Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman, Leading Advocates for Women Inmates, Discuss Sexual Abuse of Inmates by Correctional Officers with City Limits Magazine
FRIDAY, MAY 13, 2011

Thousands of women inmates are sexually abused in the nation’s jails and prisons, many of these assaults go unreported and the perpetrators receive no punishment. Legal Aid Society attorneys Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman are the leading advocates working to change the procedures of the State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), in order to protect inmates from sexual assault by correctional officers.

Their work is featured prominently in the May/June 2011 City Limits Magazine. Lewis and Freeman have testified before Congress, State legislators, and City officials about sexual abuses in prisons.

In 2000, Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman began going to prisons meeting with women who have been sexually abused. The more inmates they spoke with the more times certain names of guards were mentioned. However, even though there had been several complaints against these guards DOCS failed to take action against the guards unless the inmate was able to supply physical evidence, such as a pregnancy test. Of the 300 women interviewed, they found 15 women who met their criteria and who agreed to join a lawsuit. In 2003, the women filed their suit, Amador v. Andrews, charging that DOCS had failed to protect them from sexual abuse. The lawsuit seeks to change DOCS's policies and practices that enable sexual abuse by correctional staff. Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman are intimately familiar with this tragic problem and the need for strong standards. The Amador plaintiffs allege a widespread pattern of sexual abuse, including forcible rape, by officers, some of whom have been the subject of repeated credible complaints by other women prisoners, yet who are allowed to continue guarding women prisoners, even alone at night in a housing area.

Around the same time, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is the first federal law to address rape in prison. In response, the Department of Justice proposed new standards. However, according to Dori Lewis and Lisa Freeman, these standards will virtually do nothing to help protect inmates from sexual abuse. For example, new standards do nothing to change the union contracts that prevent officers from being moved to a different location of the prison absent of an arbitrator’s finding. This procedure prevents prisons from removing officers that assigned to guarding women. Also, DOCS proposed standards only allow victims 20 days to come forward if they are sexually abused in which to bring a complaint, and it does not require mechanisms such as security cameras in order for complaints of abuse to be proven against the officers word. However, since the filing of the lawsuit, DOCS has begun some new measures to combat sexual abuse. For example, Bedford Hills prison installed 300 cameras, and the department has also began requiring that all employees receive training about preventing, investigating, and responding to staff sexual abuse.

Read the full City Limits article.

The New York Times
Letters to the Editor
Sexual Abuse in Prison
Published: April 17, 2011

To the Editor:

“Better Protecting Prisoners” (editorial, April 7) is right: the Justice Department’s proposed standards to stop prison rape need to be strengthened. But rather than setting a goal of ending cross-gender pat searches, as you suggest, the Justice Department should end them now, absent emergency circumstances, as New York City and some other prison systems have done.

You are also right that an arbitrary 20-day deadline for complaining about abuse must be changed. This deadline is a gift to prison administrators, because it effectively enables them to keep prisoners from bringing their complaints to court. In Legal Aid’s challenge to the sexual abuse of women in the New York State prisons, we have spent eight years litigating about the adequacy of women’s complaints to prison officials without getting to the merits of our claims.

Finally, the Justice Department must mandate video surveillance in medium and large prison systems to deter abuse, assist with investigations and provide needed corroboration of prisoner complaints.

Sexual assault is rampant in our jails and prisons. The Justice Department has the chance finally to make a difference and is wasting it. As a nation we should be ashamed of allowing custodial sexual abuse to continue when it can be stopped.

New York, April 10, 2011

The writers are lawyers with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.