are critical to making determinations about an immigrant’s claims, Ms. Khan said.

The suit, which is seeking class-action status, claimed that it was also more difficult for detainees to follow proceedings by video, especially when there were technology failures or when people required translators, who could not do simultaneous interpretation unless the immigrant appeared in person.

Additionally, the suit contended that a shortage of videoconferencing lines and the failure of the technology had resulted in immigration judges routinely delaying scheduled proceedings or adjourning them altogether when lines were not available, prolonging immigrants’ detention.

Patch: Jailed Immigrants Sue ICE Over Forced Video Court Hearings

By Noah Manskar, Patch Staff
Feb. 13, 2019

Seven immigrants detained in the New York City area are suing over a federal policy that forces them to make court appearances on video from jail.

Since last June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New York office has refused to bring jailed immigrants to the Varick Street immigration court and forced them to go through proceedings over video conferences, says the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court.

The complaint asks the court to stop ICE from proceeding with the policy, which it says violates immigrants' constitutional rights and prevents their lawyers from representing them effectively.

"ICE's refusal to bring New Yorkers to the immigration courts in which their fates will be determined represents yet another effort by this administration to deport as many people, with as few protections, as possible," said Sarah Deri Oshiro, the managing director of the immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, one of three legal services groups that joined the suit.

Asked for a reaction to the suit, an ICE spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Subscribe ICE announced its policy last June around the time that protesters reportedly occupied the outside of the Varick Street building. The agency initially said its refusal to bring immigrants to in-person hearings was because of a security threat the protesters posed, but the demonstration ended the same day the policy was announced, the complaint says.

The seven immigrants bringing the suit, all identified by their initials, have been detained in New Jersey or New York jails while they go through proceedings at the Varick Street court, according to the lawsuit.

ICE's policy forces people such as them to make crucial court appearances through video teleconferencing, which harms them in various ways, the suit argues.

None of the jails that ICE's New York office uses have enough video connections to keep up with the caseload in the Lower Manhattan court, leaving defendants without an available line when they have scheduled hearings, the complaint argues.

Even when a line is free, the suit says, "technical failures have been rampant, preventing detained immigrants from seeing, hearing, or understanding what is happening in the courtroom," issues that are "compounded" when detainees need translation services or accommodations for disabilities.

Immigrants are also often discouraged from discussing sensitive personal information because of the presence of ICE officers in the video conference room in which they testify, the complaint says.

The policy places an additional burden on the lawyers who represent immigrants before the court, who have to regularly travel to jails outside the city, according to the suit.

Attorneys have to discuss case strategy over the video lines often in front of jail or court personnel and can't talk with clients right before or after hearings, the complaint says.

The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services are among the plaintiffs as well as Bronx Defenders. All three groups are a part of the city's New York Immigrant Family Unity Program, which provides legal help to immigrants who can't afford a lawyer.

The three groups condemned ICE's denial of in-person hearings for immigrants last summer when the decision was first made, calling the move "a direct attack on people who have been waiting for months in detention for their opportunity to meet with attorneys, assert their legal right to remain in this country, and see their loved ones."

In addition to ICE, the lawsuit names the federal Justice and Homeland Security departments, the Executive Office for Immigration Review and eight individual federal officials as defendants.

US News and World Report: Groups Sue U.S. to Stop Deportation Hearings by Videoconference in New York

By Tom Hals
Feb. 13, 2019

Rights groups have sued the Trump Administration for violating constitutional rights of immigrants by refusing them in-person deportation hearings in New York immigration court, and instead forcing them to make their case by videoconference from detention.

In a lawsuit filed late on Tuesday, three rights groups alleged that in June immigration agents in New York announced they would no longer bring detained immigrants to court hearings and that proceedings would be held exclusively by video. The case claims the changes are part of the Trump administration's policy to speed up deportations with as few legal protections as possible.

"We, as a society, owe due process to people facing such enormous consequences - not to lock them up and show them a TV screen where they cannot properly hear the judge, speak to their lawyers, or see their loved ones in person," said a statement from Andrea Saenz, an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, one of the groups that brought the suit.

Hearings by videoconference have been plagued by technical failures that prevent immigrants from seeing, hearing or understanding what is happening in the courtroom, according to the complaint. Those problems are compounded by language barriers and the frequent presence of immigration officers with the detained immigrant, which can discourage testimony about sensitive information vital to a case, according to the lawsuit.

