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The Unspoken Rape Crisis at Rikers Island

Sep 24 2015 9:00 PM
The Unspoken Rape Crisis at Rikers Island

Photo via Flickr/Babak Farrokhi

A recent class action lawsuit alleges a culture of sexual abuse runs riot at the notorious jail.

VICE is looking inside America's prison system in the week leading up to our Special Report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9 PM EST to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

The innocent women raped and assaulted at Rikers Island Correctional Facility are not special—stories about prison rape have been a part of the American psyche for years. On a hot July morning this year, for instance, a judge heard the first of many hearings in Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 vs. the City of New York and Benny Santiago. According to the class action lawsuit, a guard named Benny Santiago repeatedly raped the two anonymous women in the suit.

"Usually no one shows up for these kinds of hearings," says Kelly Grace Price, a former inmate on Rikers Island. But activists from the New York City Jails Action Coalition had gathered in the courthouse for this hearing. A rape epidemic exists in our prisons and jails. In March, the Nation reported that "32 people per 1,000 were sexually abused in jail; forty people per 1,000 were sexually abused in prison; and ninety-five youths per 1,000 were sexually abused in juvenile detention facilities," between 2011 and 2012 according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.

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Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and the Legal Aid Society filed the complaint in May 2015. The lawsuit chronicles the harassment of Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, alleging that Santiago punished the women for non-compliance with anal rape and threatened their families. In the case of Jane Doe 2, Santiago allegedly had other guards deny her access to food and showers when he thought she might have snitched on him. The last rape was reported in May 2014, according to the lawsuit, but further action won't be taken in this case until the spring of this year. "Because it's a federal class action suit, the plaintiffs have the right to suggest changes to the environment," said Mik Kinkead, an attorney at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a firm that works with incarcerated individuals and represents transgender and gender-nonconforming people regardless of income or race.

The only thing unique about the case is that it made it into a courtroom. For most of the incarcerated women at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, sexual assault is extremely common, but it is rarely reported for fear of retribution. According to public advocate Letitia James, statistics show that the "Rose M. Singer Center [in Rikers] is one of the nine worst jails" in the country. She said that 8.6 percent of incarcerated individuals reported sexual abuse. The national average is 3.6 percent. The suit seeks more than monetary compensation for the two victims named: Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 have asked for systemic changes to the operation of Rikers Island, calling for more cameras and oversight and for a real zero-tolerance policy.

Allegations about systemic corruption at Rikers aren't new. Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2's stories belong to a long list of heinous offenses that have leaked out of Rikers in the last few years. In 2014, US Attorney Preet Bharara joined a class action suit against Rikers for the unconstitutional treatment of adolescents, as outlined in a Justice Department report after a two-and-a-half year investigation. (The city agreed to a settlement.) At the same time, the New York Times published a series of investigative reports on the abuse at Rikers.

Cecily McMillan, a 26-year-old white Occupy Wall Street activist, knows the jail's corruption well. She ended up at Rikers after authorities arrested her for elbowing a cop in the face during a chaotic scuffle at an Occupy protest. McMillan remembers rampant sexual abuse at Rikers. "The doctors are far worse than the guards," she says. "Three women in the dorm had doctors stick their hands in their vaginas, claiming that their chromosomal charts were off and that he needed to perform a private examination of their vaginal areas to determine whether they were men or women." She says inmates even warned her off one particular doctor, whom one of the jailhouse nurses called "Handsy." McMillan says that some accused sex workers would trade sexual favors just to get their medication.

While at Rikers, McMillan says she also reported multiple complaints, including the medical neglect that led to the death of one inmate Judy Jean Caquias. Another inmate, McMillan says, was ignored while she was "bleeding from her vagina for hours" and calling for help, screaming that she was having a miscarriage.

"Your agency as a person flies out the window," McMillan says. "Your body is not your own. At any point somebody can tell you to get naked, and you have to do it. They can tell you to squat and cough, and you have to do it." Guards allegedly routinely cat-called McMillan, calling her a "bitch, slut, cunt, hoe."

"That becomes your name," McMillan says. According to her account, one guard allegedly called her a "white, cunt bitch" and then slammed his badge into her face, and McMillan's body against the wall. Her infraction had been to glance at his badge after asking to speak with the pharmacist for a moment longer. "He started to come at me again with his hands up," McMillan says, but a female officer stopped him.

Male guards have also assaulted female correctional officers. Robin K. Miller, a former correctional officer turned activist, started speaking out earlier this year about the sexual harassment of female guards and her own experiences working in the C-76 building—now known as the Eric M. Taylor Center—at Rikers. "My class (1983) was the first class of female guards to go behind the gate in the housing units," she says. (Today the female guards have duty walking the floors of the men's jails.) "When you first come in there, you're a target, you're like meat on a slab. Officers are constantly coming at you, trying to [hit on] you, trying to date you. If you don't date them, they become physically abusive."

She says that the male officers "could make your life a living hell" if you didn't comply. Miller's sister, who died the day after Miller "came off the books," in 2005, had been hooked on crack while working as a correctional officer. Robin remembers many officers "were always getting high" on everything from weed to cocaine. She said that there was a culture of smuggling drugs into the jail by other guards. "You do have good officers in there, but the bad ones outweigh the goodness that any of us try to do."

Letitia James has petitioned the NYC Board of Correction with proposed reforms akin to those requested in the Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 suit. "It would mandate increased staff training and background checks, cameras," she says. "It would separate adolescent inmates from any contact whatsoever with adult inmates," and much more. The board unanimously voted to move forward with the proposal, but that happened in June, and changes take months and sometimes years. "We all know that for far too long they have turned a blind eye to sexual victimization," James says. Her office gets an alarming number of calls every day from inmates and their families, reporting abuses beyond reason. "The data is grim," she says, "I'm hoping that the Board of Correction moves expeditiously in passing this law."

If reform doesn't come soon, more lives will continue to be ruined for petty crimes. Many people on Rikers are there for minor offenses, and according to Robin Miller, there is no effort to separate inmates by arrest record or charges. McMillan was on Rikers Island with a felony. She says, "My charge was by far worse than the charges most of the other women I knew had."

"You could end up like Felicia," McMillan says, "the inmate who would throw feces, smear feces on herself, put it in her mouth, and spit it out." McMillan said she would encounter this woman every time she had to pass through the booking room to and from a court date. "What had to happen to this woman that she is willing to put her own feces in her mouth and cover herself in it just to ensure nobody would touch her?" McMillan said.

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Mayor De Blasio and the Department of Correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have promised sweeping reforms including the end of the city's contract with Corizon Health, Rikers' notorious medical provider, to stop people from facing what McMillan has reported. For many inmates the reforms need to come faster. People are even calling for the complete shuttering of Rikers.

"It could be very hard to change the culture of violence on Rikers," Kinkead said. "We don't need to house that many people in jail." McMillan remains pessimistic about what reforming or closing Rikers would do but said, "I think it would make a lot of folks sleep better at night." Most advocates, of course, would prefer closing Rikers for good and jailing people in locations closer to their families. As Letitia James said, "We encourage people to keep a constant line of communication open with their incarcerated loved one."

For Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, the city policy and tabloid journalists' interests aren't enough. Now organizations like the Jails Action Coalition, the Urban Justice Center, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are trying to push the case and problems at Rikers into public view. Shutting down Rikers won't fix America's massive incarceration problem, but it would be a really good place to start.

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