MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City reached an undisclosed settlement Monday to resolve claims it tolerated rampant sexual violence at Rikers Island’s women’s prison, though a guard accused of serial rape must still face trial.
“The city is committed to protecting inmates entrusted to its care from sexual abuse and has implemented numerous reforms in this regard,” a spokesman for the city’s law department said in a statement. “We have reached a settlement in principle that is in the best interest of the city.”
Mitchell Lowenthal, an attorney for the two Jane Doe plaintiffs who sued the city, also declined to shed light on the deal, but he elaborated that the award would be “considerable” for both of his clients.
The deal falls roughly a year after U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein denied the women class action status, finding that certification would be “extremely difficult” given the short-term jail’s transient population.
Though the Second Circuit seemed poised to overrule that decision in August, the federal appeals court still had not issued a ruling when the women resolved their claims against the city.
The appeal may now be moot, but the women have not dropped their allegations against corrections officer Benny Santiago.
In one instance, the first accuser said Santiago sexually assaulted her “as many as four times a week,” threatening her with anal rape and threats to her family if she resisted.
With the case slated to go to trial on May 9, the city’s sudden departure appeared to surprise Santiago’s attorney Liam Castro.
“We frankly didn’t expect for the city to bail on us at the eve of trial,” Castro, from the firm Koehler & Isaacs, said.
New York City recently stepped up efforts to distance itself from rampant civil-rights abuses at Rikers Island, revealing plans in early April to shut down the scandal-plagued prison over the next decade.
When the Jane Does here brought their 2015 lawsuit over the Rose M. Singer Center for women at Rikers Island, then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had just ripped the prison for the “Lord of the Flies”-like setting of its juvenile detention center.
The Jane Doe lawsuit accused New York City of turning a blind eye as at least eight officers repeatedly used anal rape to punish inmates, masturbated in the open areas of dormitories, and continued to collect paychecks even after their sexual assaults lead to pregnancy.
Only the claims against Santiago remain pending, and the second accuser recently said she has new evidence against him from the city’s Department of Investigation.
In a pretrial memo filed last week, the women accused city investigators of evidence tampering, destruction and cover-up related to its probe of Santiago from 2014.
That investigation found Santiago had “undue familiarity” with the second accuser. But no action was taken against the guard, even though the finding violates Department of Corrections regulations, according to the April 24 memo.
“Of course, rape and sexual abuse (and providing drugs to inmates) are crimes,” the memo states. “Yet, by conducting a sham investigation and omitting, misrepresenting, or refusing to turn over material evidence that supported Jane Doe 2’s allegations that those crimes took place, DOI ensured that DOC ID lacked sufficient information to pursue any action against Santiago.”
The second accuser said she spat Santiago’s semen on her hand and then wiped it on her jeans. Investigators did not find Santiago’s DNA on that clothing, a fact Cleary Gottlieb attorney Lowenthal blames on a four-day gap in the chain of custody before forensic analysis was performed on May 14, 2013.
Suspecting that officials washed away the evidence before testing, Lowenthal noted that testing did show the DNA on the jeans came from a man.
“They can prosecute this guy right now,” Lowenthal said, referring to Santiago. “They could fire him.”
Santiago, for his part, appears ready to fight the allegations against him.
Judge Hellerstein said he is inclined to let Santiago’s attorney Castro use the accuser’s sex-trafficking and robbery convictions to undermine her credibility.
Since federal rules of evidence forbid using an alleged victim’s sexual behavior against her, Hellerstein warned that Castro will have to tread carefully in how he uses this information.
“We’re not trying character,” he said. “We’re trying credibility.”
Lowenthal noted that when it comes to incarcerated inmates, consent with guards is not possible.