Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak Out on Rampant Sexual Violence in Prison

By Tamar Sarai / Prism

TW/CW: These testimonies mention and describe sexual assault and violence, miscarriage, substance use and addiction, and forced hospitalization. 

This fall, a rare window of opportunity closes for individuals who endured sexual abuse in New York State jails and prisons. As reported by Prism, New York’s Adult Survivors Act (ASA), which passed in May 2022, enables people who were age 18 or older at the time of their assault to file a civil lawsuit even if the statute of limitations has expired. The window for filing closes Nov. 23. The act does not solely focus on those who were assaulted inside carceral facilities, but since the legislation passed, advocates for incarcerated survivors have been utilizing it to seek some form of justice. 

Formerly and currently incarcerated survivors who have stepped forward to file cases under the ASA do so after years of living within a vacuum of silence. In prison, speaking out can lead to threats of retaliation that come in the form of more physical violence, isolation, or the loss of certain rights like access to commissary or phone calls—rights that make prison life marginally more bearable.

While survivors and advocates have shone more light on prison sexual abuse and deeper consideration of the power dynamics inside prison has helped cement the understanding that sexual consent cannot truly exist in carceral settings, such public awareness and its attendant policy changes have yet to yield greater safety in the everyday lives of people inside. These policy shifts have also failed to meaningfully chip away at the eagerness of Department of Corrections officials to protect their own instead of listening to the voices of those in their custody and care. Thus, while much has changed in the discourse about prison sexual abuse, the cases that the ASA has brought to light reveal that across time, prison authorities continue to make the same threats of retaliation, use similar tactics of manipulation, and abide by a set of unspoken rules that allow the same officers to continue assaulting women for decades with impunity.  

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When Prism first covered the ASA in August, Levy Konigsberg—a law firm that has taken on cases filed by formerly and currently incarcerated survivors—was in the process of filing more than 350 cases, and since then, the number has only increased. Here, four of those survivors have bravely shared their stories with Prism, highlighting what this violence actually felt like firsthand and how it continues to shape their lives. Even the best coverage of sexual violence inside will always fail to capture the truths that only those who have directly experienced it can articulate. When set against a decades-long backdrop of political debates and lofty rhetoric, the stories shared below pose the question: In all of these years, what has really changed?

Editors’ note: For the safety of the survivors who have shared their stories, some names of survivors and abusers have been changed. These names are marked with an asterisk (*). Two sources have opted to use their full names.

In 1990, 19-year-old Laura Doe* is incarcerated at Rose M. Singer, the women’s facility on Rikers Island. In her final six months at the New York City-based jail, Laura is assaulted by Officer Miller*. Here she is now, in her own words:

I was young, scared, confused, and I didn’t understand. I made mistakes, and being inside prison was very traumatizing. I had to listen to what the officers said, I had to follow the rules, and whatever they said to do, I had to do.

Officer Miller was very sexual; he always wanted to have sex, and he always had the opportunity to get you in a place where he could have sex with you or perform oral. He was a handsome officer, and there were a lot of females [who] may have been in agreement with it, but I wasn’t. I was threatened with it.  

He moved around that jail as if he were the warden, and there’s no way that his superiors, his supervisors, his captains didn’t know these things were going on. It was like he was the God of Rose M. Singer, and he chose whom he wanted to do whatever with, and he threatened whomever he wanted to do whatever with, and that’s just the way it was. 

He was a very manipulative man. Very manipulative, very sneaky, very threatening. I didn’t know my rights really, and he used to threaten my sentence like, “I will take your good time away if you don’t give me oral sex.” I was doing six months, and my good time [was in] four months. Those 60 days meant everything to me. So he was like a little charmer and then a scary person at the same time. I was scared, and I wanted to go home. I didn’t want my good time taken away. I didn’t want to not go to the commissary. I didn’t want to get a ticket written to go into lockdown. He used that to his advantage, and he preyed on the young inmates who didn’t know any better.

I just wanted to go home, and I felt stuck, and I would write in an acronym: “Severely Traumatized Under Corrections” because nobody did anything about it, and if I said anything … I was just afraid.

[Officer Miller] didn’t use a condom, and I had to go to the hospital that they use out in Queens, this one hospital that they take everybody to, and they told me that I was pregnant. I didn’t go into Rikers pregnant, but I got pregnant there and then had a miscarriage.

