by Dale Chappell
A female Rikers Island prisoner who was raped by a guard had to sneak DNA evidence of the sexual assault out of the jail to get anyone to believe her story. As a result, the guard, Jose Cosme, was arrested and convicted.
The unnamed prisoner, identified as Jane Doe, had used a T-shirt to clean up after Cosme raped her; she then mailed pieces of the shirt to family members and friends.
“If she hadn’t preserved the DNA evidence from the T-shirt, they never would have taken her seriously,” said Marlen Bodden, one of Doe’s attorneys. “And, of course, Cosme never would have been prosecuted.”
In her subsequent lawsuit, Doe claimed that New York City officials had “long been on notice” that Department of Correction (DOC) employees sexually exploit female prisoners. “The city nevertheless permits a culture of systemic rape, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment of women by staff to exist at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail at Rikers.”
The complaint described the rape by Cosme that occurred while Doe was being held at Rikers for eight months between 2015 and 2016, awaiting trial. Cosme, who was 310 pounds, forced himself on her, ripping her hair out and forcing her to perform oral sex while she banged on the window for help, the lawsuit said. She also described another sexual assault by Leonard McNeil, another guard at the jail, who gave her candy and coffee in exchange for sex. McNeil was not arrested and remains employed by the DOC.
But had Doe not mailed out the DNA evidence, nothing may have been done. The Bronx DA’s Office said it would only prosecute “if we have sufficient evidence to go forward with criminal charges.” Bodden reiterated that fact: “At Rikers Island and at the DA’s Office, they won’t prosecute corrections officers unless there’s DNA evidence, to our knowledge.”
New York City settled another case involving an alleged rape at Rikers for $1.2 million, which accused guard Benny Santiago of sexually assaulting Darcell Marshall, who was being held at the jail for shoplifting in 2013. Santiago was never prosecuted and reportedly still works at Rikers. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.43].
Out of that $1.2 million settlement, Marshall received just $250,000 – her lawyer took $950,000 in fees. When asked about his fees, attorney Alan Futerfas, who has also represented Donald Trump, Jr., said, “no amount can make someone whole in this situation.” See: Doe v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-00117-AJN-KNF.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Rikers Island a “dehumanizing environment” where prisoners come out “more broken than when they went in,” and promised to close the jail complex by 2026. [See: PLN, Dec. 2019, p.24].
Some say that’s too far away.
In 2014 alone, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) arrested 62 Rikers guards for all sorts of crimes. A DOJ survey found that between 2011 and 2012, 8.6 percent of women prisoners held at Rikers were sexually assaulted, including 5.9 percent assaulted by staff members. The national average for all reported prison sexual assaults is 3.2 percent.
The DOC reported 322 allegations of sexual misconduct in 2016, and 274 in 2017. In 2018 there was a 40 percent increase in sexual assaults reported at Rikers, which employs 7,300 staff.
But underreporting is common because prisoners often fear retaliation by guards, thus the actual numbers are likely higher. When Doe reported being raped by Cosme, other Rikers guards refused to let her out of her cell, take her to programs or let her go to medical.
“What you do with someone like her is two to the chest, one to the head, [and] I know how to shoot,” McNeil reportedly said about Doe, calling her a “snitch.”
Judge Alison Nathan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, who presided over Marshall’s lawsuit, said the city and Rikers Island had “a policy of deliberate indifference to the physical and sexual assault of inmates,” and that had the case gone to trial the city would have lost.
In Doe’s settlement agreement, the city and Rikers Island guards said they “continue to deny any and all liability” for the sexual assaults.
“These officers, they know if they commit these heinous crimes, they’re going to get a slap on the wrist, and they’re not going to get fired,” said Redmond Haskins, a spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society. “They’ll be moved around the island, they’ll still collect a paycheck, and they’ll still get a pension.”
Pursuant to the February 2019 settlement, Doe will receive $500,000 from the city, inclusive of attorney fees and costs. Cosme and McNeil each agreed to pay $1,000 in exchange for the dismissal of their cross-claims. See: Doe v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:18-cv-07889-JMF.
“This settlement delivers some justice and further underscores the culture of impunity that exists among correctional staff at NYC jails,” Bodden and Haskins said in a statement. “We hope other people who have suffered similar trauma at Rikers Island or other local jails will speak out and seek justice.” In addition to the Legal Aid Society, Doe was represented by the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.
Cosme pleaded guilty to a criminal sex act in June 2017 and was sentenced to ten years’ probation. He also must register as a sex offender. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.1].
Additional sources: nypost.com, theintercept.com, queenseagle.com
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Related legal case
Doe v. City of New York
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:18-cv-07889-JMF|