MANHATTAN (CN) – Five female prison guards who say that male supervisors at Rikers Island demand sexual favors for better shifts, hurl racist abuse at roll call and litter their posts with urine-filled bottles will have their day in court against New York City, a federal judge ruled.
In a phone interview, plaintiff attorney Susan Egan said that top prison officials helped create the “man’s world” at Rikers Island, including Deputy Chief Carmine LaBruzzo and disgraced former Correction Chief Peter Curcio, who stepped down from his post following revelations that he signed off on a bar mitzvah inside the Manhattan Detention Center (a.k.a. the “Tombs”).
In December 2004, Deputy Warden Raphael Olivo allegedly gave plaintiff M.M. a basket of skin lotions, and then visited her post nearly “every morning” to talk about putting them on her. She says he pinned her to the wall, tried to kiss her, undressed in front of her, and made her sit on his lap while removing his pants.
Another plaintiff, E.M., says that Deputy Warden Jose Matos told her to enter his office, while he was naked down to the waist and his zipper was lowered. Even though inmates corroborated her story, Matos was not disciplined and later retired, court documents state.
The plaintiffs say that Equal Employment Opportunity office does not investigate complaints about incidents that have no witnesses, which allows most bias claims to get swept under the rug.
In 2006, an Equal Employment Opportunity report revealed that 112 race discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment claims were filed that year, and only five were substantiated.
According to court documents, an unnamed Deputy Director of the EEO acknowledged that legitimate discrimination complaints were being dismissed.
“[T]here could have been something that was-we thought was so horrific or something that was so specific that it probably did happen, but because the standard was you had to have [corroboration]… we could not substantiate the complaint,” the director said. “And that’s generally what would happen.”
The June 8, 2007 lawsuit catalogues “general allegations of [a] racist and sexist environment” at Rikers Island, which never resulted in discipline.
During one roll call, Curcio and Deputy Warden Robert Cripps allegedly announced that corrections officers should refer to them as “daddy” and “uncle” and should “dance to the drum beat of their masters.”
Egan said that former chief Curcio was oblivious about the offensiveness of his announcement.
“The room was filled when he said it, and there were a couple of complaints,” Egan told Courthouse News. “He simply did not understand why what he said was troublesome.”
At a black guard’s funeral, unnamed white officers allegedly joked that the deceased officer should be buried “like slaves were.”
Captain Matthew Boyd allegedly told one black, female guard to “kiss his lily white ass.”
Even the bathroom policy at Rikers Island discriminated against women, the plaintiffs say.
Officially, a guard cannot leave a post until another corrections officer steps in for relief, and the city insists that the wait time did not last longer than 15 minutes.
In her deposition, though, plaintiff Beatrice Adams said that the wait time depended on “if the relieving officer likes you,” and men avoided the wait time by urinating into bottles that they left littered around their posts.
Although the lawsuit involves alleged discrimination between 2001 and 2007, Adams said that – about a year after she filed the complaint – she developed a medical condition, and guards left her waiting for the bathroom so long that she urinated herself.
On Thursday, Senior U.S. District Judge Frederic Block ruled that the guards’ hostile work environment claims are ready for a jury.
“There are issues of fact regarding whether derogatory comments by supervisors and the bathroom policy at Rikers were so severe as to create a pervasive hostile work environment and whether Olivo’s treatment of Monche was so severe and pervasive that it resulted in a hostile work environment that interfered with her conditions of employment,” Block wrote.
In addition, M.M. can pursue her sexual harassment claim; four plaintiffs can press retaliation charges; and the city must defend itself against “Monell” claims, named after a 1978 case that first established local government accountability for unconstitutional acts.
These claims will hinge on “whether the EEO corroboration policy caused those violations because supervisors believed they could harass subordinates with impunity” and “whether the City was deliberately indifferent to the need,” the ruling states.
An attorney for the guards’ blasted the “miserable” work environment of female guards in a statement.
“Judge Block got it. DOC is a miserable place for women to work,” Egan wrote. “My clients are looking forward to demonstrating to a jury just how miserable male supervisors can make the life of women at DOC who have the temerity to stand up for their rights.”
Lawyers for New York City declined to comment.