Stephen Donaldson, a legendary and prolific gay rights activist becomes the Executive Director of Stop Prisoner Rape (now known as Just Detention International). The group was and still remains the only organization in the world exclusively dedicated to ending sexual violence inside prison.

In 1992, Lisette enters Rikers for the first time and returns twice again throughout her mid-to-late 20s. During her third and last time on the island, Officer Miller begins to sexually violate her. From Rikers, Lisette is transferred to Groveland Correctional Facility in Livingston County, New York, where a maintenance department officer molests her and other women. Here she is now, in her own words:

When I first entered Rikers Island, there’s an intake process area where they start to separate and register individuals, so they take them in and out of cells as they do each different process, and I remember Officer Miller always being there. I was in Rikers, I think maybe about three times, and he would always be there when the ladies would come in from the bus. He would chit-chat with the female officers at their desk. The desk was in the middle of the intake process, and he would just stand there and have small talk and look around. 

The second time I was there, he saw me, and he said, “Oh, you’re back again.” I didn’t really notice him the first time but obviously, he seemed to have noticed me. At the time, I was struggling with drug addiction, and it was not being treated in Rikers Island, so I was going through a lot of withdrawal symptoms. He saw that, and he would come around and very casually tell me, “You’re OK,” and when I would go for lunch, he would walk with me in the hallway and start a very casual conversation and [say], “If you need anything let me know.” I was so confused and so out of it that most of the time, I wasn’t even making sense of it or asking, “Wait a minute, is this appropriate? Is this something that an officer does?” As I started to heal from my drug addiction, I became more talkative, and I started to see that maybe he can help me out with some things. I had no family, no money, nothing. [For example], if it was like a cigarette [that I wanted], a pack of cigarettes, or whatever, he would slide me a cigarette. It didn’t happen right away; it was very gradual. 

The third time when I came back to Rikers Island, it was like seeing an old friend. He was like, “Oh my goodness, what happened to you? I’ll come later and check on you.” I didn’t think anything of it. The first night he came, he was working the Bubble—that’s what they call where the officers are situated—and he would make his rounds with the flashlight. Everything was quiet, he’d check every room, and then one night my door popped open, and it was him. Being that I was already struggling with my own issues of low self-esteem, low self-worth, and hitting the bottom of the barrel by being incarcerated, I just didn’t even care what he did to me. I just laid there just helpless, powerless, and he was telling me, “Don’t say anything, don’t talk.” It would start by me giving him oral sex and then penetration. It was so fast, he would just pick up his pants and go out the door quietly.

This happened about two times. When I think back on it, I was in such shock; I was afraid. I just couldn’t believe everything that was happening to me all at once. 

He was fairly charismatic, he wasn’t aggressive, he wasn’t violent. Well, he was when he was doing the sex act, but as far as him being intimidating? No. He was very friendly and approachable. The feeling that I remember was that in a prison like that, they treat people so badly, and the prisoners are so nasty and rude, so by him being nice to me, that made me feel like, wow, somebody cares. And he didn’t have that intimidating, scary face. He had a friendly face that makes you feel like this is somebody who can help me and can protect me here. 

Now that I think back on it, because of my trauma, he became an ally, you know, somebody that I felt like could protect me, that I knew was a familiar face. Because I didn’t understand in my head that I was being raped. I didn’t see it as that; I saw it as he likes me, and I was special because he approached me, and he sought me out. I guess because of his uniform, I felt that because he picked me, there was something that was special about me. 

That third time I was released under probation, and I violated my probation, so I ended up coming back again to Rikers Island, but I was only there for a really short period of time, and then I was sent to Groveland in upstate New York.

In Groveland, I remember this officer, red hair, short, stocky, I don’t remember his name. He called a few of us girls down; we were all pretty girls and young. He invited us to the facility tool shed. At Groveland, it was easy for anyone to just go into the maintenance [department’s] tool shed, but usually he would ask for us to come down during lockdown. I think it was after dinner that he started calling us, and I didn’t know that other women were being called until we got there, and then we would see each other. He would have us take our clothes off and touch him without penetration, sit on his lap, and fondle our breasts and our vaginas. It was so demoralizing. This would happen a lot during the weekends because there were fewer activities then. When they would call out your name, nobody knew what you were being called for. So he knew what he was doing, and he knew how to do it, and that went on for, I think, the last six months that I was there. And the women that he assaulted, we would never ever speak to each other about it. It was like an unspoken rule. I guess they felt the same way I did.

