CW: Mentions and descriptions of sexual assault and abuse in prison
The two women huddle next to each other, trying to get in view of the iPhone camera set up on a tripod in front of them. To the left, Julie begins reading aloud her poem “All I Ever Wanted,” as her friend Jennifer listens supportively.
“All I ever wanted was justice without a price,” Julie recites, “All I ever got was raped with a smile.”
The poem is just one tool used by these two women and countless others across New York State who are beginning to speak up about the years of abuse they faced behind the bars of state correctional facilities. After years of forced silence and expired statutes of limitation, the women are seizing a new chance to share their stories.
The moment between Julie and Jennifer is a brief but powerful scene in “Life After Abuse in Prison,” a web documentary produced by Brut America that highlights the New York Adult Survivors Act. The recently passed legislation creates a one-time window for survivors of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits even if the statutes of limitation have expired. The short film also provides a peek into the women’s experience working with the New York law firm Levy Konigsberg, which represents hundreds of formerly incarcerated women filing under the new law.
“It’s important that women know the rights that they have before they lose them again,” says Anna Kull, a survivors’ rights attorney at Levy Konigsberg, in the film.
When Vanessa Santiago, a formerly incarcerated woman who returned home just at the start of the pandemic, saw the video, she knew it was time for her to speak up.
“I said, ‘Shit, if they could talk, I can talk too,’ because I know a lot of stuff, and I’ve been through a lot of stuff in there,” said Santiago in an interview with Prism. “Right now, my whole purpose is to expose the penal system. People need to know what happened, and people know when I speak, it’s the truth, and I have proof of what I went through.”
Santiago’s story has been a winding road through multiple women’s prisons across the state, including Albion, Taconic, Bedford Hills, and Bayview. Throughout more than two decades of incarceration, Santiago was both a witness to sexual abuse and a victim of it. Today, she carries stories that reveal how sexual violence pervades every corner of prison life, from the near-constant surveillance to the whispers of which officers to avoid and which have been quietly terminated following allegations of rape to the fondles, gropes, and touches that prison staff subjected women to either in private or under the eye of other officers.
“I feel like I’m the voice for some of the women in there because I have a lot of friends that are still in there that are currently still going through sexual abuse,” said Santiago.
Passed by the New York State Assembly in May 2022, the Adult Survivors Act (ASA) allows individuals who were age 18 or older at the time of their abuse to file a civil lawsuit even if the statute of limitations has expired. There’s only a year to take advantage of the one-time opportunity, and the window for filing closes in November. The ASA is modeled after the New York Child Victims Act, passed in 2019 after a 13-year legislative fight. The Child Victims Act similarly created a one-year window for child survivors of sexual abuse to file civil suits. The window was extended to two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulted in more than 10,000 lawsuits—many aimed at large institutions like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church.
Similar to how the Child Victims Act served as a way to illuminate abuse that occurred within—and was condoned by—large institutions, the Adult Survivors Act has brought to light the stories of formerly and currently incarcerated women who faced sexual abuse at the hands of authorities in New York State prisons. While sexual violence inside has been a known plague inside the carceral system, shoddy internal reporting mechanisms, constant threats of retaliation, and a pervasive stigma that often keeps society unsympathetic to the plight of those inside have allowed such abuse to run rampant and unchecked. However, the ASA may serve as an opportunity for women to share their stories and become a watershed moment that lowers our collective tolerance for such violence.
That sea change may already be underway, as evidenced by the sheer number of survivors who have come forward thus far. In an interview with Prism, Kull says Levy Konisgberg is in the process of filing more than 350 cases, with new ones coming in every day.
“Even with the research that I have done on these issues,” said Kull, “I was still astounded to see how many survivors were coming forward. Mostly because so many of these survivors are recounting very similar experiences, and in many cases, they are also recounting abuse by the same individuals.”
