MANHATTAN (CN) — New York City insists that it’s reformed Rikers Island enough to dodge a class action seeking court oversight over systemic rape in the women’s jail, but the Second Circuit sharply questioned that premise at a hearing on Wednesday.
Months after Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara ripped the juvenile detention center there as a “Lord of the Flies” setting, two Jane Does brought alarming claims depicting the island’s Rose M. Singer Center as an equally sadistic environment. The woman who brought the lawsuit said she was sexually assaulted “as many as four times a week.”
Accusing New York City of tolerating rampant abuse by at least eight guards, the women singled out corrections officer Benny Santiago for what they claim to be particularly horrific conduct.
The lawsuit also claimed that the officers repeatedly punish inmates with anal rape, masturbate in the open areas of dormitories, and continue to collect a paycheck even after their sexual assaults lead to pregnancy.
This past January, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein found that certifying the case as a class action would be “extremely difficult” given the short-term jail’s transient population — presenting hurdles that could complicate the women’s quest for compensation for their “serious and troubling allegations.”
Appealing that ruling, the women’s attorney Mitchell Lowenthal told the Second Circuit on Wednesday, “We think that this is a quintessential civil-rights class action seeking institutional reform.”
Lowenthal — a partner at Manhattan-based Cleary Gottlieb — added, “If this plaintiff, who allegedly suffered significant injury, is not entitled to be a class representative, who could possibly represent this class?”
At the roughly 30-minute hearing, a majority of the three-judge panel appeared to sympathize with that position in arguments that largely swirled around what has changed at Rikers since the women brought their claims.
City lawyer Richard Dearing noted that the allegations in the lawsuit took place between 2009 and 2012. He insisted that New York and the nation have made strides toward complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) since that time.
Emphasizing that the women filed their case 2 1/2 years later, Dearing said: “It’s not just the passage of time [that is significant].”
Shortly after the Justice Department issued PREA regulations in 2012, New York City applied for a grant to move toward complying with them. The Department of Corrections got a new commissioner, Joseph Ponte, in 2014, and the city hired a consultant to advise them on the regulations that year.
“All of this is before a complaint is ever filed,” Dearing noted.
Events continued to change quickly after the women filed their complaint on May 19, 2015.
At the time her lawyers filed the complaint, Jane Doe 1 had been eight days away from being released from the Rose M. Singer Center.
The city says that fact undermines her as a representative of the class, but Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler noted that all inmates of the Rose M. Singer Center exit the jail quickly.
“Well, it’s a short-term facility, isn’t it?” she asked.
For Dearing, this showed that the plaintiff has “at best, a peppercorn of standing on the injunctive claim.”
Skeptical, Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch said, “I don’t understand that. You’re saying it’s not typical because there’s this future aspect, and you’re saying that you cleaned up since she was in the jail.”
Disputing that premise, attorney Lowenthal noted that officials have said that sexual assault in New York prisons is, if anything, a growing and underreported problem.
The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported 116 allegations of sexual harassment and assault behind bars in all of 2014.
There have been 118 such reports in the first quarter of this year alone, a correctional doctor told the City Council at a hearing on May 26.
New York’s public advocate Letitia James and nine City Council members filed a friend-of-the-court brief warning the Second Circuit that refusing to certify the class action will have “dire consequences for the vulnerable class members.”
“Allowing these class claims to see the light of day serves the important social purpose of removing stigma and creating an environment where women have less fear of reporting and more confidence in our justice system,” their 18-page brief states.
James, the city watchdog, also filed a separate brief bemoaning that the public’s understanding of the problem suffers from a “lack of transparency” and relies upon only a “patchwork of local data.”
Bharara also blasted the Rikers Island’s secretive culture in a lawsuit targeting excessive force in the juvenile prisons. The case eventually led to a settlement with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in October.
Meanwhile, Lowenthal said, impunity inside the city jails and prisons persists.
“What we’re going to try is the conditions in the jail, and there continue to be reports even as we speak of women being raped in the Rose M. Singer Center,” he said.
On a systemic level, Rikers still has not tackled the basic reform of the gender of the guards, Lowenthal said.
“None of these rules change the fact, the alarming fact, that men guard the women,” he said, calling this “bad policy.”
He added, “Further, we think state law mandates that women guard women.”
As the hearing ended, the panel reserved decision and Judge Pooler thanked the parties for their “lively arguments.”
Photo: Brittney Kathryn Knapp
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