Sexual Assaults Are Worsening a Crisis at Rikers, Jail Officers Say

Female officers, who make up nearly half of the uniformed staff at New York City’s jails, said they were at particularly high risk of being attacked.

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One female correction officer was attacked and choked by a man who had been convicted of sexual assault. Another, a veteran officer who had worked at the Rikers Island jail complex for more than 15 years, was groped as she escorted detainees through a crowded vestibule. A male officer said a detainee had grabbed his genitals as he tried to cajole the man into a cell.

New York City’s jails are facing a critical shortage of staff that is contributing to violence and lawlessness at the facilities, and officers say sexual harassment and assault by detainees are compounding the crisis.

Female officers, who account for almost half of the city’s active correction officers, are at particularly high risk. Male officers are affected as well, but may be less inclined to speak out because of shame and stigma.

“I didn’t sign up to be someone’s punching bag,” said the officer who was choked, a 34-year-old single mother who has continued to work since recovering from Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic. The New York Times is withholding her name to protect her privacy.

The Correction Department and the officers’ union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, say they are making new efforts to track and address sexual assaults against jail workers. There have been 24 such reports so far this year. Neither the department nor the union reported data on sexual assaults separately from other types of attacks before this year.

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“Sexual violence against our dedicated personnel is absolutely unacceptable,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement. “We are working with the Bronx D.A. and labor unions to ensure that victims of these heinous assaults receive the justice and support they deserve.”

The cases this year involved 19 allegations of detainees sexually assaulting uniformed correction employees, according to department data. All but one of the employees were women. Nine arrests have been made in connection with the allegations, the department said; three more are expected next week.

The other five cases involved accusations of detainees sexual assaulting female civilian staff members. So far, one arrest has been made in those cases.

The department said it was increasing its efforts to address sexual assault under the leadership of Sarena Townsend, a newly appointed deputy commissioner. Ms. Townsend leads the Correction Intelligence Bureau, which oversees investigations into criminal behavior at the jails. She was previously a sex crimes prosecutor with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

The department said it was also strengthening its trauma support services and was sharing data related to sexual assault and harassment in leadership meetings.

The Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, oversees the Rikers Island Prosecution Bureau. Ms. Clark told the City Council last month that since grand juries reconvened in March, the bureau had issued indictments in 45 cases involving assaults on Rikers staff members and assaults by detainees on other detainees. About 325 investigations involving assaults on staff members remained open, Ms. Clark said.

She warned that prosecution alone could not stop the crisis and that increasing staffing levels was “crucial to stabilizing Rikers.” She urged the Correction Department to act swiftly to restore order.

“The situation is urgent, life-threatening and unconscionable,” Ms. Clark said. “We cannot afford to wait for another incident.”

At a news conference outside the Rikers complex this past week, two lawmakers vowed to take action to increase penalties for sexual assaults and harassment of correction officers.

Adrienne E. Adams, a Democratic City Council member from Queens, said she would introduce a bill requiring the Correction Department to publicly report statistics on sexual assaults at the city’s jails.

She said she would also introduce a resolution calling on state officials to make forcible touching of a correction officer a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and classifying aggravated sexual harassment of a correction officer, including verbal abuse and lewd gestures, as a misdemeanor rather than a civil infraction.

“We don’t tolerate this kind of behavior in corporate America,” said Ms. Adams, whose mother was a longtime correction officer. “We can’t allow it to continue to happen to correction officers.”

Assemblyman David I. Weprin of Queens, a Democrat who leads the correction committee, said he would introduce legislation to increase the penalties.

The Correction Department said it supported the changes. A spokeswoman for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said the governor’s office would review the legislation.

“Governor Hochul has zero tolerance for any sexual harassment or assault, and we will review the legislation and work with the legislature to protect New Yorkers,” the spokeswoman, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said.

Keisha Williams, who became a correction officer in 2000, was elected to the union’s board last year, as were Antoinette Anderson and Ashaki Antoine. Together, the women decided it was time to call attention to the longstanding issue of sexual harassment and assault in the jails, and they took the matter to Ms. Adams.

Anna Watts for The New York Times

“We’re seeing too many women that are being sexually assaulted or harassed and no one’s doing anything about it,” Ms. Williams said in an interview. “If we were in the street and this took place, they would not brush it under the rug.”

She said the department had failed to address or deter such crimes. She said she had been groped about four years ago while escorting detainees to a housing area at Rikers Island.

“My heart dropped,” she recalled.

She was left shaken, questioning and blaming herself, although she came to understand that what happened was not her fault.

The episode, she said, underscored the psychological toll that working in a jail can cause. Union officials said female correction officers regularly endured verbal abuse and were exposed to men masturbating and tossing fluids.

Ms. Williams and her colleagues invoked the #MeToo movement, which raised public awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace. The women said correction officers, most of whom are people of color, had been left out of the conversation. Benny Boscio Jr., the union president, called for an “Us Too” moment.

The union and the city have been locked in acrimony as conditions at Rikers have worsened. The union filed a lawsuit in July accusing officials of creating an inhumane work environment at the complex during the pandemic. The city then sued the union, accusing it of instigating a work slowdown. (The city later dropped its suit.)

The Correction Department employs more than 7,000 officers and had nearly 5,550 people in custody as of this past week, according to official data.

The correction officer who was choked said a detainee had lured her into a pantry area in June 2019 and then attacked and strangled her. She said she believed he was trying to rape her and that she fought back as hard as she could until other officers and detainees came to help her. She said she still felt the effects of the neck, back and ankle injuries she sustained.

“I said, ‘I cannot die right here,’” the officer recalled. “I cannot miss my daughter’s birthday, I cannot miss her life. She was my strength.”

The detainee was initially charged with attempted murder, and he pleaded guilty to first-degree attempted assault. He was sentenced last month to seven years in prison.

Marc Bullaro, a retired assistant deputy warden at Rikers and adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, blamed changes in jail policies, like limits on the use of punitive segregation, for assaults on officers.

“The uniformed staff have lost all their authority,” said Mr. Bullaro.

He called for instituting mandatory minimum sentences for assaults on correction officers that cannot be diminished via plea bargains or served concurrently with other penalties.

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