“We always get sued. It doesn’t matter”
In addition to repeat offenders, Kull says that what is uniquely chilling about these cases is the sheer fact that state employees are on the job committing sexual crimes while both their employer and society look the other way. The fact that this occurs within a context that purports to be rehabilitative is all the more disturbing.
The cases that have been reviewed thus far also illuminate how each prison’s unique features—location or infrastructure—lend themselves to this type of violence occurring unchecked while also informing how specifically that coercion and exploitation would take place.
For example, Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison formerly located in lower Manhattan, serves as the site for numerous cases filed by Levy Konigsberg. Women incarcerated at Bayview were typically toward the end of their sentences, and given its location in the city, women inside had access to more frequent visitation. They could even sometimes participate in work release programs.
“They had a lot of privileges that were not afforded to them at upstate facilities that had more stringent security requirements,” said Kull. “And that in and of itself created an opportunity for correctional officers who were seeking to abuse their authority to use those privileges as leverage.”
While Bayview’s proximity to loved ones and the prospect of returning home creeping ever closer on the horizon would appear to have created more opportunities for women to speak out when they experienced or witnessed sexual abuse, it actually allowed for the opposite. Bayview officers routinely used those features as bait to keep women silent. Kull says that women who did speak up ran the risk of being framed and written up. A write-up by an officer could trigger time being added to their sentence and a transfer to higher-security facilities upstate.
Meanwhile, the physical structure of some prisons can also facilitate abuse by keeping the violence out of sight. In Bedford Hills, the maximum-security women’s prison in Westchester County, the absence of cameras in some areas helped correctional officers commit acts of abuse without being seen. In contrast, the presence of cameras in other areas turned private and intimate spaces into sites of surveillance.
Santiago recalls that when she was placed in Bedford’s Special Housing Unit (or SHU), she noticed the community recreation area had only two cameras, and officers stationed themselves in a blind spot.
“What happens is you’ll be walking down the hallway and—this is before all the cameras were put up—so they would catch you in an area and do stuff to you, touch you, or whatever and get away with it,” said Santiago. “It’s not like [there were] officers all around; it’s sometimes just one officer in that area. When I was there in the beginning, it was one officer in the daytime and two officers that night on the unit. But [there weren’t] officers all the time, and there were definitely no cameras—you can forget about that.”
On the other hand, the room where gynecology exams and pap smears were performed in Bedford was replete with cameras, eliminating all sense of personal privacy. When Santiago was incarcerated in Albion Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in New York’s Orleans County, she said male corrections sergeants routinely walked into the washrooms while women were showering.
“They would walk through your shower while you’re taking a shower,” said Santiago. “This was all the time. You know, it was just ridiculous. Like, why is that allowed? It’s not like the shower curtains are pitch black; you can see through [them] … I don’t understand where the privacy is.”
The rise of cross-gender supervision (or male correctional officers stationed in women’s prisons) and the fact that correctional officers often oversee entire floors by themselves routinely create not just the ground for sexual violence but the impossibility of even oversight by colleagues.
But even when prison officials are made aware of such abuses, their duty to respond is often placed second to the personal relationships shared with their abusive colleagues or even the stigmas they hold about the women they are employed to help protect. Santiago, who had been outspoken about her experiences, was repeatedly silenced until she realized speaking out would be futile, if not dangerous.
There was the psychologist at Bayview who told her that she was “too smart for her own good” after she reported being attacked by a correctional officer who groped and choked her while she was working a cleaning shift. And the superintendent at Bedford Hills who shrugged off her threat to sue the facility after she was groped and violated by an officer. The superintendent allegedly asserted, “We always get sued. It doesn’t matter.”
That laissez-faire attitude toward litigation only underscored how long the system has operated with impunity. Even officials who were meant to ensure that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was adequately enforced proved to be ineffective for women who filed internal claims. Santiago recalls a former assistant deputy superintendent and PREA compliance manager at Bedford who prioritized her alliances with corrections officers over complaints made by women inside. In 2021, the PREA manager was named in a lawsuit filed against leadership of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision [DOCCS] and Bedford Hills. The suit alleges that after the plaintiff reported being sexually assaulted by two correctional officers, the compliance manager “did nothing to help her and did not report the rapes to [her] supervisors or otherwise ensure that a proper investigation was conducted.”