Immigration law gives judges discretion to conduct hearings by video, so long as it does not violate requirements of due process.

Remote hearings have become a tool used by immigration judges to try to reduce the swelling backlog of cases, which has grown to more than 800,000 cases.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which falls under the Justice Department and runs the nation's immigration courts, said less than 1 percent of videoteleconferencing (VTC) hearings had to be adjourned due to malfunctions.

"EOIR has successfully conducted hundreds of thousands of VTC hearings, and it's an integral part of its common-sense strategy to reduce the pending backlog of cases," said Steven Stafford of EOIR. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.

About 7 percent of the 1.2 million immigration hearings in fiscal year 2018 were conducted by video, according to EOIR.

But courts, attorneys and academics have found problems with technology.

In October, a deputy chief immigration judge sent an email to courts asking them for input on their use of videoconferencing, according to documents obtained by Reuters through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Omaha immigration court wrote that videoconferencing technology at one of its locations only worked "sometimes", while the Dallas court said attorneys were not allowed into one of the facilities in which videoconferencing takes place, the documents showed.

Research by Ingrid Eagly, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School showed that detained immigrants whose proceedings are held through video are more likely to be deported.

Tuesday's lawsuit was brought on behalf of seven unidentified plaintiffs, including three lawful permanent residents, who are detained at jails in the New York metro area.

The lawsuit, also brought by the Legal Aid Society and the Bronx Defenders, is seeking class status to represent people detained by the New York field office of ICE and who were denied an in-person deportation hearing.

Detained Immigrants and New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) Providers Sue U.S. Government over Refusal to Produce Detained Immigrants In-Person for Deportation Hearings

Lawsuit Seeks to Restore the Constitutional and Statutory Rights of Hundreds of Detained Immigrants by Ending ICE’s Blanket Use of Video Teleconferencing at Varick Street Immigration Court

Late yesterday, seven immigrants, representing a class of all detained immigrants in the New York City area, and the three New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) providers—Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), The Legal Aid Society (LAS), and The Bronx Defenders (BxD)—filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York challenging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) refusal to bring immigrants to court for deportation hearings. Instead of letting detained immigrants appear in court, ICE has been forcing them to use a video connection to challenge their detention and deportation.

ICE’s policy of denying in-person hearings when immigrants’ liberty, family unity, and potential exile is at stake is a cruel extension of the federal administration’s aggressive efforts to deny immigrants equal justice and due process.

For the first four and a half years of NYIFUP, in-person hearings ensured that detained immigrants had an opportunity to fully access the courts and participate in their defense during removal proceedings and allowed attorneys to more effectively represent and meaningfully protect their clients’ rights and interests.

Without warning, ICE’s New York Field Office announced on June 27, 2018 that starting that day, removal proceedings at the Varick Street Immigration Court in New York City would be conducted exclusively by video teleconferencing (VTC). Immigrants detained by ICE would appear by video feed from the county jail at which they are held—disconnected from the court, their lawyers, evidence presented by the Government, and their case.

The Plaintiffs are asking the federal court to enforce the government’s constitutional and statutory obligation to provide detained immigrants with due process, to ensure access to the courts, and to preserve the right of clients to communicate with their attorneys. BDS, LAS, BxD, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP represent the class and the organizational plaintiffs.

“Because of ICE’s refusal to bring our clients and other detained immigrants to court, hundreds of immigrants are unable to fully and fairly participate in their own hearings to decide their freedom, whether they can stay with their families or whether they will be deported to persecution or, even death,” said Andrea Saenz, Attorney-in-Charge of NYIFUP at Brooklyn Defender Services, “This policy is not just a small administrative change – it goes to the heart of whether our clients will get a fair day in court to contest their deportation. We, as a society, owe due process to people facing such enormous consequences—not to lock them up and show them a TV screen where they cannot properly hear the judge, speak to their lawyers, or see their loved ones in-person.”

