Jail Reform Advocates Call for Improved Protections After Women Claim They Were Molested

Jail reform advocates rallied on the steps of City Hall Tuesday to raise awareness of what they call a systemic problem of sexual abuse against inmates and visitors by city correction officers.

Jeannette Reynoso and Tierra White were among the dozen women who came forward to the I-Team in February with claims they were molested by female correction officers during visits to city jails -- and they joined others Tuesday to seek better protections for visitors and inmates in the system. 

Reynoso said her life has not been the same since she says she was violated. White said she feels "really bad for the women who are going through what we went through." 

The complaints are wide-ranging; the women report they were illegally strip-searched or subjected to body cavity searches at various facilities on Rikers Island, as well as at the Manhattan Detention Center and the Brooklyn House of Detention. They call the searches degrading and humiliating. 

The New York City Department of Correction says the commissioner has a zero tolerance policy for sex abuse and assault, and agency guidelines prohibit strip searches or body cavity searches of visitors. Limited pat frisks are allowed over outer clothing, but only after written consent and with a supervisor present.

Some women say the searches they experienced were far more invasive. Tamara Blackwood said she was ordered to strip naked by an officer.

"She took the rubber gloves she had on, and went front ways toward my private area, told me to cough and slid her hand up." She added, "I didn’t consent to being cavity searched and fondled."

Several of the women describe being required to squat and cough while undressed.

Attorney Alan Figman has filed more than a dozen claims on behalf of women against New York City.

"And it's the same routine. I know the routine because different people are telling me the story, whether it's the TOMBS or Brooklyn or Rikers," Figman said Tuesday. "It's almost like they have a manual somewhere that tells them to do this. And it's designed clearly to humiliate the women." 

"You know how wrong it is, because 60 to 75 percent of the people I have spoken to wound up hysterically crying as the result of the search," he said.

The Commissioner of Corrections, Joseph Ponte, previously told the I-Team he could not discuss cases for legal reasons, but said the department doubled the number of investigators to look into staff integrity issues.

The I-Team has learned that so far this year, the Department of Correction has received 13 allegations of sex abuse by visitors. In the entire calendar year of 2015, there were 15. The City’s Department of Investigation is looking into the accusations. The DOI also said investigators want to hear from anyone who believes they’ve been illegally strip-searched during a visit to a jail.

The phone number for complaints is 212-835-5959. You can also file a complaint on their website or email complaint@doi.nyc.gov.

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