In 2000, Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman, two attorneys with New York City's Legal Aid Society, began going to New York State women's prisons in search of inmates who were experiencing sexual abuse.
Soon after their interviews began, they started to see some patterns. The more inmates talked to Lewis and Freeman, the more the names of certain perpetrators recurred. What made the women's stories all the more credible to them was that many of the repeat perpetrators operated according to a distinctive modus operandi and had a clear preference for women with a particular hair color, stature, shape or other physical feature. "A young woman at reception taken into the laundry room," was one modus operandi. Often, the women had reported these repeat perpetrators. One officer had been reported seven times, Lewis and Freeman found.
The interviewing went on for about three years. They encountered one woman soon after she had been raped at Albion in early August 2001, by an officer that multiple women had allegedly complained to DOCS officials about. The rape resulted in a pregnancy and severe bleeding during bowel movements. The woman reported the incident within a few weeks of its occurrence. The alleged perpetrator—corrections officer Dean S.—pleaded guilty to rape in the third-degree, not forcible rape, in July 2002. (Dean S. served almost three years. He could not be reached for comment.)
Another female inmate had allegedly been raped at Bedford Hills by an officer whom multiple inmates had allegedly identified to prison officials as a perpetrator. In October 2001, she alleges, a correctional officer fondled her, grabbing her breasts. Then later that month, while the inmate was cleaning the kitchen area during a head count, the officer allegedly attacked her again, this time more violently, sodomizing her and raping her, causing her to seek medical attention. In mid-November 2001 he allegedly abused her again, fondling her while everyone else was at a head count. The officer allegedly told her that if she reported him, he' d punish her.
She alleged that when word got back to him that she had been crying in the mess hall, he threatened her again and started locking her in her cell during her free time. Nevertheless, she gathered the nerve to report his alleged transgressions. She says she wrote the superintendent of her prison twice, wrote to her counselor at the Family Violence Program and met with that counselor, told a captain at the prison what had happened, then notified staff from the inspector general' s office. Finally, she says she filed a formal grievance with the New York State Department of Correctional Services. She was waiting for a resolution when she met with Lewis and Freeman. (The officer' s attorney declined to comment, but said via-email "The allegations against [my client] are categorically denied. ") Of the 300 women Lewis and Freeman talked to, 15 initially met their criteria for joining the lawsuit and agreed to participate, including the two alleged victims described above.
The women filed their suit, Amador v. Andrews, in 2003, contesting DOCS system for hiring, training, supervising, monitoring, investigating and firing officers, alleging that it failed to protect them from sexual abuse. In addition to suing 12 correctional officers from four prisons, the lawsuit (named "Amador" for one of the alleged victims) targets 12 high ranking DOCS officials, including the then Superintendent of the Albion prison, Anginell Andrews. Lewis and Freeman tried but failed to get certified as a class action lawsuit. Two of the original plaintiffs have since withdrawn from the case to pursue separate actions.
While interviewing New York State' s female inmates, the attorneys concluded that sexual abuse in New York' s prisons involves a few highly egregious officers, whom Lewis calls "complaint magnets. " "I don't think there' s a zillion bad officers, " Lewis says.
"It' s certainly a minority, " Freeman agrees. "In some instances, there' s groupthink, a small cadre of individuals who are just covering for each other, and in other instances there are a couple of lone bad officers here and there. "
Indeed, the DOCS data reflect what Buffalo attorney George Muscato has to come to believe after representing several correctional officers in connection with allegations of sexual abuse, as well as one current client who maintains he is innocent: "99.5 percent of them are doing a great job, " he says. "They're doing what they're supposed to be doing each day. They go to work every day, and they do a good job. "
Mike Notto, a New York State Police investigator who conducts criminal investigations at Albion, agrees. He says prison employees are no more susceptible to corruption than are people in any other profession. "No matter where you go, there' s always gonna be a bad element, " he says. "When Walmart opens a new store, they create loss prevention programs because some employees will steal. There' s a certain percentage of reporters who get in the corner and twiddle their thumbs while everyone else is working. "
And some former inmates concur that abuse was rare at their facilities. A formerly incarcerated woman, Chrystal Reddick, says she didn't see or hear reports or rumors of sexual abuse during her time at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a prison boot camp in Brocton, about 28 miles from Buffalo, that serves both men and women. Since then, the district attorney with jurisdiction over Lakeview has prosecuted a case involving one officer accused of sexually abusing two to three female inmates. But Reddick says that during her six-month incarceration there for forgery 15 years ago, sexual contact with anyone on the premises didn't seem remotely possible. "Even if you try to have a personal conversation with a DI [drill instructor], they snap back, " in revulsion, she says. "In the facility, you don't just stand there and have a conversation with a DI. And you never look them in the eye. You look them in the shoulder. It was always, 'Sir, yes sir. '"
But Michelle Davenport, who served a 19-month sentence for attempted robbery at the all-female Taconic Correctional Facility beginning in 2007, takes a different view. She says some officers at Taconic were full of integrity and tried to avoid corrupt co-workers because they didn't want to become entangled in investigations. "What I did learn about officers is, if you're having sex with an inmate, some officers ain't with that shit, " she says. "I done seen officers be like, 'Man, take that shit somewhere else.'"
