During the first five months of 2016, Rikers Island’s medical staff heard 118 allegations of sexual assault or harassment from people detained on the island, a staggering increase from the 114 reports in all of 2014. Of the 56 reports of sexual assault, 40 involved jail staff. On Tuesday, the Board of Correction held a hearing about its proposed rule to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual harassment and abuse in the city’s jail system. But some advocates, including those who have been sexually assaulted on Rikers, have doubts that it can stem the culture of abuse on the island.
The Board’s 55-page proposed rule comes over a year after Public Advocate Letitia James pointed out that the rate of sexual victimization at Rikers’ women’s jail was 8.6 percent, compared to the 3.2 percent seen in jails nationwide. The proposal also comes one year after two women filed suit accusing eight officers of repeated sexual abuse. While the Department passed a directive around addressing and preventing sexual abuse in its jails, this will be the DOC’s first actual rule to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which requires prisons that receive federal funding to adopt and implement rules to prevent and address sexual violence behind bars.
In addition to preserving video footage for assaults reported within 90 days, the rule requires the Department of Correction to provide emergency medical and mental health services to victims, including access to rape crisis intervention and counseling services by advocates who are not DOC employees. The rule would require the DOC to install prominent visual displays throughout the jail detailing how victims can report their assault, and mandates that supervisors must conduct and document unannounced rounds at “unpredictable and varied times,” and keep data on the effectiveness of the new measures as well as the number of people who received the services.
At least one Board member believes that the rule won’t be effective. “As long as we have prisons, we’re going to have sexual abuse in prisons. That’s the reality of it,” Gerard Bryant, a former associate warden in the federal prison system and the board’s newest member, said at a meeting last month. “We can tell staff til we’re blue in the face, ‘Don’t have sex with the inmates,’ but it’s still going to happen.”
The DOC also has qualms about the proposed rule, particularly the four-page timeline for implementation. While some components of the rule, such as rape victims’ access to outside confidential support services, must be implemented by the end of 2016, most of the deadlines are staggered through 2017 and 2018. At yesterday’s hearing, Deputy Commissioner Cynthia Brann repeatedly called these timelines “arbitrary and capricious.” She also called the monitoring requirements “labor-intensive” that would require significant in-depth analysis. The Department, she said, should be allowed to proceed without the imposition of deadlines that would impede its ability to maintain safe jails.
In response, Board member Bobby Cohen noted that, of the 250 allegations of staff sexual assault and abuse from January to June 2016, only 24 investigations have been completed. “Extended timelines mean that people’s investigations won’t be responded to.”
Riley Doyle Evans, jails services coordinator of the Brooklyn Defender Services, agrees. “The timelines for implementation of rules responding to extraordinary rates of sexual violence by staff no less, are not ‘arbitrary and capricious,’ they are generous in light of the urgency of the situation,” he told the Voice.
The Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), on the other hand, has no objections to the proposed rule. “COBA applauds the Board for making the Department compliant with federal standards,” said Angel Castro, COBA’s Manhattan Borough Trustee. Noting that 60 percent of COBA’s members are women, he urged the Board to also address sexual violence by detainees against female staff.
Noting that trans people are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, the proposed rule also attempts to address this vulnerability by requiring that, in searches, staff “make its best efforts to treat transgender and intersex inmates in accordance with their gender identity.” When deciding on housing, the Department must consider the person’s safety and vulnerability to assault and take into consideration the person’s own views on safety. The rule also prohibits physically examining trans and intersex people solely to determine their genital status.
Kathy M. was at Rikers for less than two weeks in November of 2006 when she was sexually assaulted by four other women in the shower room. After the assault, she lay in her bed for days hoping that no one would notice that she was bleeding.
At first, she did not report the assault. “I was petrified to talk about it,” she told the Voice. “You don’t know who you can trust.” Six months later, she tried to approach the staff member for whom she worked. “She did not want to hear anything,” Kathy recalled. “She thought I had mental health issues and that they needed to fix my medications. I didn’t want to hear why I was crying, upset or why I didn’t want to go back to my housing unit.”
But even if Kathy had reported the assault, not much may have been done about it. A report reviewed the 46 sexual abuse or harassment cases closed by jail investigators in 2014; it found fundamental problems with the thoroughness of the inquiries, including failures to interview all possible witnesses, review video evidence or interview accused guards. The Board of Correction itself found that, from 2013 to 2015, only five of 294 allegations of sexual abuse by staff were substantiated, concluding that “these investigations were significantly deficient in terms of timeliness, thoroughness and objectivity.”
Xena Grandichelli can attest to that. In December 2014, Grandichelli, a trans woman, arrived at Rikers Island. She was placed in the men’s mental health unit, which she describes as “an open bullpen” with security cameras. But the cameras didn’t prevent her from being repeatedly sexually assaulted from December 30th to January 3rd by another person detained on the unit as officers watched. On January 3rd, when another officer returned from vacation, Grandichelli reported the assaults. Over an hour later, she was separated from the man who had assaulted her; that night, she was taken to Columbia University’s Medical Center. She spent less than two days at the hospital, where she was not offered a chance to talk with a rape counselor or seek support services before being brought back to Rikers. “That’s not the hospital’s fault,” Grandichelli is quick to add. “That was the officers’ fault.”
