Rikers Staff Almost Never Report Inmate Sexual Abuse to the Police

New York's Public Advocate says that claims of sexual abuse by inmates at Rikers Island are basically being thrown in the trash.

Oct 22 2015, 10:20pm

Photo by Aapo Haapanen via Flickr

Last year, inmates at Rikers Island reported a total of 116 allegations of sexual abuse—but according to the Public Advocate for the City of New York, almost none of these claims made it to the police.

New court documents allege that the New York Department of Corrections may be systematically suppressing claims of sexual abuse by inmates. Public Advocate Letitia James says that Rikers Island inmates, particularly women, reported experiencing alarmingly "high rates of sexual victimization compared to jails nationwide." Across the US, 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported sexual abuse—but at Rikers that figure drastically jumps to 8.6 percent, according to Department of Justice data. Not to mention that the majority of the 116 instances—over 52 percent—of sexual crimes at Rikers are perpetrated by staff.

Allegations of sexual abuse at Rikers throughout the years versus inmate sexual abuses reported to the police in 2014. According to the document, "all sexual abuse, harassment and sexual assault data in the above chart represent alleged incidents that are communicated to health staff by patients."

Back in May, two Jane Doe inmates filed a lawsuit against a Rikers guard, Benny Santiago. Santiago is alleged to have repeatedly raped the two inmates and threatened to harm them and their families if they reported the assaults. The two women, who filed the suit anonymously out of fear of retribution, are seeking damages and action from the courts to end abuses at the jail. "This abuse is only possible because, in the face of repeated warnings, the City of New York has enabled a culture of complacency to perpetuate," the official complaint reads. "Correction officers and other staff know not only that women are regularly abused, but also which officers abuse which women, and when and where the abuse occurs."

Read More: Biased Policy Might Be Putting Domestic Violence Victims in Jail

Santiago, in cooperation with fellow guards, allegedly "twice refused to feed [one of the plaintiffs] for over twenty-four hours, prohibited her from bathing for days at a time, and confined her to her cell and placed her in punitive segregation without justification" as punishment for reporting his criminal acts.

The case is now seeking class action status on behalf of all abused women at Rikers. In an affidavit "in support of Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification," James declared that the Jane Does' experience at the jail is grimly typical.

James's office has been investigating the sexual abuses at Rikers since January and, back in April, the office of the public advocate filed a petition to the New York City Board of Correction to enact rules to protect inmates. Although the petition was voted through unanimously in June, no action has taken place.

"Sexual violence cannot be tolerated anywhere in our city—including our jails. Our affidavit proves the disturbing prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse allegations on Rikers Island, along with a stark lack of coordination between corrections and health care workers in the investigation of the incidents," James told Broadly in an email.

Of the inmates at Rikers that report their sexual abuse to the jail health staff, less than 2.5 percent are substantiated—through a vaguely defined process—and reported to the NYPD. According to federal data, this rate is almost five times less frequently than jails nationwide. From 2010 to 2013, the Department of Corrections did list 11 substantiated cases of sexual abuse, according to court documents, but when the Office of the Public Advocate investigated the records from that time period they found that zero correction officers had been disciplined in any way for sexual abuse of an inmate. Santiago is still a guard at Rikers, according to a Huffington Post report in May.

"I have petitioned the Board of Correction to begin formal rule-making to better protect inmates from sexual violence, and they must start tackling this problem with the urgency it deserves," James said.

James's petition calls for the enforcement of the federal Prison Rape Elimination act at the local jail level, the mandated screening for sexual abuse risk (and threat) during the inmate intake process, employee training mandates on sexual abuse topics, and creating rules about hiring and promotion to exclude anyone who has engaged in sex abuse or has convictions for sex abuse from jail employment. None of these measures are currently in place.