But Davenport says the number of incidents that DOCS substantiates at Taconic is much too low—only five from 2005 to 2009. BJS has never surveyed Taconic inmates about the issue. Davenport says four female officers there propositioned her, but she never had sexual contact with prison staff. Inmates admit that other inmates sometimes fabricate allegations. But there is also substantial reason to believe that many sexual encounters in prison go unreported, either to prison officials or to inmate advocates.
In 1999 a DOCS prison superintendent acknowledged that she might not know the real prevalence of staff sexual abuse in her prison. Elaine Lord, the then superintendent of the all-female Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, testified in a deposition that she believed the number of unreported incidents at her facility during the previous 12 months was greater than the roughly 30 allegations that had been reported to her. Some women denied outright any involvement with an officer during their first interviews with Lewis and Freeman but admitted it during their second or third. The women were reluctant to talk because they feared the attorneys might be undercover DOCS officials and didn't want to become embroiled in an investigation, the lawyers suspect. "Women thought that we would judge them, " says Freeman. "We learned to say, 'We don't judge you. '"
Sometimes women are unwilling to report sexual abuse with staff because they perceive it as advantageous, says Davenport. A friend of hers, she says, got pregnant from a Taconic correctional officer with whom she had willingly had a sexual relationship. The friend refused to identify the officer when prison staff confronted her, Davenport says, because the officer gave money to her and her family.
But sometimes inmates don't report sexual contact with officers because they're ambivalent about it, the attorneys say. For some, this ambivalence is a result of prior sexual victimization. A 1999 study of inmates at Bedford Hills found that 82 percent had been sexually abused before their incarceration. One of the women Lewis and Freeman met had been badly sexually abused by her brother for years. She kept a metal can of tuna beside her bed to fend off an officer who she alleged had propositioned her. But when he flirted with her, she sometimes flirted back, they say. According to Lewis and Freeman, her rationale was, "Part of me wants to say yes. I'm a convicted felon. I don't have any job skills. I have hepatitis. I'm sick. Nobody' s gonna want me. "
Lewis and Freeman decided to file their lawsuit when they realized that alleged perpetrators often had been complained about repeatedly. It appeared to them that DOCS took action against an officer only when the inmate was able to supply physical evidence—such as bodily fluids, a pregnancy test or an incriminating letter—of the sexual abuse. They believed that because few officers were "stupid enough" to leave such traces, perpetrators were generally able to operate with impunity. Some of these doubts about DOCS' handling of sexual abuse allegations concerned not DOCS policies, but labor contracts that governed the agency' s dealings with prison officers. Of specific concern were contract provisions governing suspensions and reassignments—disciplinary tools that advocates believed could be used when an officer was facing investigation, or had a history of multiple, unsubstantiated complaints.
n April 2002, Freeman and Lewis wrote to then DOCS Commissioner Glenn Goord asking the department to explain, among other things, whether it ever suspended or reassigned officers whom they allege had multiple prior complaints. A June 2002 reply from DOCS said it prohibits sexual contact between inmates and staff, trains staff to avoid it and investigates it when the agency receives complaints. In addition, the letter denies requiring that inmates corroborate allegations of staff sexual abuse with physical evidence or a staff member' s confession.
According to the corrections officers' union contract then in place, suspensions could occur only when an officer was facing criminal charges or when there was probable cause to believe the officer was a danger. If an officer was suspended because DOCS believed he was a danger, DOCS was required to issue a notice of discipline within seven days of the suspension specifying the infractions alleged. The officer also could not be reassigned to another prison or another location within the same prison, because the contract prohibited reassignment in connection with discipline.
Data DOCS provided to City Limits indicates that one female officer who worked at Green Haven, a men' s prison 70 miles away from New York City, was transferred to another facility for engaging in sexual misconduct with a male inmate in 2005. So the department has made an exception.
But the most recent union contracts for corrections officers still prohibit DOCS from even temporarily reassigning—to another facility or to a similar job within the same facility—an officer under investigation, even one who allegedly forcibly rapes an inmate. The contracts still restrict DOCS' ability to suspend officers too.
Indeed, constraints that the union contracts impose on DOCS are illustrated by the difficulty that DOCS faced when trying to fire an officer and a lieutenant in connection with substantiated incidents.
The inspector general's office substantiated an inmate's allegations that Taconic correctional officer Frederick B. had sexually abused her after she provided investigators with an intimate physical description of the officer that they believed was incriminating. But during the 2003 trial, Frederick testified that she might have learned the information coincidentally, by hearing him and other officers discussing it. The jury exonerated him. Because the union contracts say an officer facing termination has the right to appeal that termination to an arbitration panel—which consists of three people picked by the officer and DOCS—Frederick appealed it. In 2004, the arbitrators ruled in Frederick' s favor, prohibiting DOCS from firing him.
