(Content Warning: Brief mentions of rape)
The Legal Aid Society is a private, not-for-profit legal service in New York whose motto is, “No New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty.” In keeping with this philosophy, Legal Aid Society announced in late February that they’d brought a class action lawsuit against the New York Department of Corrections Community Supervision (DOCCS). The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six anonymous women in various New York state prisons, all of whom are alleging sexual abuse.
The lawsuit cites a “culture of indifference” to women being abused by prison guards. This is also something we’ve seen at the former Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama. And much like Tutwiler, these prisons have “policies” for “addressing” prison guards who engage in sexual abuse against inmates.
But the lawsuit makes clear that the policies of the DOCCS are inadequate: “Under DOCCS policies, officers are not subject to any greater supervision and are allowed to maintain their job assignments even when they have been the subject of repeated and similar allegations of abuse.” The lawsuit goes on to mention the lack of security for correction officers coming into prisons which allows them to smuggle in illicit substances. The corrections officers then use these substances to “manipulate and coerce prisoners.”
The lawsuit also explains that most of the abuses happen where there are no cameras in use and that even when a process of accountability is supposedly in place, it is often inadequate. Not the least of which because prisoners fear retaliation from the prison guards who are likely to get off easy. This disparity in consequences for prisoners and guards ratchets up incentives to not file complaints.
DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said that, “[the department] takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously but doesn’t comment on litigation… In addition to rigorous employee training for both staff and inmates, we continue to strictly adhere to established guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”
Mailey doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand, that the polices are themselves rooted in a corrupt system that engenders violence and sexual abuse. The power disparities between prison guards and inmates and between inmates themselves creates an environment where things like rape, sexual harassment and violence become pervasive. These elements are so deeply ingrained in the prison institution as to ensure remedial policies will be underwhelming in their results.
This makes the lawsuit itself an endeavor that may prove underwhelming to the women who have been sexually abused. I hope that it isn’t, and I hope they are successful in getting justice. But the odds are not in their favor.
In addition to using the state’s own courts to get DOCCS to comply with its own regulations, there are many hurdles to correctly implementing prison reform policy. Consider the reform effort to create more women’s prisons which dates back to the mid 19th century. It attempts to reduce sexual violence against women. A laudable goal, but according to Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars, “the total number of women sentenced to prison tripled.”
Today, this policy has only caused further spikes in the imprisonment of women. Thus, it contributes to the current crisis that occurred in Tutwiler Prison for over 20 years before it was closed. But these same problems are continuing in other prisons as well. The problem then isn’t just inadequate policies but prisons themselves.
There is no justice to be found in the state courts, no justice to be found in the prison system.