One day in the visiting room of New York State's Albion Correctional Facility, LaTrisa Hyman heard her friend and fellow inmate shriek, "He proposed to me! He proposed to me!" Looking across the room, she saw her friend's elated new fiancé, still on one knee, saying, "She said yes!" The bride-to-be was beaming. She had told Hyman, during previous walks in the recreation yard, that she was in love, but Hyman didn't expect her engagement. Hyman and the other inmates jumped up from their tables to rush over to the couple and congratulate them but sank back into their seats when the correctional officers guarding the room began yelling at them.
The officers needed to maintain order in the room, but their reaction may also have been colored by the identity of the man asking for the inmate's hand: He was one of their own—a correctional officer.
"Sit down!" they yelled.
Thirty minutes later, when visiting time ended and the inmates queued up to return to their housing units, the newly engaged inmate showed Hyman the ring, a gold band with a sparkling, roughly half-carat diamond in the center and smaller stones along the sides. The bride-to-be explained that her intended was retiring from his job in one week, would most likely be able to avoid discipline for having what prison officials considered an inappropriate relationship with her and was already entitled to his pension either way. The bride-to-be also told Hyman they'd never had sex, an act that would have been a crime.
Jeanette P. also got a ring from a correctional officer while doing time in a New York State prison, and they did have sex—regularly for about two years. She and the officer, Peter Z., fell in love at Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison on the West Side of Manhattan. Other inmates knew they were having a romantic relationship. One saw him leaving her room with his shirt untucked and scolded him, "Fix your clothes, boy!" But by the end, Jeanette alleges, he was hitting her, and she was afraid to report him to prison officials out of fear he would harm her more.
Sexual encounters between inmates and officers can also begin violently, with officers forcing inmates who have never loved them or wanted to have sex with them to submit. That's what a former inmate alleges happened to her at Albion Correctional Facility in 2007, and in August federal judge David G. Larimer agreed. (City Limits is referring only to inmates and officers who have been named in previous media accounts). On two occasions, once in May and once in June 2007, the then officer, Donald L. asked her to report to a school building to clean it. When she arrived each time, Donald tried to rape her, the judge found. One time, Donald succeeded, ripping her clothes and bruising her, the judge said. Citing her substantial emotional and psychological suffering—including anxiety, flashbacks, hopelessness and trouble resuming a healthy sexual relationship with her husband—the judge in August ordered Donald, who never showed up in court, to pay the inmate $500,000 in damages. In an earlier criminal trial, Donald pleaded guilty to third-degree rape, not forcible rape.
Last month, officials from the New York State Department of Correctional Services, or DOCS, were summoned to Washington to testify before a federal panel. The subject: inmate allegations of sexual abuse by prison guards. When surveyed anonymously in 2008 and 2009, 11 participating U.S. correctional facilities posted the highest rates of inmate alleged staff sexual abuse. Three are New York prisons.
One New York State prison—Bayview Correctional Facility—has the highest rate of inmate-alleged staff sexual abuse in the country. With 11.5 percent of inmates there reporting it in 2008 and 2009, the prison's rate of inmate alleged sexual abuse was more than five times greater than the national average for women's prisons, 2.2 percent.
About 57 percent of the participating Bayview inmates alleged being forced into the sex or threatened with force. Also calling on DOCS to account for its prevalence of staff sexual abuse are the inmates themselves. The state of New York is embroiled in at least five inmate-initiated federal or state lawsuits about the issue, and for the past eight years, two New York City Legal Aid Society attorneys have been demanding, through a federal lawsuit they filed on behalf of 15 female prisoners, that DOCS implement changes.
Through spokesperson Peter K. Cutler, DOCS officials declined to comment for this story, but they have defended their policies and practices in various forums. A 1996 New York State Law holds that any person in custody in a New York State correctional facility cannot consent to any sex act with an employee who provides custody, medical or mental health services, counseling services, educational programs, or vocational training for inmates. A 2007 law expanded the definition of employee to include any person, including volunteers and contract employees, providing direct services to inmates. DOCS has sought another expansion that would apply the law to all DOCS employees. DOCS has taken action against several officers who have broken this law. According to the agency, between 1996 and 2002, 19 male prison employees were convicted of violating it.
In addition, DOCS has attempted to combat staff sexual abuse by implementing several new measures over the years, including the placement of surveillance cameras in prisons. DOCS has maintained in court proceedings that it appropriately hires, supervises, trains and fires prison employees who don't follow the rules and the law.
And data that the agency has reported to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, or BJS, suggest that DOCS keeps officers in line. The bureau defines staff sexual abuse as all sexual contact—including that in which an inmate is a willing participant—and all verbal sexual harassment and voyeurism. According to DOCS, abuse is rare in the state's facilities—with only 79 substantiated incidents from 2005 through 2009—and rarely involves force or threats of force—six incidents during that time period. At Bayview, DOCS reports that there were two substantiated incidents of staff sexual abuse during this time, and one of them, in2005, involved physical force.
But a City Limits investigation found that DOCS' official numbers may not tell the whole story.