By Ginger Adams Otis
Monday, March 17, 2003
Women in New York prisons filed a class action claiming the state makes it difficult to impossible for victims of sex abuse to make complaints against the prison guards who assault them.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Fifteen female inmates in New York prisons have filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that male guards routinely sexually abused them--and that authorities within the state's Department of Correctional Services ignored the inmates' complaints.
The 15 inmates are claiming that their confinement under these circumstances violates the constitution's "cruel and unusual treatment" clause, says Lisa Freeman, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit legal advocacy organization.
Calls to the Department of Correctional Services were not returned. The Legal Aid Society reports that there will be a summary response hearing on April 1st, at which prison authorities are expected to deny all charges. The case has been assigned to U. S. District Judge Allen G. Schwartz and has been accepted as a class-action.
The inmates, some of whom are still in jail, claim that the guards were guilty of a host of unwanted sexual acts, including forcible rape, sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sexual acts, sexual touching, voyeurism, invasion of personal privacy, demeaning sexual comments and intimidation to deter women prisoners from reporting such sexual misconduct, according to court documents. Many of the 15 plaintiffs in this case allege that they were threatened with a transfer to prisons further away from loved ones if they spoke out against an abusive guard.
The lawsuit seeks an undisclosed amount of monetary damages for the plaintiffs and insists upon a complete overhaul of training and investigation procedures utilized in correctional facilities. Named defendants include supervisors in the correctional facilities and at the highest levels of the state's correction department.
The crux of the case against the supervisors rests on the level of proof required by correctional services department from women prisoners alleging sexual misconduct. The state has relatively strict measures in place for disciplining or removing guards found guilty of abusing female inmates--and some are brought up on criminal charges. Yet it falls upon the victim to provide irrefutable proof, such as DNA or a reliable eyewitness, before authorities will even begin to investigate an allegation, the inmates claim in their lawsuit. It is these standards, the Legal Aid attorneys say, that has left so many women vulnerable to exploitation.
"As Department of Correctional Services regulations exist now, an inmate's word is not enough to convince authorities to investigate allegations of sexual abuse," says Dori Lewis, also from The Legal Aid Society. "Nor is the word of a second inmate. A Department of Correctional Services guard or staff person has to come forward and corroborate the story, and you can imagine how often that happens."
Not very, according to women who've done time in the state prison system. And increasingly, say female inmates, guards go to extremes to insure there is no physical evidence left behind that could incriminate them.
Such was the experience of Lucy Amador, 42, now living in Colombia, where she was deported after being released from jail a year ago. She says in a telephone interview that a sergeant in the Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York routinely assaulted her while she served her sentence for robbery.
"Whenever he passed me and nobody else was around he would say disgusting things to me. Sometimes he'd say things like 'You must be a whore; you're Latina' and other times it was more direct, about my body," she says.
Amador says that, despite the guard's threat that she would lose her privileges if she didn't keep quiet, she kept track of frequency of the incidents and sent detailed letters to correctional services officials. She even sent a letter directly to Governor George Pataki's office. Nothing came back.
Apparently emboldened, the sergeant grabbed Amador and pulled her into an empty room. There, he pulled down his pants and forced her to give him oral sex. When it was over, he told her to wipe up the floor and chair to make sure none of his semen remained. He also inspected her hands and mouth to make sure she wouldn't have any evidence of the attack.
But Amador's attacker left a small stain of semen on her shirt sleeve and, after much pressure from prisoner's rights groups, the stain was tested. Amador had the necessary physical evidence to present to the Department of Correctional Services. The guard was fired and brought up on criminal charges. He served 45 days in prison and is currently on probation.
"While we are pleased that guards convicted of sexual assault against female prisoners do face criminal charges, we just don't think that's enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem," says the inmate's attorney Freeman. "It doesn't address the type of verbal abuse Lucy suffered and it also raises the stakes so that guards are doubly wary of speaking out against another colleague."
Freeman and Lewis say that male guards have unlimited access to female inmates' quarters despite the known risks associated with assigning male staff to female prisons. Male guards have access to shower facilities, bathrooms and dormitories. Amador says guards frequently strolled through the lavatories at Albion and seemed to relish the discomfort they caused among inmates.
The lawyers say that three female inmates in the New York state prison system became pregnant recently, not through conjugal visits but by being forced into non-consensual sex with male guards, which Lewis says happens quite often.
"Sometimes a woman's raped outright, by force," she says "but many times she gives in to stop the bullying and harassment. And then they're told to keep quiet or lose privileges."
Ginger Adams Otis is a correspondent for Pacifica Radio and frequent contributor to The Village Voice.
The Legal Aid Society--
"STATE FAILS TO PROTECT WOMEN PRISONERS FROM SEXUAL ABUSE, LEGAL AID SOCIETY LAWSUIT CHARGES":
Stop Prisoner Rape Campaign:
Human Rights Watch--
"U.S. Department of Justice Bargains Away Rights of Women Prisoners:
Settlement Agreement Lacks Adequate Protections for Female Inmates Sexually Abused by Prison Staff":