Back at Rikers, she was placed in solitary confinement until prison officials could decide where she could be safely housed. She spent one month locked in her cell 23 hours each day. She was not offered counseling or support services nor was she able to see her sister, who drove in from Westchester to visit. She was then moved to the mental health block and finally to the Trans Housing Unit, then on the island’s North Infirmary Command. (The Trans Housing Unit has since been moved to the Manhattan Detention Center.) In January 2015, Grandichelli went to court, where the charges against her were dropped and she was released.
One and a half years later, Grandichelli’s assailants have yet to be prosecuted. Despite repeated phone calls, Grandichelli has yet to hear from the Bronx district attorney. “If Darcel Clark, as Bronx district attorney, is adamant about prosecuting abuse on the island, why hasn’t she called me?” she asked.
Grandichelli, now with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Jails Action Coalition, points out that she was repeatedly assaulted in a unit with cameras. Kathy M, who subsequently spent three years in the state’s prison system, including Bayview Correctional Facility, which had the nation’s highest rate of sexual abuse behind bars before it shuttered, noted that the presence of security cameras did not stop staff from sexually assaulting and, in one instance, impregnating the women under their watch. “They know where the cameras are,” she noted.
The sentiment is echoed by those who work on the island. One staff member, employed by an outside agency providing services on Rikers, has worked in every building on the island-jail complex. “To implement video monitoring in every area would be impossible,” the employee told the Voice, adding that police body cameras have been known to malfunction, allegedly fall off or be turned off during instances of police violence.
The employee also questions how confidential reporting and accessing confidential support services would be implemented. Movement at Rikers is restricted with people confined to their housing units for most of the day. If they move to another part of the jail, they do so escorted by officers at all times. “There’s no free-flowing movement,” she said. “To go somewhere, you have to be given permission and escorted.”
Grandichelli agrees that the proposed rule doesn’t go far enough. But she notes that, had certain sections already been implemented, such as keeping people at high risk of victimization away from others, her four-day assault could have been prevented. Placement in the Trans Housing Unit upon arrival would have prevented the assault, she said. But the process of applying and approval was too restrictive and time-consuming.
Others agree that certain parts of the rule may keep others from being assaulted. Marcie was 23 years old when she entered Rikers in 1988. Despite having implants and taking hormones, she was classified as male. First, she was deloused with the other newly-arrived men. “I took off my shirt. I don’t know what it is with men and breasts, but it would be like all eyes on me,” she recalled, swiveling her head around and widening her eyes.
But it wasn’t the men incarcerated in her unit who assaulted her. It was the officers. One month after she arrived, an officer approached her and told her that he was taking her somewhere.
“I believed that I was supposed to be going someplace, but as we kept walking, I had that ‘oh!’ moment. We entered this room and the first thing he said was, ‘Let me see them tits.’” She recalled that he began attacking her breasts before opening his pants.
That was not the first time nor was he the only officer who assaulted her. “There were quite a few,” Marcie, who spent more than a year at Rikers, recalled. “I was their sex toy.” She never reported the assaults. “Who would believe me? They had all the power. I had no power. I didn’t know who to talk to or how to begin the process.” Only after she was sent to prison did the attacks stop.
If supervisors were required to make unannounced and unexpected rounds, she believes that staff would not have been able to take her to staircases and unused areas. But, she cautioned, “some of the captains, they just let things go.”
In a statement to the Voice, a spokesperson for the DOC said, “Commissioner Ponte has zero tolerance for sexual assaults of inmates, and we take these allegations seriously. All reports of sexual assault and abuse are investigated thoroughly and expeditiously. 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.” The spokesperson added that the DOC is working to bring their agency into compliance with PREA.
In an open letter to the Board, the Jails Action Coalition sent over 30 suggestions to strengthen the proposed rule, including referring allegations of sexual abuse to outside agencies for investigation and preserving camera footage for at least six months. Over two dozen advocates spent the afternoon waiting to testify and reiterated many of these recommendations. Rachel Weiner, a former DOC investigator, said that the training around sexual abuse consists of a four-hour video “devoid of any practical application” and which left her “bored and confused.” Referring to the recent news of the $1.2 million contract with US Corrections Special Operations Group to provide jail staff with new weapons, including Kel-Tac rubber pellet-firing shotguns, she stated, “If DOC can provide shotgun training to its correctional officers, it can certainly provide rape crisis training.”
The Brooklyn Defender Services also submitted a letter urging the Board to ensure that the rule’s requirements be implemented to protect everyone, including men of all ages. “We encourage the Board to remember while considering new rule-making that sexual violence impacts all prisoners, not just women, LGBTI identified people, young people, or other vulnerable populations.”
Marcie, recalling her time at Rikers, agrees. “Everybody is susceptible to rape. No one deserves to be raped.” The Board will vote on the finalized version of the rule at its September 13th meeting.