One week after a leaked report exposed Rikers Island's history of failing to address its persistent sex abuse problems, a current inmate at the jail facility is alleging that he was sexually assaulted by a guard after he protested the guard's use of a racial slur against another inmate—and he says several other officers did nothing to stop the assault.
Justin Kuchma, 31, has been on Rikers for the past four months, and is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to stalking and aggravated harassment, among other charges that arose from what his attorney said was a verbal dispute with his girlfriend. On May 29th, while awaiting trial, Kuchma was detained at the facility's Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and was in the yard at about 11 a.m. when he heard a guard, identified only by the last name Senicor, call a black inmate the n-word, according to the notice of claim that he filed yesterday against the city.
When Kuchma protested the guard's use of that word, he claims that Senicor said, "You think this stupid n----- would stick up for you" and threatened Kuchma with physical violence, prompting other guards to restrain Senicor.
That evening, another officer, identified by the last name Diaz, told Kuchma that she had to protect him, and walked him toward the cafeteria, the claim states. On their way to the cafeteria they approached Senicor, along with a number of other guards, and Senicor allegedly grabbed Kuchma, threw him against the wall, and sexually assaulted him. While he allegedly groped Kuchma's genitals, the claim states that Senicor said, "You faggot. Do you like it? You like the way I am touching you, you faggot?"
Throughout the assault, none of the other guards present, including Captain Diaz, intervened or attempted to stop the assault, according to the lawsuit.
Kuchma reported the assault, but his lawyer said that the response from the Department of Correction has been underwhelming. So far, Kuchma has had interviews with several investigators who he says failed to identify themselves as such or give him any information about what would happen to Senicor. The guard is still working the yard at OBCC, Kuchma's lawyer said, so in order to go outside during the day he has to risk running into him again.
"I'm scared of him, physically scared of him," Kuchma told ABC. "When he initially did the first assault, he whispered in my ear he'd get me at a later date. He knows where there are no cameras...It's to the point now that every time I see him, my heart races. I don't know what he can do. I don't know what he's capable of."
Since the assault, Kuchma has had to increase his dosage of anxiety medication, his notice of claim states.
His attorney, Randolph McLaughlin, said he's hopeful that now that Kuchma is going public with his story, the DOC will take steps to protect him from Senicor. McLaughlin added that "if they don't, and this guard or another at that facility engages in some sort of retaliation against him, there will be hell to pay for that."
A DOC spokesperson said in a statement that "[DOC] Commissioner Ponte has zero tolerance for sexual assaults of inmates, and we take these allegations seriously. This matter is under investigation. The vast majority of our officers carry out their duties with care and integrity, and we are taking many steps to ensure that all staff adhere to the highest professionalism. As part of our top-to-bottom reform initiative, we are working to bring our agency into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act."
In 2014—the most recently available statistics provided by the DOC—89 of 135 PREA allegations were staff-on-inmate sexual abuse or harassment allegations, and zero were substantiated. The fact that not one was substantiated indicates a systemic problem at Rikers where guard-on-inmate abuse is openly tolerated, McLaughlin argued.
"There's less attention paid to the kind of abuse the inmates are sustaining from the guards, and that's a huge problem," he said. "It's like, if you walk down the street every day and you jaywalk, it's something that everyone does, so no one thinks about it as as violation of the rules or any laws. But you're in a prison where these men and women have complete control over your everyday existence."
The city's Board of Correction is currently considering proposed rules that would bring the city's jails and prisons more in line with the 2003 PREA. While discussing those rules earlier this month, one board member, psychologist Gerard Bryant, went so far as to suggest that eliminating rape in prisons is impossible: he argued 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."
Kuchma's notice of claim, filed against the city, Senicor, Diaz, and two other guards who he alleges were bystanders to his assault, is asking for $6 million in damages, and he will file an official lawsuit if he doesn't receive a response within 30 days. By going public, his attorney said, Kuchma is hoping to "shine a spotlight" on the guard-on-inmate sex abuse that persists on Rikers, even as the city says that it's taking steps to address the problem.
"Rikers, to be frank, is a cesspool," McLaughlin said. "It rots from the top to the bottom. It's no accident that there's a call for closing Rikers, and I think it should be closed if this is the kind of conduct that guards can engage in, and other guards and a captain were witnessing it and did nothing to stop it. That speaks to the culture of the place. It's a culture that encourages violence, condones violence, and finally acquiesces to violence when it happens."