After NBC 4 New York's I-Team uncovered the story of one woman’s claim she was strip searched at Rikers Island while visiting her husband, two others have come forward alleging the same abusive treatment during their visits.
The two women are strangers from different neighborhoods, yet claim to share a similar experience of being subjected to humiliating, invasive and illegal strip searches from correction officers.
Both say they were pulled out of the line at the Rikers visitor’s control center, the first checkpoint for people who ride the bus to the island. Alicia Martinez recalls being taken aside after she failed a metal detector test and then being pressured to sign a consent form.
The Department of Correction allows limited pat-frisk searches over clothes on visitors, but explicitly prohibits body cavity and strip searches. Yet in court papers filed in early December, Martinez describes officers performing one of those forbidden searches.
She claims an officer ordered her to strip from the waist up and face a wall, then grabbed her breasts from behind. Martinez says the officer also reached around the waistband of her underwear and into her genital area.
“It wasn’t even a strip search. I was sexually assaulted,” she said. “All I kept thinking was, if I didn’t do what they said, that I wasn’t going to be able to go home. They made it clear that they were the ones in charge and I had to do what they said.”
Lillian Rivera says she went through a similar experience when an officer ordered her to drop her pants in the visiting area. She said what happened next was “absolutely” a body cavity search.
“She put her hands inside my underpants,” Rivera said. “She started grabbing me.”
Rivera told the I-Team she wanted to scream in protest, but felt compelled to stay silent to be able to see her husband. She said her life has not been the same since the search, and that it never will be.
Just a few weeks ago, Jeannette Reynoso, a young mother from the Bronx, told the I-Team about a strip search where an officer allegedly threatened to take away her visitation rights for 45 days if she refused to take off her clothes.
“I was shaking and that’s when I felt the other officer," she said. “She was like, down on her knees, and that’s when I felt her penetrate me.”
Alan Figman, the attorney for all three women, wants a federal investigation into the practices in the city’s correction system.
“The federal government has to step in and do what it has done in other places, in other states, other cities when people’s civil rights are systematically violated,” Figman said.
Martinez said she felt that there was no one she could have told at the prison about her alleged violation. She said she also didn't want the inmate she was visiting to potentially suffer because of her complaint.
A spokesperson for the Department of Correction says mistreatment of any visitors will not be tolerated. The complaints uncovered by the I-Team are being investigated.