An internal review of sexual abuse at New York City’s Rikers Island jail obtained by the Associated Press, reveals systemic problems in handling complaints, including investigations that blatantly ignored video evidence, failed to keep complainants confidential, and neglected to interview accused attackers.
The federally-funded report, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Moss Group, reviewed all 46 sexual abuse or harassment cases closed by jail investigators in 2014. “In one case an investigation included five paragraphs describing the reasons why the victim was lying, despite video and testimonial evidence that suggested something clearly had taken place,” the report found.
Phone numbers to sexual assault hotlines posted throughout the jails regularly didn’t work, were picked up by answering machines that left no helpful information and, in at least one case, rang to “a private citizens’ phone number,” according to the report.
Inmates who did disclose harassment or abuse allegations via a formal grievance system had trouble doing so confidentially, because the slips of paper they wrote their claims on were sometimes typed up by other inmates who could read their contents, according to the report.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the defunct hotline numbers have been removed from the jails. Last August, jail officials partnered with a national nonprofit, Safe Horizons, to report allegations and provide counseling. A spokesman for the group wouldn’t provide any figures on how many calls its hotline had received in the past year from city jails.
A spokeswoman for the City Correction Department, Eve Kessler, told the AP the report was a “wake-up call, and we heard it loud and clear.”
Last week, the New York City Board of Correction approved a zero-tolerance sexual assault policy informed by the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. (The Moss Group’s report found that few staff or inmates at Rikers had ever heard of the federal law.)
The oversight board voted unanimously in favor of the new city rules, but not before one member, psychologist Gerard Bryant, expressed his cynical dismay: “You can tell staff until you’re blue in the face, ‘Don’t have sex with inmates,’ and it’s still going to happen. OK?”
“As long as we are going to have prisons we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons,” Bryant said. “That’s the reality. That’s what happens.”