On Tuesday, the Board of Correction, which monitors conditions in New York City’s jails, voted to adopt a rule to prevent and address sexual abuse in the city’s jail system. Yet advocates, including those who have been raped while in custody, charge that it does not go far enough.
Rikers Island has been plagued by sexual violence and assault. Sexual abuse in the jail’s women’s unit affected 8.6 percent of the population, compared with 3.2 percent in other jails nationwide.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed, requiring that jails and prisons that receive federal funding adopt and implement rules to address sexual violence. But it was not until 2012 that the Department of Justice published its final rule setting national standards.
After the Board released its proposed rule, it received what amounted to 215 pages of comments from 66 organizations, 66 individuals, and two City Council members. The rule has different timelines for implementing its various provisions. For instance, the department must develop a staffing and monitoring plan for each of its jails by January 31, 2018. But while the department must issue a directive about cross-gender searches by next June, the deadline for training all staff in cross-gender searches and searches of transgender and intersex people is December 2021.
“They haven’t made it tough enough,” said Xena Grandichelli, an advocate with the Jails Action Coalition and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). Grandichelli, a trans woman, was repeatedly raped for four days by another person detained on the island, while officers watched. Grandichelli says she reported the assault on January 3, 2015, but has yet to hear from the office of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark. A spokesperson from the DA’s office did not immediately return a request for comment [see update below].
Grandichelli says that her experience is not unique.
“We get letters daily at SRLP from trans individuals on the island talking about sexual harassment and assault, including from officers,” she told the board. She and other advocates are also troubled by the department’s closure of its Trans Housing Unit, a voluntary housing unit for trans women. Given trans people’s vulnerability to sexual assault, Mik Kinkead, director of SRLP’s Prisoner Justice Project, told the Voice that the unit’s closure will force many trans women to decide between general population (in a men’s unit) or protective custody, which amounts to solitary confinement.
Kathy Morse, who recently spoke publicly about being raped at Rikers, told the Voice that she was extremely disappointed that the board had moved forward with the rule. She’s also deeply concerned that the five-year phase-in plan is too long: “Sexual assault goes on on a daily basis,” she pointed out.
Between 2013 and 2015, there were 294 allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of jail staff. Of those, only five were substantiated, a proportion that the board’s ad-hoc PREA Committee concluded pointed to deficiencies in the investigative process. But the rule continues to place investigations in the hands of the department, which advocates like Grandichelli and Morse find deeply troubling. However, noted board member Bryanne Hamill, the board lacks the authority to require an outside agency to investigate acts at Rikers. “We’ve been assured that the DOC has the capability to do so,” she stated.
Albert Craig, the citywide trustee for the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), does not oppose the rule, but wants it to go further. “We are not advocates of any officers sexually assaulting inmates,” he told the board. “But we want to point out that 51 percent of our officers are women.” These women, he noted, are often subject to sexual harassment and assault, including being groped, fondled, and attacked by the men whom they guard, and should also be included in the rule’s protection.
At the board’s July hearing, DOC Deputy Commissioner Cynthia Brann had expressed reservations about the rule, particularly the timeline for implementation and monitoring requirements, which she called “labor intensive.”
When asked whether the department would be able to implement the rule, Commissioner Joseph Ponte told the Voice that he anticipates a “long, laborious process” that includes staff training, new cameras, and evaluating the safest housing options. “With PREA, you either pass or fail. There is no partial,” he said. But, he added, “we’ll make every effort to comply. This rule is good for corrections and good for the City of New York.”
Update: On Wednesday, Patrice O’Shaughnessy, director of public information at the Bronx District Attorney’s office, stated that Grandichelli had told the ADA that, while at Rikers, a male detainee had touched her breasts. The DA began an investigation, but has not been able to reach Grandichelli. “We can’t move forward unless they talk with her,” O’Shaughnessy said.
When reached for clarification by the Voice, Grandichelli reaffirmed all of the statements that she had previously made about being raped on Rikers Island.