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New York Department of Corrections Sued Over Systemic Rape of Women Prisoners

New York Department of Corrections Sued Over
Systemic Rape of Women Prisoners

by Ava Azizi

Bobbie Kidd was raped on August 9, 2001 while serving time in Albion Correctional Facility. She claims she was raped by an employee of the New York Department of Correctional Services and that she became pregnant as a result of the rape.

Kidd's fate is not unique. Other female prisoners in New York have reported similar sexual abuse by prison officials.

On January 28, 2003, the New York Legal Aid Society's Prison Rights Project filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). The lawsuit, filed in the Federal District Court in Manhattan, alleges that the state makes it extremely difficult for victims of sexual assault to make complaints against the corrections officers who attack them, and that the state fails to protect female inmates from assault and harassment by male prison employees.

Specifically, the suit alleges, the DOCS has a policy not to investigate claims of sexual assault based on allegations made by prisoners. The result, for women like Kidd, is that there sometimes has been no avenue for justice even in egregious cases of custodial sexual misconduct.

The defendants in the case, Amador v. Department of Correctional Services, include line guards and supervisors at high levels of DOCS who, according to the suit, "maintain policies and practices which enable male staff to engage in the sexual assault, abuse, and harassment of women prisoners."

Calls to the DOCS for this article were not returned. The plaintiffs are being represented by Dori A. Lewis and Lisa Freeman, members of the Legal Aid Society. The international law firm Debevoise & Plimpton recently joined the case as co-counsel and is assisting with the process of finding expert witnesses and preparing depositions.

Three of the fifteen named plaintiffs were impregnated while in prison. The suit asserts that women prisoners cannot consent to sexual activity with prison staff due to the imbalance of power between officers and inmates, a reality recognized by N.Y. Penal Law 130.05 (e).

Freeman said the majority of female prisoners are vulnerable to sexual abuse in prison because many have been sexually abused before entering prison. According to a study done by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1999, almost half of the women in the nation's jails and prisons told interviewers they had been physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment.

"Those females that were sexually abused as a child are less likely to come forward about the abuse," Freeman said. "There are even some studies that show that some men select their victims based on an ability to discern who will not be able to fend off their advances."

The suit has three causes of action: cruel and unusual punishment; violations of the right to be free from sexual abuse and the right to bodily integrity; and violations of the right to freedom of speech. The lawsuit charges that DOCS supervisors violated the rights of the plaintiffs under the First, Fourth, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendments. "These women should be free from any treatment that would shock anyone in the country," Lewis said.

The plaintiffs allege that DOCS violates their constitutional right to free speech because they are often subjected to retaliation for reporting staff misconduct including lengthening incarceration. Lewis said this is an ongoing problem.

"Many of the plaintiffs are threatened and harassed because [they] are still in custody and many of the defendants are still with the DOCS," Lewis said. "It takes a lot of courage to be a plaintiff in this case while still in prison."

The suit seeks better training and screening procedures regarding prison guards, mental health care for sexually abused female prisoners, and improved investigative procedures.

The attorneys said that in order for the suit to succeed it will need to overcome a motion to dismiss filed by the DOCS.

According to the suit, "hundreds of complaints of sexual harassment and abuse are filed [against the DOCS] each year," and there are many more incidents that remain unreported.

Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization that works to end sexual violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention, has seen cases across the nation whose circumstances are similar to those described by the plaintiffs. In the last year alone, female prisoners in states from Ohio to Wisconsin to Nevada have become pregnant as a result of sexual misconduct by prison guards. And in case after case, the women have been disciplined and segregated, while the guards have faced no criminal charges.

Lara Stemple, the group's executive director, said a culture of indifference prevents some prison systems from recognizing and addressing the severity of the problem.

"Serious policy changes need to be made to eliminate this type of abuse and ensure safe, professional conditions for inmates and officers," Stemple said.

One of the goals of the New York suit, Freeman said, is that type of transformation. "I hope [our case] makes the New York state prisons a safer place for women," she said. See: Amador v. Department of Correctional Services, USDC SD NY, Case No. 03-Civ-0650.

Ava Azizi is an intern with Stop Prisoner Rape, 6303 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 204, Los Angeles, Ca 90048.

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Related legal case

Amador v. Department of Correctional Services