“When ICE stopped the in-person production of detained immigrants at the Varick Street Immigration Court, it was not only an affront to the dignity and humanity of our most vulnerable clients, but a direct assault on their fundamental due process rights to be present during their hearing and trials,” said Jennifer Williams, Deputy Attorney-in-Charge of the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, “The refusal to produce policy has effectively sanitized the immigration courtrooms of our clients’ raw human emotions and experiences, which are at the heart of these proceedings, and is preventing effective and meaningful representation by their attorneys. This policy is yet another example of the Administration’s goal to carry out swift deportations without due process of law.” “ICE’s refusal to bring New Yorkers to the immigration courts in which their fates will be determined represents yet another effort by this administration to deport as many people, with as few protections, as possible,” said Sarah Deri Oshiro, Managing Director of The Bronx Defenders’ Immigration Practice. “This is a bald attempt to punish a ‘sanctuary city’ and undermine the successes of the nation’s first universal representation program which has ensured that hundreds of families have remained united.” “We are proud to be part of this important lawsuit to vindicate the constitutional and statutory rights of detained immigrants in the New York area,” said Robert Gunther, a partner at WilmerHale. “ICE’s policy of refusing in-person hearings is wrong on every level and is just the latest effort on the part of the current administration to deny rights to those most in need of our compassion and our help.”

“Detained immigrants are guaranteed a right to due process, and the ICE policy infringes on that right,” said Susan Gittes, a partner at Debevoise. “The hearings taking place by video teleconference are totally inconsistent with the bedrock principles of our judicial system—judges are forced to make credibility determinations while separated by video screen, detained immigrants cannot confidentially confer with their attorneys during proceedings, and detained immigrants with intellectual disabilities or in need of interpretation services may not even be able to understand the hearings that determine their rights. These plaintiffs have a right to fair hearings and full access to their counsel, and this lawsuit seeks to restore those rights.”

Legal Aid, Cravath Announce Settlement for Client Who Was Raped and Sexually Abused by Doc Officers on Rikers Island

The Legal Aid Society and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP announced a substantial monetary settlement today on behalf of their client, “Jane Doe,” who was repeatedly raped, sexually abused, and sexually harassed by two New York City Department of Correction (DOC) officers while she was a pre-trial detainee on Rikers Island.

This lawsuit was filed in August 2018 against the City of New York and DOC Officers Jose Cosme and Leonard McNeil, in both their individual and official capacities. Cosme pled guilty to a Criminal Sex Act, a felony charge, which required him to register as a sex offender. McNeil is still employed by the DOC.

In 2015, Jane Doe was a detainee awaiting trial at Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC.) There, she suffered brutal rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment by Cosme after McNeil conspired with Cosme so Cosme could rape her. McNeil separately also raped, sexually abused, and sexually harassed Jane Doe. As a result of Cosme’s and McNeil’s criminal acts, Jane Doe suffers from severe trauma. After Jane Doe reported the rapes, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment, correction staff and inmates retaliated against her. This retaliation included threats to her life and other verbal abuse, as well as denial of the most basic necessities, such as soap.

“No compensation will ever come close to righting the sexual violence our client suffered at the hands of Jose Cosme and Leonard McNeil while at Rikers Island,” said Marlen Bodden and Barbara Hamilton, Staff Attorneys with the Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “This settlement delivers some justice and further underscores the culture of impunity that exists among correctional staff at NYC jails. We hope other people who have suffered similar trauma at Rikers Island or other local jails will speak out and seek justice.”

“No individual should ever be subjected to the abuse and trauma that our client experienced,” said Brittany L. Sukiennik, associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. “This settlement is a small measure of justice for an exceptionally strong woman who has experienced unfathomable trauma. We are hopeful that cases like this will persuade the City to take any and all steps necessary to ensure that the constitutional and human rights of individuals in custody are protected and held sacrosanct.”

Daily News: Troubled Rikers school needs federal watchdog, activists charge

Principal Tonya Threadgill (center) visits one of the young adult inmates classes inside East River Academy on Rikers Island in June 2014. (Anthony DelMundo / New York Daily News)

By Janon Fisher and Ben Chapman
Feb 09, 2019

Federal watchdogs should continue to monitor controversial and violence-plagued school programs for young inmates at Rikers Island, activists charge.

Since 1996, federal monitors have overseen educational programs at the city jail, to make sure teenage detainees are receiving legally mandated schooling, even while they’re incarcerated.

The monitors’ most recent report, published in July, was meant to mark the end of the oversight but still found safety concerns and a lack of resources deprived young inmates their lessons.

In January, the program grabbed headlines after a spate of slashings kept students from getting to class, causing attendance rates to crater.

And in legal papers filed Feb. 1, lawyers for the Legal Aid Society responded to the federal monitor’s report, arguing that more oversight of the long-troubled jail is needed.

Specifically, Legal Aid attorneys claimed that Rikers watchdog Dr. Peter Leone should remain on the case for an additional two years because the jail is still denying young inmates an education.

