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Formerly Incarcerated Women Seek Justice for Prison Rape; Spotlight on Bedford Case

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Nowadays, in her free time, you might find Mia Wheeler flashing her incredible street roller skating skills. It’s a hobby that helps divert her mind temporarily from the ghastly memories.

But before she turned her life around, Wheeler had no free time. She lived behind bars, incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in the late 1990s and early 2000s, stemming from drug-related offenses.

However, prison stripped Wheeler of much more than her freedom.

When mealtime would arrive, she says a tall, thin corrections officer with a short haircut would peek inside her cell, and see if anyone else was around.

“‘Hey, you know what time it is,’” she recalls the prison guard saying.

The officer would then rape Wheeler, a crime he committed at least seven times between September 1999 and April 2001, according to a lawsuit.

There are few in society more vulnerable than a Black woman in jail.

Wheeler, like her alleged attacker, is Black.

‘It Plays on Your Mental’

In addition to other instances of sexual abuse, on one occasion the officer allegedly penetrated her with a hard object – Wheeler believes it was a night stick, flashlight or a similarly shaped object.

Wheeler, who was in her 20s at the time, is one of hundreds of women now suing the state, claiming they were sexually abused when locked up in New York prisons.

“Prior to going to prison, I always assumed that prison was for rehabilitation,” Wheeler said in an interview with ABC News, broadcast in December. “But it’s hard to make a positive turnaround when you are being subject to sexual abuse. It plays on your mental, it takes your focus off of everything.” (Wheeler was not available for an interview with me last week.)

Wheeler’s lawsuit, filed last November with the New York State Court of Claims, was made possible along with hundreds of other claims, going back decades, thanks to the Adult Survivors Act.

Nearly a year ago, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the bill into law, creating a yearlong window – starting last November – for survivors of adult sexual assault to sue their abusers, regardless of when the abuse occurred. It’s the same law that helped allow E. Jean Carroll to file civil charges of sexual abuse from decades ago against Donald Trump.

As with the 2019 Child Victims Act, the law permits people to file suit despite any statute of limitations.

Lives in Ruin

If you care about accountability in this case, you can be buoyed by the fact that the charges appear to be in the right legal hands.

The law firm representing Wheeler and more than 750 other plaintiffs is Slater Slater and Schulman, which has handled sex-abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, as well as school districts and universities.

Taking on a culture of abuse at a powerful institution resides at the heart of the firm’s wheelhouse. (It’s not one class-action suit but rather tons of individual suits.)

As in the Boy Scouts case, “reforms are absolutely a humongous large part of the goal of this settlement and very important not only to us as the lawyers but the survivors as well,” the firm’s founding partner, Adam Slater, told me last week.

Of the more than 750 formerly incarcerated women Slater Slater and Schulman represent, 171 were abused at Bedford. Eighty-three other formerly incarcerated clients endured abuse both at Bedford and an additional detention facility in New York State.

It’s common for people to experience abuse at multiple facilities, illustrating the rampant and systemic nature of the state’s tragic failure.

Settlement Soon?

In 2020, Slater co-created the Coalition of Abused Scouts for Justice, a group representing 65,000 of the more than 82,000 survivor-claimants in the landmark $2.4 billion Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy case, which was resolved last year. Now he’s taking on another behemoth.

“We’re prepared to litigate them,” Slater told me in a phone interview conference call last Friday. “And in the State of New York, that could take several years. However, I would like to say that I would like to believe that these cases won’t take that long because the state will understand their liability on these cases and how they’ve destroyed these women’s lives, and we’ll give them justice and a fair settlement very soon.”

In Wheeler’s 41-page, $20 million civil lawsuit, the attorneys lay out in breathtaking detail the systemic nature of the abuse female prisoners have long faced at New York State prisons, including right here in our Bedford backyard. (I’ll get to my conversation with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, also known as DOCCS, in just a bit.)

The state has submitted an answer to the legal complaint, and the two sides are “working through the exchange of discovery process,” Slater said.

‘Culture of Silence’

Despite an enormous volume of lawsuits, internal reports and investigations spanning generations, the state failed to address the rampant abuse through effective training or supervision, the Wheeler complaint maintains, mirroring the other lawsuits.

In 2019 alone, DOCCS received 331 complaints of staff sexual abuse, the lawsuit points out.

The suit even links the institutional problems in Bedford specifically back to April 1977, when 10 incarcerated women filed a federal lawsuit against the state, alleging, among other things, that numerous male corrections officers deliberately watched them when they showered, used the bathroom or got dressed.

“There was a culture of silence, almost like a brotherhood among various correction officers, where they would stand watch for each other to make sure that nobody saw what they were doing,” Konstantin Yelisavetskiy, a Slater Slater and Schulman attorney involved directly with the case, told me during last Friday’s conference call, referring to the more than four decades of abuse. “That when an inmate did build up the courage to report the sexual abuse that she may have endured, that sexual abuse was…thrown out, not moved up the chain to make sure that there was some sort of an investigation and measure of justice delivered to that particular woman. All of this, I guess, goes to the fact that this is part of a larger overarching culture within the Department of Corrections that has been reported to have existed for many decades.”

The lawsuit also recounts in disturbing detail how, as Yelisavetskiy put it, sexual abuse of female incarcerated women became “an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls.”

“So I think there was a culture that this is part of your punishment,” Yelisavetskiy observed. “You come into the correctional system within the State of New York and part of the punishment is you will be sexually abused by male correction officers. It seems outrageous to say something like that, but it’s something that has been documented and reported.”

