Op-ed: It’s time to shine a light on sexual assaults against correction officers

Queens Rally and Press Conference in Solidarity with George Floyd and Black Lives
City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams delivers remarks at Queens Borough Hall. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

As the daughter of a longtime correction officer, who then retired as a captain in the department, I grew up hearing the stories of what it’s like to work in our city’s correctional facilities. My mother, who passed away this past February, worked hard to support my family, often taking on double shifts to ensure that my sister and I had everything we needed. Like my mother, almost half of all correction officers are women of color, and a large percentage are single parents who are providing for their families to the best of their abilities.

That’s why I was outraged and infuriated when a group of women correction officers met with me to detail the horrors they faced on a daily basis on Rikers Island. Officers have been sexually assaulted, harassed, molested, and have had fluids thrown at them by detainees. One woman was even groped while pregnant. The women correction officers described how traumatized, humiliated and disrespected they have felt for years. They have been emotionally and physically violated, yet they felt overwhelmingly ignored by the Department of Correction and other authorities who failed to respond with the proper sense of urgency. 

The women, who are courageous enough to come forward with these stories, also shared that male detainees were dictating to the department that they wanted to be assigned female officers — and they often got their way. Moreover, the correction officers expressed their dismay at the lack of resources, services and care for the victims of these lewd actions. In the era of #MeToo, we will never accept sexual assault, abuse or harassment in society, so why should female correction officers tolerate these heinous acts that take place inside our jails, away from the public eye?

The humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island has become an utter disaster. Fourteen detainees have now died under the city’s watch, including six suicides, and the conditions are so dangerous that even more lives are at risk. The lack of medical attention, food, showers and basic services has only exacerbated the state of emergency. Yet, while much of the attention has been rightly focused on the pain and suffering of those who are incarcerated, we must not forget or overlook the health and safety of correction officers who are working double and triple tours, sleeping in their cars between shifts and experiencing sexual violence from detainees. Their plight does not receive nearly enough recognition or widespread indignation, but correction officers deserve dignity and respect, too. 

Part of the problem is that the Department of Correction does not publicly report on the sheer volume of sexual violence that takes place inside our jails, whether it’s against detainees or staff. That needs to change. Another issue is that not enough detainees who commit these degrading acts are held accountable. According to the Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association, since Jan. 1, 24 DOC employees have been victims of sexual assault by detainees. Of those 24 workers, 17 were correction officers, 16 of whom were women, and the others were correction captains or civilian employees. Only 13 perpetrators were re-arrested, and just six cases led to an indictment. 

Unsurprisingly, correction officers don’t feel as if these inflictions that are occurring in their workplace lead to sufficient consequences. They don’t feel supported after these traumatizing experiences. We cannot accept that status quo. That is why I intend to introduce legislative measures to increase the penalties for sexual assaults and harassment committed against correction officers. We need to make it clear to correction officers and detainees that dehumanizing actions are not acceptable and will lead to serious repercussions, no matter where they take place. 

We need to collectively shine a brighter light on this ongoing crisis inside our already disastrous jails. We can no longer leave correction officers, especially women who have been subjected to repeated attacks, in the dark. They deserve safety and justice just like everyone else, and it’s time to step up and protect them from this deplorable behavior.

City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams represents District 28 in Queens. She chairs the Public Safety Committee and co-chairs the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, and is a member of the Women’s Caucus.