“The court should continue the order and Dr. Leone's monitoring functions because the City Defendants have yet to comply,” the legal brief states.

Leone didn’t return a call for comment and a Legal Aid spokesperson declined to elaborate on the group’s filing.

Problems with young inmates at Rikers Island go back decades.

In 1996, a group of 11 Rikers students filed a class action suit against the city for not providing them with basic schooling mandated by state and federal law.

The case is still ongoing while two sets of federal monitors have kept tabs on schools at the jail.

In 2002, Legal Aid lawyers joined the battle with a new suit making fresh arguments that the city failed to provide a proper education for teen inmates.

The city made sweeping changes to boost school options in the wake of the lawsuit, but problems persisted.

A “deep-seated culture of violence” against students at Rikers was uncovered by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a report issued in August 2014.

And Leone, has found the city was “inadequate and non-compliant” with earlier federal orders on inmate education.

A Daily News report in January revealed that attendance rates at East River Academy on Rikers Island dropped by half since the start of the current school year, falling to just 16% in December.

Attendance bounced back up to 21% last month but it’s below the 36% attendance rate the school posted in September.

City records show an official tally of 12 slashings between September and December.

But an unofficial count kept by staffers shows that at least 19 knifings that have interrupted classes since September.

Department of Corrections Press Secretary Jason Kersten said Rikers officials are working to improve attendance.

"School enrollment for young adults in our custody is up, and we are committed to ensuring they are able to attend classes regularly,” Kersten said.

Law360: Clean Slate: How Ditching A Criminal Record Is No Easy Task

By Rj Vogt
February 10, 2019

Jane, a middle-aged mom, has steered well clear of the criminal justice system ever since she was charged for felony drug possession in 2003.

Despite over fifteen years of crime-free behavior, she says retailers and pharmacies have repeatedly turned down her job applications due to the criminal record that inevitably comes up on background checks.

So when Jane, who used a pseudonym to protect her identity, learned she was eligible to get her real name cleared under a New York law that went into effect in October 2017, she sought out the New York Legal Aid Society, where attorney Emma Goodman helped her file a petition to seal the case records.

“I needed the help,” she said. “On my own, I don’t think I could’ve done that paperwork. [Goodman] typed up a report with the whole history of everything. I mean ... I’m not a writer.”

Jane is one of an estimated 100 million Americans — roughly 1 in 3 — who have some kind of criminal record, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Offenses can range from violent criminal convictions to relatively minor crimes such as drug possession or failure to pay court fees. Even arrests without conviction can end up on rap sheets that last forever.

Before the digital era, these records were only available to people who physically went and examined documents at police stations and courthouses. But in today’s interconnected world, most employers, landlords and universities use online background checks to sift through applicants’ personal histories.

Now a previous run-in with police can be a barrier to getting a job, finding housing, qualifying for public benefits and even going to college, becoming what advocates call “a life sentence to poverty” for those with records and the nearly 50 percent of American children who depend on them.

Last year, a growing awareness of how criminal records can have long-lasting consequences led a wave of 20 states to make it easier for people to clear their records via expungement or sealing.

But the process of clearing one’s record can be hard to access. The New York law that allowed Jane to seal her record, for example, could apply to more than 600,000 eligible people.

According to the state’s criminal justice statistics department, however, only 825 people have taken advantage of the law so far, a less than 1 percent participation rate.

Barriers to Access

Goodman, who represents about 200 clients in addition to Jane, said that like many sealing laws, the Empire State record-sealing measure is too narrow: restrictive qualifications prevent applicants from having more than two offenses or any crimes in the past decade.

She also said the process that was “supposed to be pro se friendly” is actually quite challenging, starting from the application form itself, which offers “just a couple of blank lines” for people to explain why they’re rehabilitated and deserve to have their record sealed.

“There’s just not enough space to actually answer those questions,” she said.

And it’s not just one filing. Petitioners in New York and other states with record-clearing laws have a long road to a clean record.

The work — finding out if you qualify, locating the proper forms, correctly filling them out in their entirety, mailing them to the appropriate courts and law enforcement agencies, monitoring the response activity, appearing for any necessary hearings, managing any prosecutorial challenges, getting the record sealed and then ensuring all copies of the record are also sealed — can take years.

Those who qualify for federal assistance can get free help navigating the bureaucracy from legal services attorneys like Goodman, but regular income earners often turn to law firms that can charge up to $2,500 per record-sealing case.

