Six female inmates in New York State prisons are suing officials in the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, saying that they were sexually abused by DOCCS officers and that DOCCS is lenient in disciplining officers when inmates report sexual abuse, a fact that has allowed it to pervade the state's prison system and specifically the Bedford Hills, Taconic, and Albion correctional facilities.

The suit names Anthony Annucci, DOCCS's Acting Commissioner, and Jason Effman, who is the department's Prison Rape Elimination Act Coordinator, along with their fellow DOCCS officers Steven Maher, Christian Nunez, and John Shipley. It does not name the guards accused of assaulting the inmates, and the women involved in the suit are also anonymous.

The complaint details numerous instances of sexual contact between female inmates and guards, noting more than once that "women in custody are unable to consent in the coercive prison environment where officers have complete discretion and control over the treatment of prisoners under their supervision." In one instance, an officer allegedly told an inmate that "he [had] a damned good union and his lawyers were even better [than his union]," and that her "ass belonged to him." In another, "Officer C grabbed Ms. Jones 3 violently by the wrists and pushed her against the wall outside 13 lobby. He also choked her, leaving her with bruising around her neck."

In the latter case, an investigator allegedly said that no action would be taken against the officer because of a lack of evidence, and because "inmate statements were not worth that much." And after some of the women reported their abuse, they were subject to retaliation from officers, who harassed them and issued unwarranted disciplinary infractions, the suit claims.

DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said that "each sexual abuse claim is processed through a specialized 'Sex Crimes Unit' within DOCCS' Office of Special Investigations. In addition to rigorous employee training for both staff and inmates, we continue to strictly adhere to established guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act."

In 2003, 15 female inmates, some of whom were pregnant by DOCCS staff, filed a class action suit alleging sexual abuse by male correctional officers. That case has been delayed for years. And Rikers Island has received several accusations of sexual abuse by guards, including a class action suit filed last year. Such lawsuits nearly always request more than just monetary compensation; indeed, this current case does not seek any damages, but rather demands changes to a "pattern of sexual misconduct" and how DOCCS investigates and disciplines the subjects of complaints.

This most recent lawsuit was filed on the women's behalf by the Legal Aid Society and Debevoise and Plimpton LLP; the Legal Aid Society also filed the 2003 suit.

"Staff sexual abuse is a serious problem in New York's women's prisons," said Legal Aid Society attorney Veronica Vela in a statement. "DOCCS claims to have a zero tolerance policy to sexual abuse in its prisons, but as we allege in the Complaint, that policy is zero tolerance in name only. The Department has long known of ways to reduce the risk women face in its prisons but fails to take needed measures to protect the women in its custody."