“They’ve been there for over 20 years, and so they develop these relationships,” recalled Santiago. “So when you report an officer or lieutenant, if they don’t like what you said, they come after you, and that’s what happened to me … She didn’t want women to wear attire that was tight fitting on their bodies, but the minute a woman reported an incident it was ignored.”
That cycle of experiencing abuse, reporting it, and then having it go unanswered or be the source of ongoing retaliation is one that Santiago is deeply familiar with. It echoes some of her earliest memories of suffering sexual abuse as a child, and then having those meant to protect her—whether it be parental figures or school counselors—compound the pain with additional violation. Recollections of those early traumas came to the surface at moments throughout her incarceration, including at Taconic, a women’s prison in upstate New York. There, she was groped from behind by a male corrections officer while in the facility’s clerk office. She had to yell at him to get off of her.
“Every time I went for help, somebody else would do it to me,” said Santiago. “But by the lieutenant’s not reacting to it, or the psychiatrist not reacting to it—it enforced my belief that authority figures were not to be trusted … I became really messed up because of the things that I went through, and it just continued and never stopped. That incident in Taconic made me very angry because I felt like I was an adult now: ‘Why am I letting people touch me?’”
While the shades and contours of each survivor are different, the fact that Santiago was a survivor of sexual violence before even entering prison is an experience shared by many women inside. In fact, according to a 2016 report from the Vera Insitute for Justice, 86% of women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Further, intimate partner violence and attempts at self-protection are often the reason for their incarceration.
“These women are coming to prison with their own traumas and then have to leave prison and grapple with layers of abuse,” said Kull. “A wound can’t heal if it keeps reopening.”
The looming threat of retaliation informs any incarcerated survivor’s decision to report abuse. For those who do decide to report, a slew of new challenges awaits them as their case travels through a legal system that is not always poised to respond to their grievances favorably.
In a 2008 report by the National Institute of Corrections Project on Addressing Prison Rape at the Washington College of Law, analysis of both government reports and testimony by former prosecutors revealed that prosecutors are often either reluctant or unwilling to pursue cases of sexual violence that occur in prisons and jails. Contributing to this hesitancy is the perception that these cases are “not high profile, high value” and could actually weaken a prosecutor’s standing in their community as defending incarcerated individuals might make them appear “soft on criminals.”
“Custodial sexual abuse cases are even more difficult and expose prosecutors to the possibility of expending valuable resources on a case that may not have a high likelihood of prosecutorial success—either a plea or conviction,” the report states.
Further, the study draws out that in many jurisdictions, correctional officers and other prison staff are sworn peace officers, and thus they also serve as individuals whom prosecutors may rely upon for testimony in other criminal cases. Thus, pursuing sexual abuse cases against them can potentially fracture those relationships. Logistically, while sexual assault cases are often difficult to win in general, additional barriers such as delayed reports, lack of physical evidence, and poorly executed investigations can make them even more challenging when they occur within correctional confinement.
This lack of evidence and absence of eyewitness testimony means that sexual assault cases occurring behind bars place a higher burden on the survivor to prove their case. That burden is further compounded by the heightened skepticism already facing them simply by virtue of their incarcerated status.
“In sexual assault cases—especially under these circumstances where the woman is in prison, and the assailant is the authority figure—many times the victim is the exclusive source of the facts, and so her credibility is of paramount importance,” said Kull. “And when that is questioned from the door, women are less likely to come forward.”
In an interview with The Appeal about the ASA, Kim Shayo Buchanan, senior research scholar at the Center for Policing Equity, pointed out how incarcerated survivors who come forward must also contend with stereotypes and prejudices that often render their experiences invisible.
