According to a federal lawsuit filed yesterday by the Legal Aid Society, eight NYC correction officers raped and sexually abused female inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center for women on Rikers Island, in 2013 and 2014.
Two female inmates, anonymous under the aliases Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, attest that they were repeatedly assaulted by officer Benny Santiago, the only officer whose name is included in the lawsuit.
Jane Doe 1 claims that Santiago raped her numerous times while hidden from security cameras, refused to wear a condom, and even threatened her parents in an effort to ensure her silence. She says she has been subject to Santiago's advances off and on since 2006.
Jane Doe 2, who was an inmate at Rikers between 2012 and 2014, says Santiago alternately threatened her and bribed her with ecstasy and tobacco, and set up other inmates to threaten her as well. According to the lawsuit, Doe 2, who is currently out on parole, contracted an STD from Santiago and now suffers from PTSD. Here's the account of one early interaction with Santiago, included in the suit, from February 2013:
A few days after Jane Doe 2’s initial encounter with Santiago, he began making inappropriate, lewd sexual comments, including that he liked her lips and would like to see them around his penis. Santiago then told Jane Doe 2 he would pay her for oral sex and arranged to meet her during an upcoming shift.
The next time Jane Doe 2 saw Santiago he asked her not to “tell on” him for soliciting oral sex. Jane Doe 2 confirmed she would not report Santiago because she believed that if she reported him nobody at RMSC or DOC would keep Santiago and other correction officers from retaliating against her.
The lawsuit accuses seven other unnamed officers of rape and unwanted touching, not to mention lewd acts like this:
Correction Officer 7 masturbated while watching a woman sleep in her cell and ejaculated on the sheets of her bed... This correction officer is still employed by the City, works at RMSC, and has continuing contact with women in custody.
Attorney William Gibney, who's taken on the case, told NBC that he has evidence to back up these claims. Clothing from one of the inmates contains "DNA material" from an officer, and another inmate became pregnant as a result of one of the attacks.
While Santiago has been placed on modified duty, meaning he cannot interact with inmates, Gibney told NBC that many of the officers in the lawsuit still work at Rose M. Singer, without such restrictions.
Retaliation from the guards complicates the issue, as inmates are fearful of what may happen if they choose to speak up about these abuses. From the suit:
[inmates fear retaliation, like guards] placing them in punitive segregation based on false disciplinary charges, threats and other verbal abuse, deprivation of food for extended periods of time, and refusing to permit women to bathe.
The lawsuit also cites a lack of effort on the part of Rikers staff to prevent abuses. For example, Rikers doesn't monitor at-risk areas with security cameras, nor does it post signs throughout the facility stating that it's illegal to rape or sexually abuse an inmate.
Gibney told us this afternoon that "there are so many control elements that guards can use at Rikers Island, and we saw a variety of them used against our defendants. The guards can send the women to disciplinary isolation, or spread word among other guards who can put pressure on the inmate to not speak." He added, "The guard can even tell other prisoners to attack the person. It's an incredible control environment, and you really risk personal safety in reporting anything."
In response to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction stated, "We do not comment on pending litigation. Speaking generally, DOC has a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual abuse and assault, and there is no place at DOC for the mistreatment of any inmate."
According to a 2013 Bureau of Justice survey entitled Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 5.9 percent of inmates at Rose M. Singer said they were assaulted by staff between 2011 and 2012. For comparison, the national average over the same time period was 1.9%.
Gibeny said, "What we want is for the city to take all steps necessary to prevent women from being raped and sexually abused. There are a couple of practical things that suggest themselves: Don't have the superior officers do rounds at such a predictable time, leaving officers two hours to do what they want between rounds." Also, "A questionnaire that would let women report sexual abuse would be helpful."
Last year, more than a dozen Rikers jailers were arrested for smuggling and drug trafficking. At that time, an undercover investigator posing as a corrections officer managed to carry 250 bags of heroin and then some through six employee checkpoints.