 A lot has changed in my life, you know, as far as myself. When I got out of prison, I went to school. I have a master’s degree. Now, I’m a director in a nursing home. I’m married, I have a family, I have grandkids. I just feel that now is an important time in my life to bring this up and show light to this because this could be happening right now to women who are in prison as we speak. Then I didn’t know, and I was so afraid, [I thought] no one’s gonna believe you; you have this history, you were a drug user and in prison … no one’s gonna believe you. 

Rep. John Conyers, Jr., a Democrat in Michigan, sponsors the Custodial Sexual Abuse Act and attempts to attach it to the reauthorization bill of the Violence Against Women Act. Conyers’ legislation is summarily removed and never reintroduced.

The State of New York agrees to a $225,000 settlement with a woman who was formerly incarcerated at Bedford Hills after a New York Court of Claims found the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 100% liable for repeated forcible rape by an officer.

President George W. Bush passes the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

In 2008, Laura Doe returns to Rikers and is repeatedly assaulted by Officer Lee*. 

The things that Officer Lee did were similar to Miller, except we never had sex. He always wanted oral. He would feel me up and come to the cell and do strip searches, and it’s just so unbelievable how they get to do these things.

Officer Lee used to bring in contraband and use his authority to keep you locked in your cell and things like that, you know—it was just too much. He used to be drunk a lot. He used to smell of alcohol all the time, and he was also a manipulative person. At this time, Rikers had changed from when I was there in the beginning; there were just so many things that inmates couldn’t have anymore, so there were many things that officers had the opportunity to do to an inmate without anyone knowing or seeing or hearing or doing anything about it. Lee also threatened to take away the commissary or keep you on lockdown so you couldn’t come out of the cell. He’d have you get your food in the cell just to keep you isolated and keep you from being able to talk.

I started to believe that this is what I had to do in order to get through my prison time. It was just really, really traumatizing. I didn’t think it was a problem, but now I see it is a problem. Because that’s not what was supposed to be going on while you’re incarcerated—[if you’re a corrections officer], you’re supposed to do your job and protect and serve and police the inmates, not make sexual advances, not make them do things, not bring contraband, not take things that we couldn’t have in order to get what they want. It’s like you’re in prostitution and incarcerated.

There’s so much that’s built up inside of me that I know that I need therapy. I know that I need to start to heal at some point, but I have to reveal it and process it and get through it in order to start to heal and to get better and to help the next person that’s in that predicament understand what could happen or the things to look for and let them know that they have rights and they don’t have to use their bodies in order get through prison.

I don’t know how they got away with it for so long. Maybe it’s because we silenced ourselves, and we didn’t speak out. I wish I had the guts to speak about it then. But when I heard that somebody else—a lot of other women—experienced the same thing that I did, it gave me the heart to come forward. I am so grateful for the one person who spoke out who allowed the rest of us to have the courage to speak about it.

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), a group established under PREA, releases a report finding rape to be a “widespread” issue in American prisons. The report confirms that the public largely dismisses prison rape as “an expected consequence of incarceration, part of the penalty and the basis for jokes.” The NPREC also concludes that “prisoners should never be punished for sexual contact with staff, even if the encounter was allegedly consensual. The power imbalance between staff and prisoners vitiates the possibility of meaningful consent, and the threat of punishment would deter prisoners from reporting sexual misconduct by staff.”

The Department of Justice releases national standards to “prevent, detect, and respond to prison rape” as informed by the NPREC’s 2009 report.

