Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Law indicate that prison officials never forward many inmate complaints to the prison system's inspector general, who is officially responsible for investigating them. At the seven facilities serving women, 15 percent of allegations lodged from 2005 through 2009 were not reported to the inspector general.
And when DOCS substantiates a romantic relationship between an employee and an inmate, it does not include that relationship in its annual federal tally unless sexual contact has also been substantiated, officials say. The practice of excluding such incidents complies with BJS guidelines, but critics say it masks the state's real prevalence of staff sexual abuse.
In addition, DOCS' handling of one year's recent sexual abuse reports casts doubt on the accuracy of the data it gave the federal government that year. In 2007, the agency reported 47 incidents of staff sexual abuse, then withdrew 23 of them, saying they didn't meet BJS criteria. (DOCS did not allow City Limits to review those 23 cases, preventing us from confirming that they didn't belong in their annual federal tally.)
Advocates for prisoners also criticize DOCS' approach to determining whether allegations of staff sexual abuse are true, saying the burden of proof is too high and that investigators don't give ample consideration to the history of complaints against certain employees. The 79 substantiated cases of staff sexual abuse from 2005 to 2009 came from a pool of some 1,100 inmate allegations. Critics also charge that DOCS fails to appropriately discipline many employees involved in substantiated incidents of sexual abuse. While DOCS points to its record of prosecuting staff who break the law, it did not refer workers for prosecution in 16 of the 44 incidents from2005 through 2009 where the worker ostensibly violated state statutes. And in 15 out of the 60 incidents in which sexual contact occurred between 2005 through 2009, the employee wasn't fired and didn't resign the year that the incident was substantiated. In one case, the only sanction applied was "discipline or reprimand."
Officials from the state's two corrections unions—the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association and the New York State Law Enforcement Employees Union, Council 82 —did not respond to requests for comment.
Hyman doesn't know whether her friend and the officer ever married, but if they did, they would be the exception to the rule. Inmates in romantic relationships with staff often "date" or have sex with them in exchange for relatively benign and inexpensive contraband—such as gum, food from the outside and sneakers. But sex and romance between inmates and staff can have disastrous consequences.
An employee in love with or sleeping with a prisoner compromises his authority to discipline and control her. He may start to show her preferential treatment, bringing her contraband and allowing her to break rules for which he disciplines others. (Or allowing him to break rules for which he or she disciplines others—any combination of pronouns works, since female guards also fall in love with inmates.) Such favoritism can foment violence between inmates.
Mental health experts have argued that staff-inmate romantic and sexual relationships aren't good for the inmates either. If the relationship sours, the inmate can't always physically distance him- or herself from the employee and is subsequently at his or her mercy.
These concerns are especially keen for women inmates. For at least 35 years, legal advocates, prison officials and corrections unions have wrestled over how to protect female inmates from sexual abuse when male officers—who dominated the profession in New York State in 2010, making up 75 percent of prison guards—are given vast control over female inmates' lives and bodies. While staff sexual abuse occurs in men's and women's prisons and jails, it disproportionately affects female inmates, who are a stark minority in the state's prison system. According to DOCS, 25 percent of all substantiated incidents involved female inmates—who constituted a mere 2,500, or 4 percent, of the 58,000 people in custody on Jan. 1, 2010.
According to DOCS data, when female inmates are sexually abused, the perpetrator is almost always a male officer. From 2005 to 2009, all but one substantiated incident involving a female inmate involved a male employee. Over the years, many corrections officers and DOCS officials have been sued in connection with the allegations. The inmates often lose. But occasionally inmates win, as did Donald L.'s victim in August. Another former Albion prisoner won in February when she negotiated a $75,000 settlement of a lawsuit alleging she was raped in 2005 by a corrections officer who pled guilty to sexual misconduct and official misconduct. And in a 2001 inmate victory, a New York State Court of Claims judge found that DOCS was 100 percent liable for the repeated forcible rape of a woman by an officer at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County. The state settled the case by agreeing to pay the woman $225,000.
The trial in one of the other ongoing lawsuits, the one about the affair between Jeanette and Peter, ended in November. The parties are waiting for a judge to decide whether New York State bears any responsibility for what happened to Jeanette. Two more pending cases are expected to go to trial this year.
A major ruling could also be issued this year in Amador v. Andrews, an eight-year-old federal lawsuit filed on behalf of 15 New York State women demanding policy changes within DOCS. The pending suit alleges that the sexual abuse of women in New York State prisons isn't just a series of unrelated incidents perpetrated by prison employees. The Southern District lawsuit alleges numerous ways in which it says DOCS' system for hiring, training, supervising, monitoring, investigating and firing officers fails to protect women. The parties are waiting for an appeals court judge to issue a ruling that could determine whether the case has a chance of securing any changes or will be confined to assessing whether individual officers violated individual inmates' civil rights.
The federal government, meanwhile, is close to issuing national guidelines for preventing sexual abuse in prisons. But states are not required to follow them, and New York State prison officials have taken issue with several of the draft regulations released in 2009. In a May 2010 letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, DOCS commissioner Brian Fischer wrote, "Unfortunately, the proposed standards are based more on academic research than on operational practicalities and will likely contribute to many more years of debate and litigation."