The Most Pressing Issue for Incarcerated Women: Sex Abuse and Harassment

A February 2021 report shows that incidents of sexual abuse and harassment at the Rose M. Singer Center on Riker’s Island increased by 60% over a 6-month period in 2020—and the City Council wants to know why.

In a hearing on Tuesday, city council members questioned officials from the New York City Department of Corrections about the facility which houses 271 incarcerated women.

City Council Member Keith Powers called the reports of sex abuse and harassment “the most pressing issue facing women in jail.”

In all city correction facilities across the city, the corrections department reported 295 total incidents of sexual abuse and harassment in the 6-month period between July 2020 and December 2020, compared to the previous reporting period.  Seventy-three percent of these complaints alleged that a Department of Corrections staff member committed the abuse or harassment.

Sarena Townsend, Deputy Commissioner of Investigations and Trials, said that the corrections department takes such allegations extremely seriously.

“Anytime there is an allegation of sexual abuse, we take immediate action,” Townsend said.

 Within 72 hours of an allegation, Townsend said that the corrections department interviews the victim, separates her from the accused, makes a criminal referral to the Department of Investigation, and refers the victim to mental health services.  Investigations typically conclude within 90 days, she told the City Council.

Townsend also clarified that 10 inmates were responsible for reporting almost 46% of the allegations against staff members.

Powers argued that conducting investigations is only one part of protecting incarcerated women from sexual abuse and harassment at the corrections department.  What matters more, says Powers, is to figure out how to prevent such incidents in the first place.

“Not letting (the abuse) happen is the real component,” Powers said.

Advocates also sounded the alarm about the sexual abuse and harassment of transgender women in New York City facilities. Dany Greene of the LGBTQ Defense Project at The Bronx Defenders testified that transgender women are still being housed in male jails at Riker’s Island.  Conversely, even if they are housed correctly, according to their gender identity, transgender women are often moved to a male facility as punishment by corrections department staff, Greene reported.

Simone Spirig, a social worker for the Brooklyn Defender Services, shared the experience of a transgender female client who was placed in a male facility.  Spirig said her client was threatened and sexually harassed, including by a male inmate who regularly watched her shower.  After persistently advocating on her behalf for over a month, her client got moved to a women’s facility.

“Situations like this should never exist but they do so regularly and with no accountability,” Spirig testified.

Two other bills, both introduced by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, also discussed on Tuesday address sexual abuse while in the custody of the Department of Corrections, both introduced by Council Member Helen Rosenthal.  The first requires the corrections department to develop a comprehensive training program to investigate sexual crimes.  The second requires the department to create an electronic case management system to track sexual abuse and harassment allegations.

A third bill introduced by Rosenthal on Tuesday gives pregnant incarcerated women access to doula and midwife services in the delivery room.  Elise Benusa with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York testified in favor of the bill and stated that a doula can be beneficial for mothers experiencing childbirth under the stressful and traumatic conditions of incarceration.

Council members encouraged the corrections department to allow families to be reunited in person, reinstating a visitation program that had been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since March 18, 2020, family members have been unable to visit Rikers Island in-person.  Instead, the corrections department started tele-visits that allowed incarcerated women to connect with family over a computer or phone.

“A short stay behind bars can significantly impair that mother and child relationship,” Powers said.

Eighty percent of women incarcerated at the Rose M. Singer Center have children.