The firm Lord & Schewel PLLC, which owns the domain name sealmyrecord.nyc, declined to reveal its record-sealing rates but partner and former public defender Masai Lord told Law360 the process “is really something that I don’t think the average person could do.”

“It’s not intuitive,” he said. “It’s not just like, ‘fill out this application.’ There could actually be litigation. There could actually be a hearing.”

Shifting the Burden

As a result of the system’s complexity, most Americans eligible to clear their records never do it. The so-called “second chance gap,” according to research by Santa Clara University School of Law professor Colleen Chieng, includes an estimated 30 million people.

To help close that gap, some states are moving to make the process automatic by putting the burden on the government instead of the person with the record.

In December 2018, Pennsylvania’s first-of-its kind “Clean Slate Act” went into effect, promising to automate the system of sealing low-level misdemeanors once a candidate goes 10 years without a conviction. Non-conviction arrests may be automatically sealed with no waiting period, paperwork or fees.

Federal legislation by Delaware Democratic Representative Blunt Rochester aims to turn Pennsylvania’s model into a national law. The bill filed in August would automatically seal misdemeanor drug crimes and nonviolent offenses involving marijuana, as well as create a petition system for other nonviolent offenses that are currently unsealable without presidential intervention.

The Center for American Progress played a key role in drafting both bills, and its director of poverty, Rebecca Vallas, said the clean slate movement comes from both sides of the aisle. She highlighted the involvement of FreedomWorks, a conservative and libertarian advocacy group, in drafting and lobbying for the federal Clean Slate Act.

“This is an area of incredibly rare bipartisan agreement at a time when it seems like Americans can’t agree on almost anything else,” Vallas said.

In a statement supporting the national bill, FreedomWorks president Adam Brandon called automatic record-sealing “necessary and good policy to reduce crime, enhance the labor force and ensure that human capital is not lost.”

Records That Don’t Go Away

But some advocates say the Clean Slate Act, while a good step, still doesn’t go far enough. Sarah Lageson, a sociologist at Rutgers University who studies the criminal justice system, said that record-sealing laws don’t erase the collateral online damage of a rap sheet.

Lageson pointed to the for-profit mugshot and reputation management industry, which uses sunshine laws to obtain and publish public records on the internet, then charges people to take them down.

Unless we also legislate privacy protections or different classifications of these records at the same time, sealing can be a pretty ineffective remedy for people.

“Unless we also legislate privacy protections or different classifications of these records at the same time, sealing can be a pretty ineffective remedy for people,” she told Law360.

Lageson has called for bolder reforms like offering free access to one’s own criminal records, instead of requiring people to pay as much as $40, and making mugshots private. She also believes states should enforce fines on third-party websites if they fail to comply with expungement or sealing orders by keeping the outdated information accessible.

“You might get someone who operates a website who will update your record, but they don't have to,” she said.

Some newspapers and websites, like Mississippi’s Sun Herald, have moved to discontinue their mugshot galleries. Cleveland.com unveiled a “right to be forgotten” initiative in January, giving people a chance to scrub their names from old stories.

But other press groups, like the South Dakota Newspaper Association, have championed efforts to make mugshots public. That organization successfully lobbied the state legislature in 2017 to allow access to “routine criminal booking photographs.”

“The release of criminal booking photographs to the public will result in greater transparency in the criminal process, enhance public safety, and will further assist the media and the public in the proper identification of individuals in the criminal process,” South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said at the time.

The South Dakota law means every state except Louisiana has publicly available mugshots that can live on online, despite anyone’s efforts to clear their name.

Jeran Crawford, an employment specialist at the New Jersey Re-entry Corporation, knows firsthand about the pervasiveness of an old booking photo.

Sentenced in 2010 to two years of probation for drug possession with intent to distribute, Crawford said his criminal record initially kept him from qualifying for student loans or getting a job at anywhere other than a gas station.

He’s since married and had three children, so the record affects them too: Crawford said some landlords have refused his whole family as tenants.

Now eligible for relief under a New Jersey law, he’s already been fingerprinted and filed a petition with the help of volunteer lawyers. He said he’s looking forward to officially clearing his name, but added that a simple Google search brings up his old mugshot.

“It’s still on mugshot.com,” he said. “I’ve reached out … they wanted $500 or so, or more, to have it removed from the search engine… I refuse to pay for that, so I’ll just continue to move forward.”