A male guard at New York's Rikers Island jail complex repeatedly raped two female inmates, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.
The suit, which seeks class-action status, accuses Correction Officer Benny Santiago of sexually assaulting the two women for years, and punishing them when they resisted his advances or threatened to report the attacks.
The guard's actions are part of a “pervasive culture of rape and other sexual abuse" inside Rikers' all-female Rose M. Singer Center that is "common knowledge within and without the facility,” says the suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan by the Legal Aid Society.
Correction officers and other staff know not only that women are regularly abused, but also which officers abuse which women, and when and where the abuse occurs,” says the suit.
The lawsuit, which names Santiago and the city as defendants, seeks unspecified monetary damages, as well as a court order requiring the city Department of Correction to stem sexual abuse at the jail.
The two women plaintiffs asked to proceed with their lawsuit anonymously, saying they fear of retaliation from Santiago.
The woman identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe 1 says the abuse started in 2008, when she was working a janitorial shift. Santiago, she says, stared at her buttocks while she mopped the floor. A week later, he invited her to his desk, where he allegedly unzipped his pants and masturbated.
A week later, the lawsuit says, the guard told Jane Doe 1 that he “wanted her to be his.” When she tried to walk away, he grabbed her arm, telling her, “I’m not done talking to you,” the lawsuit says. He then instructed her to meet him that night in the “dayroom,” while he worked the overnight shift.
The woman, who the suit says has “limited intellectual capacity,” showed up, fearing what would happen if she didn’t, according to the suit. In the dayroom, Santiago raped her the first of many times, the suit says. He assaulted her as many as four times a week in the room, where there are no security cameras, according to the suit.
Jane Doe 1 left Rikers in 2009, but returned in 2011. Santiago was still there, and he resumed raping her in another off-camera area referred to as the “sprungs.” When Jane Doe 1 did something that upset Santiago, the lawsuit alleges, he would anally rape her.
Jane Doe 1 remains incarcerated on Rikers Island.
Jane Doe 2 is no longer an inmate there. The lawsuit says Santiago asked Jane Doe 2 for oral sex in early 2013, and he began meeting her late at night in a pantry, or inside a cell with an inoperable security camera. The suit says he raped her on multiple occasions.
Two other officers were aware of Santiago’s actions, the lawsuit says, but didn't report them.
One night in April 2013, after Jane Doe 2 refused to enter a closet with Santiago, the lawsuit says the guard threatened her.
“I can get you set up,” Santiago allegedly said. “I can get you fucked up.”
Jane Doe 2 went into the closet, where the lawsuit says she was raped.
Later, fellow inmates and guards accused Jane Doe 2 of tattling on Santiago for smuggling contraband into the jail, the suit says. One night, Santiago released all the inmates from their cells except for Jane Doe 2. The inmates yelled at her and threatened to hurt her, calling her a “snitch,” the suit says.
Other guards wouldn’t let Jane Doe 2 out of her cell to take a bath or to eat, the suit says. Once, guards didn’t feed Jane Doe 2 for 24 hours. On another occasion, they placed Jane Doe 2 in solitary confinement, though she maintained she had done nothing wrong, according to the suit.
The lawsuit claims the city “not only failed to investigate [Jane Doe 2’s] allegations against Santiago in a timely manner, it also stonewalled Jane Doe 2’s attempts to obtain evidence that she provided to the City during the course of its investigation” of Santiago. Among the evidence, the lawsuit states, was a pair of Jane Doe 2’s jeans with traces of Santiago’s semen.
Santiago is still a guard at Rikers. A city Department of Correction official told The Huffington Post Tuesday that he has been placed on modified duty, and does not interact with jail inmates.
The Department of Correction said it doesn't comment on pending litigation. The department said in a statement that it generally "has a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual abuse and assault, and there is no place at DOC for the mistreatment of any inmate.”
Norman Seabrook, president of The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association -- the union that represents jail guards -- told The Huffington Post that the lawsuit "is an allegation we have to deal with." He said the union would "stand by Santiago to the furthest extent of the law."
"It's an unfortunate situation, whether you're an inmate or a correction officer, and it's something we don't stand for," Seabrook said.
Seymour W. James, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society, said sexual violence is at "record proportions" in New York jails and "rape and other sexual abuse of women are endemic at the Rose M. Singer Center."
Last month, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James sent a petition to the Board of Correction, asking for rules that would protect female Rikers inmates. She pointed to a Justice Department survey that found that 8.6 percent of the female inmates in the Rose M. Singer Center reported being sexually harassed or abused, compared with 3.2 percent of U.S. jail inmates.