Visitors to NYC’s Rikers Jail Strip-Searched, Sexually Assaulted: Report

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Rikers Island. Photo by Russ Rowland via flickr

You get on the Q100 bus in Queens, New York, to visit an incarcerated family member or friend at Rikers Island—prepared for a long day of travel, only to spend one hour with your loved one.

Adding to your frustration, once you arrive at the jail complex, you’re likely to be treated like one of the inmates.

That’s the claim of a report released this week by the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), titled “It Makes Me Want to Cry: Visiting Rikers Island.” According to the report, visitors are subject to multiple searches, strict and inconsistent dress code enforcements, treated with disrespect, and some are even sexually harassed or assaulted by a correction officer.

The report collected interviews from 100 visitors to Rikers Island during 2017 at the Q100 bus stop, many of whom were women, and detailed their discouraging, traumatizing, and sometimes violent experiences with correction officers.

“Women and men have reported being forced to strip down to their underwear, show officers their genitals and suffer through inappropriate touching, even though these are directly in violation of Department of Correction (DOC) policy,” said the study.

Rikers, the nation’s second-largest jail after the Los Angeles County facility, has been the center of heated controversy over conditions inside the complex and alleged “torture” of inmates by guards. A commission headed by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has recommended closing Rikers, and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this month that one of the jails at Rikers would be shut down.   

The Rikers Island Correctional Facility houses an average daily population of 10,000 inmates—most of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime, and are awaiting trial—in 10 separate jails.

New York City’s corrections policy prohibits strip searches of visitors at city jails, but the victims claim to have been assaulted in the bathrooms in the Central Visiting house, out of sight from surveillance cameras.

The report was released Tuesday morning at a Board of Corrections meeting, where advocates urged board members to adopt policies that would protect visitors and hold DOC officials accountable for abuses.

As of November 2017, at least 45 women have filed or are in the process of filing lawsuits that accuse the DOC of unlawful strip searches, most of them at Rikers. According to an attorney representing the plaintiffs, Alan Figman, these strip searches are still occuring.

He added that one of the officers accused of sexual abuse has been promoted to the DOC investigation team.

The report listed a number of recommendations for the DOC, the Board of Corrections and the Mayor’s office. They include: 

• Launch an independent and transparent investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse during unlawful strip searches.

  • Ensure supervisors make rounds during visit hours to ensure that DOC’s policies regarding searches are followed.
  • Provide visitors who are subjected to pat-frisk searches with a card that includes the searching correction officer’s name, badge number, an explanation of the visitor’s rights, and a description of how to make a complaint.
  • Eliminate the canine search, and reduce searches so that visitors are only searched once.
  • Prioritize shortening wait times for visitors.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) offered an angry rebuttal to the report’s premises, arguing that their members faced heightened safety risks from contraband smuggled into the prison (such as razor blades and knives).

“Please stop endangering the lives of correctional officers, civilian, staff and inmates,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of COBA.

“My safety, our safety, is at risk, and we can’t continue to have people who have no idea what it means to run a jail dictate what should be done in the jail,” he told the Board of Corrections.

But according to the Board of Corrections 2015 Report Violence in New York City Jails: Slashing and Stabbing Incidents, nearly 80 percent of the weapons recovered in 2014 were fashioned from items found or used in the jails, and only 10 percent were introduced from the outside.

A large proportion of the illegal contraband is brought in by uniformed guards and employees, said Laura Fettig, an advocate for JAC.

“For us, the reality of how contraband enters Rikers is not though visitors,” she said. “There are ways to make visiting safe and encourage visiting, without traumatizing visitors and further risking safety of correction officers.

“We all want safer jails and it doesn’t have to be a trade-off.”

In an interview with The Crime Report, Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association, called the claims in the report a “stretch.”

Ferraiuolo, a corrections captain for over 30 years, said he has never heard of, nor seen, visitors being sexually assaulted by correction officers.

“To me, it’s people seeking to get some type of monetary award from the city of New York,” he said.

When asked whether correction officers were taking women into bathrooms for strip searches, Ferraiuolo suggested the accusations were easy to make—and impossible to document—because there are no cameras in the bathroom.

“It’s the same allegations that come from inmates,” he said. “The inmates know where there are no cameras, and a lot of times they will make an allegation and say they were assaulted. It’s almost a scenario.”

megan hadley

Megan Hadley

Yet Ferraiuolo acknowledged that sometimes officers get pushed to the edge by the screaming, cursing, fighting and throwing of urine and feces that goes on between inmates at Rikers Island.

“There are times people need to take into consideration that correction officers are humans first,” said Ferraiulo. “It’s tough at times. It’s just not an easy job.”

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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