Frederick returned to work, only to be arrested again in September 2010 in connection with charges of sexually abusing a different inmate. That case is pending. Frederick' s attorneys did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In another case, the inspector general' s office substantiated allegations that former Bedford Hills lieutenant Glenn L. sexually abused a female inmate whose name is not included in court records; in fact, according to records from a New York State Supreme Court case, Glenn confessed. The inmate' s testimony corroborated the confession, and facility records show that the inmate was escorted to some unrecorded destination for 40 minutes at approximately noon on July 4, 2002. But arbitrators ruled that DOCS couldn't fire Glenn because DOCS "had not proven that the admitted sexual contact occurred at the charged date and time, " according to the 2005 opinion of New York State Supreme Court judge Guy P . Tomlinson, who heard the case after DOCS appealed it.
Tomlinson sided with DOCS, ruling that the arbitrators had overstepped their authority by requiring DOCS to prove the charges against Glenn beyond a reasonable doubt. The victory ultimately helped DOCS secure the right to fire the lieutenant. He could not be reached and the state' s two corrections unions did not respond to requests for comment. News reports indicate he was arrested but Westchester County prosecutors refused to divulge the outcome of the case, saying it was confidential. The union contracts and the arbitration process aren't the only shields bad officers hide behind, critics say. They also hide behind DOCS approach to determining whether allegations of staff sexual abuse merit substantiation.
It seems as though women have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an incident occurred just to get the same kind of investigation that a woman on the outside would receive, Freeman and Lewis say. With that high burden of proof, investigators don't give proper weight to credible testimony from inmates, they say, requiring the women to supply corroborating physical evidence or produce employee eyewitnesses. Lord testified in her 1999 deposition that about 20 times during the previous decade she believed that an allegation of sexual abuse should have been substantiated but didn't have the proof necessary to confirm it.
DOCS' investigative methods have defenders. Among them are two district attorneys who each have jurisdiction over a New York State correctional facility housing women and say they are pleased with the way the inspector general' s office executes investigations.
The district attorney of Orleans County, Joe Cardone, has jurisdiction over the Albion prison. DOCS does "a great job, " he says. "It usually starts from an inmate making a complaint. It gets to the administration at the facility. I frankly have yet to see a situation where the administration buried an investigation. " (Cardone, however, was under the impression that DOCS forwards each allegation of sexual abuse to the New York State Police for investigation.)
A June 2010 federal report produced by a consulting firm that interviewed DOCS officials contended that DOCS inmates are not required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the allegations they make. The report says DOCS requires inmates only to prove that, according to the preponderance of the evidence, it is more likely than not that an incident occurred. Cardone says he receives referrals from Albion "all the time" without physical evidence.
But in recent depositions, three investigators with the inspector general' s office described using a burden of proof that sounds very similar to a 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard. In 2007 and 2008, the investigators testified that to substantiate an incident investigators have "to be able to prove that it happened" and that discipline is imposed only when investigators establish that it "definitely" happened. And in November, an inspector general investigator testified in a civil case that without corroborating evidence — such as semen or a letter — she would not substantiate sexual abuse allegations made by inmates alone.
In addition, during investigations, the inspector general' s office still doesn't give adequate weight to similar prior complaints of sexual misconduct made against the same staff member, critics say. Inspector general' s records indicate that correctional officer Donald L. allegedly sexually abused one inmate before sexually abusing another inmate in 2007, says the latter inmate' s attorney, Terence Kindlon. As a result, he was transferred to another area of the prison, Kindlon alleges. "The depositions clearly, unequivocally, indicate to me without a doubt that the state did have notice that this guy was doing this stuff, " Kindlon says.
When she testified in 2005 before the U.S. Justice Department' s Commission on Safety and Abuse in America' s Prisons, former Bedford Hills superintendent Lord concurred that failure to heed multiple complaints caused problems. "Wardens and administrators need to take a lead in identifying and dealing with predatory staff. Their names appear over and over in use-of-force reports or complaints and grievances, " Lord said. "Of course, this issue is complicated by the fact that inmates can lie and misrepresent, the same as anyone else. However, at some point, administrators must move beyond denying that any information from inmates can't be true because of denials by staff. "
DOCS has implemented some new measures to combat sexual abuse since Lewis and Freeman filed their lawsuit. In 2004, for example, Bedford Hills completed a two-year, $3.6 million project to design and install 300 cameras, in line with one of Lewis and Freeman' s recommendations. In 2005 the department also began requiring that all employees (including non-uniform employees) receive initial and in-service training at least every three years about preventing, investigating and responding to staff sexual abuse, Lewis and Freeman say. In June 2010, the agency reported a 54 percent compliance with proposed federal standards regarding staff sexual abuse, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice.
But critics say the prevalence of staff sexual abuse is still too high, citing BJS inmate surveys. In the inmate survey BJS conducted from October 2008 to December 2009, 630 inmates at just six New York State prisons reported being sexually abused during the previous 12 months.
Because inmates aren't allowed to consent to sex with prison staff, the culpability of the staff member is always clear. But some inmates are, at least initially, willing participants.