In the late 1970s, when Thomas Terrizzi began working as an attorney in the Elmira, New York office of the newly formed Prisoners’ Legal Services, sex between corrections officers and inmates wasn’t an issue that prisoners complained about to PLS, then the only New York organization specializing in prisoners’ rights. The state had very few female inmates then. In fact, some of the correctional facilities that currently house only women then housed men, either instead of women or in addition to them. Cross-gender supervision of inmates (in other words, men supervising women or women supervising men) was rare then, with most female inmates being supervised by women. Since 1955, the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners had banned cross-gender supervision. The men who worked at Bedford Hills before 1976 worked not in the housing units but in areas including the grounds, the school and the library. Men’s prisons also had few female officers then.
Partly because most inmates were men, most of the complaints PLS received then came from male inmates. At the time, one of their most common complaints was that guards were using excessive force. Female inmates complained to PLS so rarely during that time that Terrizzi doesn’t remember handling any of their complaints. “I think women just generally didn’t complain much … out of fear of retaliation,” Terrizzi says.
But in 1976 New York’s prisons underwent policy changes that would reverberate in sexual-misconduct allegations decades later. That year, DOCS—in an effort to comply with the equal employment law codified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—decided to allow male officers at Bedford Hills to supervise the women’s living and sleeping quarters. The first male officers began those jobs in February 1977.
Within months, the opening salvo in the statewide battle to define the parameters of cross-gender supervision was fired, when 10 female inmates filed a lawsuit alleging that male officers’ ability to view them naked in their cells and showers and on their toilets violated their privacy rights.
The first judge who heard the case in federal district court, Judge Richard Owen, concluded that some male officers were indeed viewing the women nude, sometimes as a result of performing their jobs and sometimes while being what he called “Peeping Toms.”
He ordered DOCS to develop a plan that could prevent Bedford Hills’ male officers from viewing the women nude. The policy DOCS developed became the basis for a court order in 1979. It required female guards to be on hand at all times in case there was an emergency requiring privacy; barred male guards from overnight duties that might require looking in female cells; prohibited male guards from working infirmary posts where female nudity was possible; and mandated that male guards give female inmates a five-minute warning before opening their cell doors. Beyond that, male guards were allowed to keep working in women’s living quarters.
Within seven months, the corrections lieutenants’ union and its executive director appealed part of the judge’s order, reigniting the battle over cross-gender supervision. The appeal argued that barring male officers from the female housing areas overnight infringed unduly on the male officers’ fair employment rights. They also argued that the provision would infringe female officers’ employment rights: Removing male officers from night shift duties would bump female officers from preferred daytime shifts, to which they would normally be entitled by virtue of seniority, they argued.
The appeals court judge sided with the union, ruling that female inmates could prevent the male officers from seeing them nude at night by wearing appropriate clothing or covering their windows with a curtain for up to 15 minutes at a time.
That May 1980 appeals court ruling secured for New York State’s male corrections officers fuller entrée into the housing areas of women’s prisons. But for at least 10 more years, it didn't change the nature of the complaints PLS received, which continued to be primarily from men, Terrizzi says.
By the 1990s, Terrizzi began to hear occasionally that a female prisoner or former female prisoner had sued a male officer for damages in connection with allegations of sexual abuse, the first evidence that cross-gender supervision in women's prison was beginning to have some unintended consequences. But even those cases were rare, he says. “Those cases got little publicity. You couldn’t track them, really,” he says.
“They oftentimes would get settled very quickly and wouldn't be on the radar screen.” Not until 1996, when Terrizzi was a PLS supervisor, did PLS receive significant complaints about cross-gender supervision in women's prisons.
One day that year, his office received a letter from a woman at Albion saying that officers had just videotaped her strip frisk, a procedure in which an inmate disrobes and officers search the crevices of her body for contraband. The strip-frisking was being conducted by female officers while male officers stood watching just outside an ajar door. When Terrizzi read it, he was shocked and immediately called the DOCS counsel’s office. An attorney there acknowledged that officers were videotaping some strip frisks and said the officers had permission from DOCS’ central office, Terrizzi says. Video cameras were used only when officers believed they might have to use force to conduct the strip frisk, a DOCS spokesperson told The New York Times. “They were doing it to have a record of the strip search, so there’s no allegations of wrongdoing,” Terrizzi says DOCS explained. “They said it was as much a protection for the woman as for staff, which is pretty outrageous. Obviously the procedure is so humiliating and degrading to begin with for everybody.”
Operating under a consent decree from a case in which male inmates alleged they were improperly strip-searched, Terrizzi gradually found 72 women who complained of the same treatment. He also learned that videotapes of the searches were not stored in any controlled way, he says (A DOCS spokesperson told The New York Times the videos were locked away). Under a settlement, DOCS agreed to pay each victim, of which there were ultimately 85, $1,000. But DOCS did not agree to stop the videotaping, according to the paper, saying they’d done nothing wrong.