“Whatever the law says, gender-normative expectations and racial biases are going to shape the perception of whether what happened to them counts as sexual abuse,” Buchanan said. “That being said, the only way to change that is for people to insist on their full humanity.”
Those expectations, biases, and misperceptions don’t just shape the experiences of incarcerated people in New York prisons or solely in women’s prisons. The sexual violence that has informed life inside facilities like Bedford Hills and Bayview is endemic to the carceral system as a whole and takes shape in a myriad of different ways. In addition to abuse at the hands of prison authorities, gendered violence inside has also looked like seizing control of incarcerated women’s autonomy over their own bodies and reproductive capacities. As Briana Perry, the interim executive director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, wrote in an essay for Prism, “jails and prisons were designed as sites of reproductive coercion.” That legacy continues in the form of non-consensual sterilization, gynecological experimentation, inadequate prenatal care, and even shackling during childbirth. For many survivors, incarceration is also not just a site of gendered violence but an extension of past traumas, as survivors of intimate partner abuse are often funneled into the system after attempting to defend themselves.
In a piece written for Prism last Spring, K Agbebiyi discussed how sexual violence is used to cement preexisting power imbalances in prison and how public complacency aids and abets that process. Assumptions about innocence, guilt, and a thirst for punishment allow the public to ignore that violence and disconnect it from broader movements against sexual abuse such as #MeToo.
“Abolitionists are demanding that people realize that a person’s perceived innocence serving as the determining factor for whether or not they are deserving of sexual violence hurts all survivors,” writes K. “Sexual assault is not a well-deserved punishment reserved for certain types of people; it is a violent tool of repression that can completely destabilize the victim.”
The same carceral mindset that allows much of the public to look away from sexual violence is rife with logical pitfalls that reveal the system’s failure to achieve what people believe it does. It is unrealistic, K writes, “to expect prisons to ‘hold people accountable’ for various types of violence outside of prisons while there is violence taking place within prisons themselves.”
Interestingly, and yet not entirely surprisingly, violence inside prison has yet to trigger the same level of moral outrage that we, as a society, have developed around American slavery, even though sexual violence pervaded both institutions. Just as in the cell block, sexual violence and coercion were utilized to foment power dynamics on the plantation among overseers, enslavers, and those they enslaved.
A compassionate approach
While the goal of advocates is to have the whole of society eventually insist on the humanity of all survivors, to take full advantage of legislation like ASA—and the limited window for action that it provides—that culture shift must urgently happen within the legal field. At Levy Konigsberg attorneys like Kull hope to demonstrate what this type of trauma-informed approach might look like and the impact it could have on clients. Kull says her entire team is well-versed in handling trauma and managing cases involving sexual abuse. Further, she makes it known to clients that they can contact her at any time.
The Brut America video that helped inspire Santiago to file her case also features Jubi Williams, the firm’s victim advocate, as she speaks about her work on Jennifer’s case. She explains that her main goal was for Jennifer to feel “comforted and safe because it’s such a vulnerable experience.”
The approach has worked in fostering trust with clients like Santiago and, in doing so, creating one of the first times that the stories of her experiences were met with compassion and understanding.
“I saw that Miss Anna Kull exposed the people of DOCCS, [and] the exposure of it was more compassionate and more like she felt my pain,” said Santiago. “I don’t know what it is, but I feel her compassion, and that’s very important to me. Because I can’t deal with sexual abuse or any type of trauma in my life without feeling that someone can understand and, if not empathize, at least sympathize.”
There’s a delicate balance between the benefits of coming forward and the reality that some cases may not end in a legal victory. While the ASA has the potential to end the culture of silence, the legislation and its goals must be shaped around the outcomes of individual cases and the societal shifts they ideally will set in motion.
“Many women are not willing to go forward and out an officer after they’ve seen what’s happened when either they’ve tried to do it, or other inmates have tried to do it,” said Kull, “and you sort of resolve yourself to accepting that these are the circumstances under which I’m going to have to finish out my time, and that’s what really needs to change. We, as a society, have to be intolerant of that.”