Photo courtesy of Alexandria Johnson

In 2014, Alexandria Johnson entered into Rikers at 24 years old. Early on in her time there, she is gang raped by four officers, including Officer Miller. More than a year later, Johnson enters Bedford Hills, a maximum-security women’s prison, with a high-risk pregnancy. At Bedford, Officer Vargas rapes Johnson, and the assault causes her to lose her baby, Marcus. Here she is in her own words:

I was there for four months [in] Rose M. Singer for a parole violation. I had just gotten there and was in both a cell block and a dorm, but I started off in a cell block. Officer Miller was working, and it was the middle of the night, and they were coming around to do rounds, and they had come into my cell—four of them. I tried fighting them off so that they wouldn’t physically hurt me. Once I was unable to fight anymore, Officer Miller undid his pants and got on top of me, and the rest of it … I just blacked out. The rape went on for what felt like forever, but it was probably a good half-hour. Then the other CO—I don’t know his name—had his way with me. The girls were screaming in the cells because they knew what was going on, and I wasn’t answering. They’ve done it to other girls there before, and I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I woke up, and it was morning. 

I tried reporting it, and then they put me on suicide watch. They locked me up so I couldn’t call anybody. They said that I was suicidal, that I was going mental and having a nervous breakdown, and that all that didn’t really happen, and that I have to keep my mouth shut because this is not gonna go anywhere. I had gone through it before at Bedford, and I already know how it works: nothing’s gonna be done until I get out.  

They cut me off from my grandmother and [placed me] in observation, as they would call it, for a month, and then they let me out. I was moved to a dorm, and by then, I just mentally locked it out. I knew I had to. I was in Rikers Island, that’s no joke—they could have killed me and said that anything happened to me, so I just kept my mouth shut. I’d been raped a lot. I’d been molested as a child, and then when I went to prison, I thought this is not supposed to be … I know I’m a number, I know I’m an inmate, but this is still not right. I’m still a woman. I still have rights when I get out of here; I wasn’t sentenced to life or anything. 

Then, in Bedford, they took a child from me. I was on a parole violation, and I was pregnant when I went in, and I was high risk. I had been high risk before with my other babies, and basically you’re not supposed to have intercourse, you’re supposed to be on bed rest, you’re supposed to take it very easy to get through the pregnancy. I was a laundry porter still doing laundry because they were still waiting on the hospital to exempt me from work, and then I was going to be moved to a medical building. Officer Vargas disregarded everything I said, and because he raped me so hard, my placenta ruptured, and the next night at 11:30 my water broke, and I lost my son.

I went back and tried to fight it. They locked me up for eight months, and I did have postpartum depression, so I was going through some psychological stuff because of the rape and the loss of the baby. They put me in a keeplock until I maxed out, and then I tried to sue them, and they tried covering it up. Then I just returned to drugs. 

Now, I’ve been clean for three years because I have no other choice—it would have killed me, and I have three babies now. I promised myself that I would never get in trouble again and go back there because I don’t think I would make it back out.

I had all these plans of going into the nursery with my son. Getting through the pregnancy, getting out, and changing my life. And they took him because I’m just a number, and I have to deal with that every day, and they just do what they’re doing. My son is still not with me, and you don’t get it until you lose a child, especially under those circumstances. I always tell my son, the baby I lost, Marcus, that something will come of this—I just feel like I fail him every day because nothing’s been done, there’s no justice. 

My life hasn’t been the greatest since then, but I’ve done the best that I can under the circumstances. I struggle with depression, but I have no other choice but to keep going; I have three other children … and I know that’s not what Marcus would want me to do.

Photo courtesy of Starquasia Baker

In 2016, Starquasia Baker enters Bedford Hills at 20 years old and is coerced and assaulted by Officer John Hope*. Her story illustrates one of the many ways authorities exploit their power over incarcerated women to begin sexual relationships that are inherently coercive and, ultimately, devoid of consent. Here she is in her own words:

[Officer Hope] was working in my unit, and my bed was right there next to the Bubble, and we’d be talking every night, talking every day or whatever. And it was to the point where he would switch with other officers to come work on my unit, and we would just talk every day. And then one day, he was working in another unit, and he sent me a message [confessing] how he felt about me and stuff like that. In the midst of us talking when he was working my unit, I had told him that I don’t have help or support, and so he said that he would take care of me financially. 

When my aunt would bring my daughter up, he would meet my aunt in a parking lot and give her $100 to put on my books, and also, if he had a package for me, my aunt would go to his car, get the package out his car and then bring it to me on the visiting floor. He was sending her money, he was buying new stuff, bringing it into the jail, stuff like that. When you’re in prison, it’s really hard for us women to speak on anything that goes on in there because we get harassed by other officers, and we just get treated horribly. So, anything to make our time go by easily, we just shut up and don’t say nothing.

