MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City has allowed the Rikers Island jail to become one of the nation’s worst settings for horrific and “endemic” rape and abuse behind bars for women awaiting trial, a federal class-action lawsuit alleges.
Months after its juvenile prison faced federal prosecution for its “Lord of the Flies” setting, Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC) might face the same reputation based on the allegations of an alarming complaint.
Two Jane Doe women incarcerated there allege that corrections officer Benny Santiago and “at least seven” unnamed guards inflicted horrific abuse on numerous inmates.
In 39 pages, the lawsuit depicts an environment where 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.
Their Legal Aid Society attorney Seymour James said in a statement that New York’s Department of Corrections has seen “record proportions” sexual violence that is “endemic” at this women’s jail.
“According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, RMSC is one of the 12 worst jails in the country regarding rates of staff sexual misconduct,” James wrote. “Nationwide, 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported sexual victimization, but at RMSC the rate was 8.6 percent, and sexual victimization rates were higher at RMSC than at the other Rikers jails in the survey. According to the DOJ survey, approximately 5.9 percent of RMSC inmates reported sexual abuse by staff.”
Sexually assaulting his first accuser “as many as four times a week,” Santiago punished her with anal rape and threats to her family if she resisted, according to the complaint.
“Santiago knew where Jane Doe 1’s mother lived, and would park his car outside her home, observe Jane Doe 1’s family, and later report his observations to Jane Doe 1 – reminding her to ‘make the right decision,’ and implicitly threatening her family,” the complaint states. “Santiago also kept Jane Doe 1 from resisting or reporting his sexual abuse by threatening that after she was released, she would live with him, keep his house clean and ‘never go anywhere.'”
She claims the abuse persisted during various stints of incarceration between 2009 and 2011.
Late in 2012, the second accuser entered the same prison and she says Santiago first started sexually abusing her in February 2013.
If she reported him, Santiago allegedly warned: “I can get you set up. I can get you fucked up.”
Breaking down into tears, the second accuser told a mental health counselor but the inspector-general investigation that followed yielded no results other than the guards calling her a “snitch,” according to the complaint.
She claims that Santiago left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease.
Both women claim that Santiago refused to wear a condom.
Legal Aid lawyers assert that Santiago was still a corrections officer there at the time the complaint was filed on Monday.
A Department of Corrections official said in an email on Wednesday that the “officer in question is currently on modified duty.”
“Officers on modified duty do not interact with jail inmates,” the official said.
The lawsuit disguises the names of “at least seven” other officers accused of misconduct.
Of this group, one of them impregnated an inmate, and two of them “may have impregnated” another, according to the complaint.
“Corrections Officer 3” is described as having raped “at least one woman” with impunity, but received a three-year sentence for smuggling marijuana into the prison. The charge and sentence match the description of a recent high-profile case in New York.
A Department of Corrections representative declined to comment on the specific allegations.
“Speaking generally, DOC has a zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual abuse and assault, and there is no place at DOC for the mistreatment of any inmate,” the representative said.
On a literal level, there a several places in the prison for inmate mistreatment, the complaint alleges.
Legal Aid lawyers say that much of the abuse alleged occurred in areas without video surveillance.
In an unrelated case, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara also charged that the city’s negligence and inoperative cameras enabled Rikers abuse at juvenile facilities, but he had no comment on the Legal Aid case.
City spokesman Nicholas Paolucci commented that “the lawsuit will be reviewed once we are served.”
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