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Second Circuit Expands Protections from Sexual Abuse by Prison Staff

In an October 7, 2015 corrected ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by two New York state prisoners alleging they had been sexually abused by a guard who fondled their penises.

James Crawford and Thaddeus Corley, both incarcerated at the Eastern Correctional Facility, operated by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), stated that prison guard Simon Prindle had fondled them while conducting pat-down searches during separate incidents in 2011.

Crawford and Corley complained to Prindle’s supervisors, including the warden, but no disciplinary action was taken despite the fact that approximately 20 other prisoners came forward alleging that Prindle had sexually abused them, too.

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in 2013, but the court dismissed the claim that the sexual abuse constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, citing Boddie v Schneider, 105 F.3d 857 (2d Cir. 1997). The court held that sexual penetration or physical injury was required for a claim of unconstitutional sexual abuse. Crawford and Corley appealed, arguing the district court had construed Boddie too narrowly.

The New York Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, joined by the Legal Aid Society of New York, Legal Services of New York, the Uptown People’s Law Center and the Human Rights Defense Center – PLN’s parent organization – submitted an amicus brief, arguing that the standard established by Boddie was no longer consistent with community standards of decency. The amici contended that “... any intentional contact by a corrections officer with an inmate’s genitalia or other intimate areas that is either unrelated to official duties or involves the intent to abuse, arouse, or gratify sexual desire meets the standard for unconstitutional sexual abuse.”

Other federal circuits, including the 7th, 8th and 9th, as well as several district courts in New York, had held that Boddie was inconsistent with the spirit of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which states that any sexual contact between correctional staff and prisoners not consistent with a correctional purpose is improper.

The Second Circuit agreed, clarifying its decision in Boddie and holding that any “corrections officer’s intentional contact with an inmate’s genitalia or other intimate area, which serves no penological purpose and is undertaken with the intent to gratify the officer’s sexual desire or to humiliate the inmate, violates the Eighth Amendment.” See: Crawford v. Cuomo, 796 F.3d 252 (2d Cir. 2015).

However, following remand the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on September 28, 2016, finding they were entitled to qualified immunity.

“Plaintiffs do not cite – nor does this Court find – clear law at the time of the events in issue establishing that Prindle’s alleged actions constituted an Eighth Amendment violation,” the district court wrote. “To the contrary, Boddie characterized allegations substantially similar to those in the instant case as “isolated episodes of harassment and touching ... [that] do not involve a harm of federal constitutional proportions as defined by the Supreme Court.”

Crawford and Corley have appealed the dismissal to the Second Circuit, and their appeal remains pending. 

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Related legal cases

Crawford v. Cuomo

Boddie v. Schnieder