A leaked internal review has confirmed what individual lawsuits have been alleging for years: Rikers Island has a sex abuse problem, and the systems in place to deal with that problem haven't always been adequate (and certainly weren't at the time the review was conducted).
The federally-funded review, obtained by the Associated Press, was requested by the city in 2013 and conducted in 2015 by The Moss Group, a consulting group that specializes in correctional institutions' compliance (or lack thereof) with federal regulations. According to the AP, it reviewed all 46 sexual abuse or harassment cases that were closed by jail investigators in 2014 and found those investigations to be lacking in thoroughness. More broadly, the review found systemic problems in the jail's handling of sexual abuse. From the AP:
The report, conducted last year by an outside consultant, also revealed that guards dangerously underestimated the problem, felt helpless to do anything about it and showed "poor professional boundaries" themselves by inappropriately hugging and kissing one another and hanging racy postings in common areas.
Phone numbers to sexual assault hotlines posted throughout the jails regularly didn't work, were picked up by answering machines that left no helpful information and, in at least one case, rang to "a private citizens' phone number," according to the report.
Inmates who did disclose harassment or abuse allegations via a formal grievance system had trouble doing so confidentially, because the slips of paper they wrote their claims on were sometimes typed up by other inmates who could read their contents, according to the report.
When investigating reports of sexual abuse or harassment, the review found, investigators didn't typically interview all possible witnesses, and some failed to interview the accused guards or review video evidence. The Moss Group found that "[i]n one case an investigation included five paragraphs describing the reasons why the victim was lying, despite video and testimonial evidence that suggested something clearly had taken place."
The city requested the review in order to bring Rikers Island in compliance with the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which established a zero-tolerance standard for the sexual assault and rape of inmates and called for the development of standards for the detection, prevention, reduction, and punishment of prison rape. The Moss Group found that at the time of its review, not many staff or inmates had heard of the act, and there didn't appear to be much of an effort to educate them about its requirements.
Since the review was conducted, more than 700 correctional line staff members have undergone PREA implementation training, according to the Department of Correction. The DOC has also established a new 24-hour confidential sexual assault hotline, and says that the Rose M. Singer Center for female inmates on Rikers Island will have full camera coverage by the end of this year. (A 2013 Bureau of Justice survey found that 5.9% of inmates at Rose M. Singer said they were assaulted by staff between 2011 and 2012, compared to a national average of 1.9%.)
"Commissioner Ponte's top priority is safety, and that includes sexual safety," a DOC spokesperson said in a statement. "The Moss report was a wake-up call, and we heard it loud and clear. For more than a year we have been working diligently with the Moss Group to refine agency practices in relation to PREA compliance...We are confident that our many steps will yield a safe environment for all."
In 2015, 181 of 301 allegations of sexual abuse or harassment in the city jail system were closed, according to the DOC. 47 of those closed were inmate-on-inmate allegations, while 125 were staff-on-inmate and 9 didn't have enough information to determine their nature.
The timing of the leaking of this review is notable: the city's Board of Correction is currently weighing public comment on proposed rules that are "designed to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment of persons incarcerated in jails and other facilities operated by the Department of Correction."
These new rules were proposed at the behest of Public Advocate Letitia James, who petitioned the board last April to make changes to its minimum standards to make the city's rules consistent with PREA. In a statement today, James said that "every corner of our society should be free of sexual assault, including Rikers. The Moss report underscores the need to take immediate action, including implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act."
Discussing the proposed rules last week, one board member, psychologist Gerard Bryant, suggested that eliminating rape in prisons altogether might not be possible: he said that "you can tell staff until you're blue in the face, 'Don't have sex with inmates,' and it's still going to happen. OK?...As long as we are going to have prisons we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons. That's the reality. That's what happens."
Among the proposed rules are a requirement for a written, zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and harassment; the prohibition of physically examining a transgender or intersex inmate for sole purpose of determining the inmate's genital status; and a ban on hiring or promoting anyone who would have contact with inmates if they've previously engaged in sexual abuse in an institutional setting. You can read the full list of proposed rules here—there will be a public hearing on them on July 26th at 1 p.m. at 125 Worth Street in Manhattan, but you can also submit comments here or to BOC@BOC.nyc.gov.