At first, I didn’t [report] because he knew where my daughter and my aunt lived, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that. There were also threats and stuff. So I didn’t say anything, but then, when my aunt moved, I spoke out, and I said something. 

It got reported because his co-workers reported it because he was very outspoken about our relationship. So his co-workers were the ones who reported it to Miss Vega*, the Prison Rape Elimination Act Deputy at the time. [By] protocol, she has to inform OSI [Office of Special Investigations], an investigation unit on sexual abuse, and they come and they investigate the whole situation. It was embarrassing because when they’re doing the investigation, they’re not discreet about it; they’re questioning the whole facility. He got locked out of the jail because of the investigation, and then he resigned. 

He resigned before he got fired because he knew that they had enough evidence on him. They had proof that we were in a relationship because they pulled phone records and Cash App records on the phone, and they saw the money transaction from my aunt, and stuff like that,  the phone calls from him and my aunt.

In order to keep my mouth shut, he still was sending money, and then officers that were [still] inside were literally harassing me. 

His co-workers didn’t report it for me, they reported it because they were women, and he was like a likable person, and there was a lot of jealousy going on by his co-workers from the way he was expressing openly how he felt about me. It wasn’t to help me because those same officers harassed me when he left. They would bump me in a hallway, press me, offer to fight me. Also, if I got a package sent, they would wait until all my food was spoiled to give it to me, or they would hide it in the back of the package room, and I wouldn’t get anything until months later, and it would be no good. I’d have to go through the investigators for them to get my package out of the package room. 

It’s sad, but [women inside] feel like they have to accept that because of their situation. They accept the abuse from officers, and it’s just, it’s degrading because after they find out that you’re “the one,” a lot of male officers come on to you. They say disrespectful things like, “You won’t give me some head?” or “What are you gonna do to keep good stuff in your cell?” We’re inmates, but we’re still women, you know, and it just becomes very degrading, and it really brings your self-esteem down, like, “This is what I’m subjected to? I’m just a whore?” and they’re just gonna do whatever they want to do and say whatever they have to say. So it just becomes really depressing.

I know that people are still going through the same things that we went through, and I hope it will just stop; I hope they will be aware that we’re not playing no games because there is never a forever in prison—for a lot of women, one day you will come home—so, hopefully they’ll be like, “We have control over them now, but when they go home, they’re talking.”

I came home early. I came home off of the domestic violence law, and they offered me counseling when I came home, and I took it, so I’m in counseling now. It’s been great, actually. I’m learning new things about myself, my triggers, and stuff like that. I’m not gonna ever allow anyone to have that kind of control over my life. 

[Officer Hope] reached out to me through Facebook in October of last year. He wanted to hook up and said that he knew that I came home and I don’t have anything, and he offered to take me shopping and stuff like that. He kept writing to me on Facebook, calling me, and things like that, and I was just ignoring him. Eventually, he got the drift.

He’s a correctional officer now, but he works with adolescents because he resigned. When you get fired, you cannot ever work in corrections ever again, but when you resign, your records are sealed, so they can’t question your [last] job asking you why you resigned. That’s why a lot of male officers, when they get investigated, they just resign because they can always get another job. 

Officer Hope resigns from Bedford Hills following his investigation and begins working for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) passes, allowing survivors like Starquasia to complete their sentences early and return home. 
New York City Department of Corrections releases a directive on the “Elimination of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Harassment,” aiming for DOC staff to “have a clear understanding that a sexual act or sexual contact between an inmate and an employee is sexual abuse, even if the inmate consents.” The directive also “prohibits retaliation against any individual because of his/her involvement in the reporting or investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse or harassment.”
Two former Rikers detainees receive a $1.2 million settlement from the city after being raped by the same corrections officer. Expert testimony in the case showed that women incarcerated at Rose M. Singer report sexual assaults at twice the national average but that a toxic culture and “code of silence” among guards let corrections officers escape justice

New York’s Adult Survivors Act is signed into law in May. The window for filing cases under the act ends on Nov. 23, 2023. 

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.


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