Photo: Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, from her Facebook page.

By Michelle Ayr and Dev Nelson

On Thursday, September 6, members of the the Committee on Criminal Justice, The Committee on Women, and The Committee on the Justice System together addressed concerns that many New Yorkers have about the sexual abuse that takes place in the jails of New York City.

The meeting magnified concerns regarding the safety of inmates in New York City jails. The lawmakers focused on an amendment to city laws. The amendment would make it mandatory to report the sexual abuses to the Department of Corrections. It will require that a quarterly report be made on sexual abuses, including those committed by visitors or staff.

There was no surprise that the bill went through with zero opposition.

The joint conference included Councilmembers Carlina Rivera, Daniel Dromm, Laurie A. Cumbo, Robert F. Holden, Keith Powers, and Helen Rosenthal, all Democrats. They also addressed concerns that some had about sexual abuses that were reported by some in the LGBTQ+ community.

“In the wake of the #MeToo movement, we need to make changes in all places,” said Cumbo.

Since the start of the #MeToo movement that began in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, women have been less hesitant to have their voices heard when speaking on the topic of sexual abuse and harassment. This movement has lifted itself into the New York jail system, where turning a blind eye will no longer be tolerated.

In November 2017, the New York City Department of Corrections shut down the Transgender Housing Unit doors, which provided transgender women the choice of being bunked separately from the male jail community. As a result, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ+) support groups responded with apprehension, stating that this change would take away a critical residential alternative for transgender women and put them in greater danger of  being assaulted sexually and being harassed.

And with good reason. Since that time, the percentage of transgender sexual assaults and cases of harassment have increased by 21 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A discussion of New York State’s Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) surfaced during the conference. That Act aims to expose and prevent sex abuses and harassment in all correctional facilities in the state. This includes inmate-on-inmate and employee-on-inmate sex assaults. “The efforts to implement PREA have not been adequate” said Rosenthal, “Three years later, it plainly has not happened.”

The Department of Corrections (DOC) mentioned its concern about the backlog of cases it currently has, going back to 2015. According to the DOC, there are over 1,000 cases, and the more time that passes, the harder it is to successfully prosecute and close a case.

The DOC currently has only 24 investigators, but the agency is aiming to raise that number to 30, and hopes to be “caught up” with its cases by February, 2019.

A medical expert representing the DOC mentioned that, in 2018, there were only 27 patients who were referred to a hospital for rape kits, and that the forensics unit was able to only fully complete 12 cases.

When asked about the 221 reported assaults in 2018, the DOC answered by saying that many of the cases included “inappropriate touch” — something that does not need a rape kit. Still, the jump in numbers did not calm the tension in the room.

Robert L. Cohen, a physician who has worked with inmates at the Rikers Correctional Center, called the DOC efforts “very embarrassing.” The Director of the Montefiore Rikers Health Services said, “The Department does not know clearly what it needs to know to prioritize and push through the cases that are more severe.”

When pushed to answer questions, officials with DOC gave roundabout answers that frustrated Rosenthal and Powers.

A representative with the Anti-Violence Project made her voice clear when talking about her experience with the DOC, stating, “What I heard today from the DOC was a blatant lie.” She said that many of the inmates that she speaks to are not even aware of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the situation remains dire for them. “It was the absolute power the correction officers held over me and there was no one I could report them to,” she said, as she continued to talk about the harassment and abuse she experienced, when she was a city inmate.

“The lives of those residing in inner city jails matter,” said Combo. “For they come in having already been victimized. We can’t allow them to be re-victimized.”