NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s Rikers Island jail has entrenched problems dealing with sexual abuse, including emergency hotlines that don’t work, confidential complaints read by fellow inmates and investigations that don’t interview alleged attackers, according to an internal review obtained by The Associated Press.
The report, conducted last year by an outside consultant, also revealed that guards dangerously underestimated the problem, felt helpless to do anything about it and showed “poor professional boundaries” themselves by inappropriately hugging and kissing one another and hanging racy postings in common areas.
The findings come as overseers of the city’s 10,000-inmate jail system moved last week to write new city rules spelling out a zero-tolerance sexual assault policy in line with the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
At the time of the report, its authors noted, few staff or inmates had heard of the federal law, and education addressing its requirements “did not appear to be occurring.”
City Correction Department spokeswoman Eve Kessler said the report was a “wake-up call, and we heard it loud and clear.”
In response, jail officials say they have appointed a department-wide coordinator, published a 43-page directive of up-to-date standards on sexual assault and trained hundreds of guards and internal investigators. The directive affirms a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse, and establishes a set of procedures on preventing, detecting, and responding to instances of sexual abuse against inmates.
The directive outlines hiring and training requirements for jail staff, methods of identifying inmates who may be particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and procedures for reporting and investigating sexual abuse incidents.
The federally-funded report, conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based The Moss Group, detailed longstanding problems at Rikers that may be tough to fix. That view was punctuated last week when a member of the jail oversight board, Gerard Bryant, said at a hearing: “As long as we are going to have prisons we are going to have sexual abuse in prisons. That’s the reality. That’s what happens.”
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.
The report also reviewed the 46 sexual abuse or harassment cases closed by jail investigators in 2014, finding fundamental problems with the thoroughness of the inquiries.
Most investigations didn’t include interviews with all possible witnesses, some didn’t include video evidence and others didn’t include interviews with accused guards.
“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, noting there was no mention in the case files of an attempt to collect physical and DNA evidence.
Brenda Smith, an American University law professor who served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and reviewed the Moss report, said the problems at Rikers appeared fixable only by wholesale culture change.
“There really has to be some enforcement, some consequences,” she said. “Something needs to happen to somebody.”