The Legal Aid Society and Debevoise File Federal Class Action on Behalf of Women Prisoners Sexually Abused by Correction Officers New York

The Legal Aid Society along with the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP today filed Jones v. Annucci, a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of women prisoners alleging they have been sexually abused in the custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision ("DOCCS"). Plaintiffs seek an injunction requiring DOCCS to take necessary steps to prevent women in its custody from being sexually abused by male correction officers.

The lawsuit alleges that a culture of indifference exists within DOCCS women's facilities that allow sexual abuse by staff against prisoners to flourish. The lawsuit also alleges that, despite awareness of the pervasive problem of staff sexual abuse, DOCCS has failed to protect women in its custody by failing to enact and enforce adequate policies and procedures concerning supervision of officers, the investigation of complaints of sexual abuse made against officers, and the ability to appropriately discipline officers.

Under DOCCS policies, officers are not subject to any greater supervision and are allowed to maintain their job assignments even when they have been the subject of repeated and similar allegations of abuse. Correction officers are not thoroughly searched upon entering the facilities and are able to bring in contraband such as drugs and alcohol, which, the lawsuit alleges, they may use to manipulate and coerce prisoners. Further, the lawsuit alleges that there are no cameras in areas frequently used to commit abuse, and investigations are unprofessional and inadequate. In addition, the complaint states that DOCCS fails to protect women who report sexual abuse from retaliation by correction officers.

The six plaintiffs in Jones v. Annucci represent the estimated 2,300 women prisoners in DOCCS custody, all of whom, the lawsuit alleges, face a substantial risk of sexual abuse while in DOCCS custody. The last time that women prisoners were included in the Department of Justice Statistics on sexual victimization in prisons, New York state prisoners self-reported the highest rate of staff sexual abuse in the nation.

"Staff sexual abuse is a serious problem in New York's women's prisons." said Veronica Vela, Staff Attorney in The Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project. "DOCCS claims to have a zero tolerance policy to sexual abuse in its prisons, but as we allege in the Complaint, that policy is zero tolerance in name only. The Department has long known of ways to reduce the risk women face in its prisons but fails to take needed measures to protect the women in its custody. We hope that our case can accomplish what years of individual litigation, arrests of officers and legislative efforts have not."

Lawyers handling the case for The Legal Aid Society include Justine M. Luongo, Dori Lewis, and Veronica Vela. Lawyers handling the case for Debevoise and Plimpton LLP include Amanda Bartlett, Christine Ford and Cindy Unegbu.

The New York Times
Suit Alleges Persistent Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in New York State Prisons
By Benjamin Weiser
Feb. 25, 2016

Sexual abuse of female inmates is persistent in New York State prisons, six female prisoners claim in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Even if abuse is reported, the women claim, corrections officers are so unlikely to be disciplined that they openly disregard policies on such behavior.

The lawsuit also claims that the system for investigating complaints of staff sexual misconduct in women’s prisons is inadequate and puts women who report abuse at risk of retaliation.

Despite the purported “zero tolerance” policy of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the suit alleges, a culture has been created that is “functionally indifferent” to the risk of abuse. It is allowed to “persist and flourish,” the suit says, in violation of the inmates’ rights.

The lawsuit, which is replete with detailed allegations of guards involved in forcible sexual intercourse and other forms of sexual misconduct, verbal threats, harassment and voyeurism, seeks class-action status on behalf of all current and future inmates at the three all-women’s prisons operated by the department: the Bedford Hills, Taconic and Albion correctional facilities.

A department spokesman, Thomas Mailey, said the agency “takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously.” Though the department does not comment on pending litigation, he said, it “thoroughly investigates each claim expeditiously to ensure that appropriate action is taken against any perpetrator in violation of the law or agency rules.”

Of the state’s total inmate population of just over 52,000, about 2,460, or 4.7 percent, are women, the department said.

The suit identifies plaintiffs as Jane Jones 1 through 6 and officers by letters of the alphabet. In one case, the suit accuses “Officer C” at Bedford Hills of sexually and physically abusing and harassing a 28-year-old plaintiff for about a year. The abuse included repeated acts of sexual intercourse with the officer, to which prisoners are not legally able to consent, the lawsuit makes clear.

At one point, Officer C choked her, leaving bruises on her neck. On other occasions, he grabbed her violently by the wrists and pushed her against the wall, the lawsuit says. It adds that an investigator eventually told the woman that no action would be taken against Officer C “because nothing was caught on camera, there was no DNA, and because ‘inmate statements were not worth that much.’”

Lawyers for the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, which is bringing the case along with the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, said the suit was part of a renewed effort to address continuing sexual abuse of female prisoners.

The suit comes amid growing evidence of widespread brutality and corruption within the state prison system. In June, two murderers escaped from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., setting off a three-week manhunt that cost millions of dollars and terrorized the local population.

A subsequent investigation by The New York Times documented allegations by other inmates that guards had severely beaten them and choked them with plastic bags while seeking information about the escape.

A Legal Aid lawyer, Veronica Vela, said the six women who agreed to be plaintiffs in the sexual abuse suit “all felt strongly that they wanted things to change and that they didn’t want to seek remedies for just themselves.”

“They wanted things to be different for other women,” she added.

Their message, Ms. Vela said, was: “This is not part of my sentence. I was not sentenced to be abused by officers.”

The lawsuit names the department’s acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, and four other officials as defendants. Guards are not named as defendants.

The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, does not seek damages. Rather, it asks a judge to oversee the development of remedies to end what it calls the “pattern of sexual misconduct” at the women’s prisons, where the plaintiffs are housed. It also demands changes in how the department investigates complaints and disciplines officers.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers obtained an order from a judge, Paul A. Engelmayer, allowing the women to proceed anonymously in the lawsuit, to protect their privacy as sexual assault victims and shield them from retaliation, as Legal Aid had requested.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on February 26, 2016, on page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Female Inmates’ Suit Says Sex Abuse Is Persistent in State Prisons.