Legal Aid Calls for Stronger Oversight Over Local Government Efforts to Eliminate Sexual Abuse and Harassment at City Jails

The Legal Aid Society called for stronger oversight from the New York City Board of Correction (BOC) over local government efforts – including the New York City Department of Correction - to eliminate sexual abuse and sexual harassment (PREA Standards) at a BOC meeting today. Legal Aid also urged Board members to scrutinize the performances of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office on this issue as both offices have a mandate to combat sexual harassment and abuse at Rikers Island and other local jails.

“On virtually a daily basis we hear from some person in custody that staff or other incarcerated persons have touched them, groped them, or debased them verbally. Staff frequently look the other way; prevention is virtually nonexistent, and accountability even rarer,” said Dori Lewis, Supervising Attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society. “This hearing was an opportunity for the Board to demand answers from DOC—and from other City officials—about why this abuse persists, and what concrete steps they will take to prevent it. We learned for the first time at the hearing that the Department of Correction has rejected recommendations made by DOI in 2017 to prevent sexual abuse, with no reasons given other than administrative convenience and cost. This can’t be allowed to continue and the Board needs to engage in even more vigilant oversight—oversight that must continue well beyond this hearing, because it is clear these issues with PREA compliance are not going away."

In a letter sent last month to the Board in advance of today’s hearing, Legal Aid cited a case that underscores the immediate need for stronger BOC oversight in which an incarcerated person at Rikers Island – J.G. – was sexually assaulted by an officer approximately fifteen times in one month while housed in a protective custody unit at the Anna M. Kross Center (“AMKC”) in fall 2015. J.G. was subjected to repeated intimate contact, touching and fondling, and was forced to touch the officer’s gentiles through his clothes, among other acts. J.G. reported the abuse about two months after it ended.

DOI substantiated J.G.’s allegations of abuse on October 6, 2016 and found that the officer engaged in unlawful sexual contact. DOI referred the matter to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution and referred it to DOC for administrative action against the officer. DOI took about nine months to complete its investigation. After two and a half years, the Bronx District Attorney’s office still has taken no action. Nor has any administrative action been taken against this officer, who has remained on modified duty at full salary.

“This case isn’t an anomaly,” said Kayla Simpson, a Staff Attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project, testified at the hearing. “There is a fundamental problem in the culture at DOC: there’s no accountability and staff knows it. People do not believe they will get caught, and if they are caught, they don’t believe investigators will substantiate, and if investigators do substantiate, they don’t believe DOC will remove them from employment and they don’t believe district attorney’s offices will prosecute. If what happened to J.G. is any indication, they are right. How can we blame our clients when they tell us that they don’t want to report because there’s no point, when all the evidence shows that they’re right.”

Legal Aid also called for increased supervision of staff and investigations and discipline that actually lead to removal of staff who victimize some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Legal Aid also urged that DOI’s recommendations-be implemented, which include video footage being kept for a year, escorts of women in custody by a male and female officer in pairs to prevent abuse, and exit interviews of incarcerated persons by trained professionals in order for DOC to find out what is really going on inside their jails.

The next New York City Board of Correction meeting will be on Tuesday, May 14 at 9:00 am.