‘Policies with Teeth’

The laundry list of abuses at state prisons are chronicled in the suit by citing cases from throughout the decades, such as charges from 1995 that an incarcerated woman in Bedford was forced to perform oral sex with a corrections officer.

I asked Slater if he could confirm that fundamental commitments to reform would be part of a potential settlement with the state, as opposed to just financial accountability.

He replied with an emphatic yes.

“Well, it starts at the top with the policies and procedures just being very strong, very punishing, removing abusers of any kind,” Slater said. “That would be just one example, just very strict policies which I don’t feel comfortable going into the specific policies that we’re seeking right at this moment that will be revealed as the lawsuit continues. But policies that are policies with teeth to make sure that these women are safe when they’re in the current custody of New York State.”

As for the larger theory of the case, the question isn’t fundamentally just about whether attacks occurred or are occurring, which isn’t in doubt.

The case the plaintiffs are prosecuting is about the state negligently failing to protect incarcerated people on an institutional level.

‘Widespread, Pervasive, and Ongoing’

Beyond the lawsuits, a variety of investigations are also noted in the suit, again dating back decades.

For example, investigators visited and analyzed the conditions at the former Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan over a one-year period from October 1983 through October 1984, and issued a series of recommendations for reform (such as calling for more female prison guards) after identifying widespread abuse.

“The state had actual notice of the widespread, pervasive, and ongoing sexual abuse problem in each and every female prison that was part of its correctional system,” the suit asserts. “At all times relevant to this claim, the state knew and should have known that each and every female inmate in its correctional system was in reasonably foreseeable danger of being sexually abused by male correctional officers.”

And what was the response to the Bayview report?

“Instead of taking the recommendations that the federal government gave to the state, they essentially took the reports, crumpled them up into a ball and threw them out,” Slater told me last Friday. “In other words, they ignored all of the suggestions on how to fix the systemic problem.”

There Oughta Be a Law

In 2003, Congress passed the bipartisan Prison Rape Elimination Act. The law established federal standards such as ensuring that incarcerated survivors of sexual violence can access the same services as all survivors.

Best practices have been developed on prevention, training, reporting and all elements of trying to address the structural problems.

But detention facilities across the United States continue to be plagued by the scourge of sexual abuse.

Every year, a horrifying 200,000 adults and children are estimated to be sexually abused behind bars in the U.S., according to a 2018 study from Just Detention International, a health and human rights nonprofit that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.

Of substantiated incidents of sexual victimization at detention facilities in 2018, a full 42 percent were perpetrated by staff, reports the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the primary source for criminal justice data from the federal government.

While the Bedford prison is state-run, federal facilities are also infected with abuse culture.

Just this past December, less than six months ago, a U.S. Senate subcommittee released a report concluding how the Federal Bureau of Prisons failed to successfully implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The report, titled “Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons,” said the bureau neglected to prevent, detect or stop “recurring sexual abuse in at least four federal prisons, including abuse by senior prison officials.”

Is it Mia or Kia?

In a phone call last week, a receptionist at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women told me the superintendent wasn’t available. She then directed questions to the DOCCS communications team in Albany.

When I then asked the DOCCS PR folks about the case of “Mia Wheeler,” the department appeared to possibly feign ignorance.

“Mia Wheeler does not come up in our database; therefore, we have no information of the abuse you are alleging,” Deputy Director of Public Information Rachel Connors stated to me in an e-mail.
As it turns out, Mia is a nickname. Mia’s legal name is Kia Wheeler. But a law firm source told me they received records from DOCCS about Wheeler’s incarceration under that name, “so they definitely have it.”

I then told DOCCS what I learned, and Connors acknowledged Kia Wheeler’s existence.

“The Department does have a record of a Kia Wheeler who was housed at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for a portion of her incarceration,” Connors conceded. “Due to the pending litigation, the department cannot comment specifically on the accusations of sexual abuse by Ms. Wheeler and other former incarcerated individuals. However, to reiterate, the safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority. The department has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution.”

Wheeler’s lawsuit was highly-publicized by ABC News, The New York Times and others, and the bigger legal fight is obviously public information and widely discussed.

Name Games

But that wasn’t the end of the apparent game DOCCS was playing.

The name of Wheeler’s alleged attacker, in the lawsuit, is spelled two ways.
The law firm couldn’t confirm the correct spelling for me before I contacted DOCCS.
“The names of the individuals who allegedly engaged in misconduct would need to be provided in order to verify if disciplinary charges had been issued,” Connors said, after I apparently referenced the wrongly spelled version of the name from the suit in my e-mail request for comment. “As for (the) Officer…you do not provide enough information in order to conduct a sufficient search of the individual you are requesting.”
I subsequently e-mailed Connors a copy of the full lawsuit – which the department must already possess – but didn’t hear back on my question about the officer’s employment or disciplinary status.
(We’ve opted not to name the officer in this column, even though his name is public information, both because the allegations are not criminally charged or legally proven and because he’s not the defendant in the civil case.)

What’s Up DOCCS?
Connors emphasized how DOCCS has invested millions of dollars to enhance safety in correctional facilities through a pilot program that includes deploying body-worn cameras and implementing associated policies.
She said the department is currently upgrading existing cameras and expanding their deployment.
Over the years, she said DOCCS has taken various measures to address sexual victimization, including appointing commissioners, updating employee training and introducing orientation programs for incarcerated people.
“…(The Office of Special Investigations) conducts random debriefings with individuals after their release,” Connor also said. “The open-ended interviews provide an additional avenue to identify actionable information that may be used to address various forms of misconduct, including sexual victimization of people who are incarcerated.” 
She insists the department ensures compliance with National Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards and recently updated policies to improve post-incident review procedures.
“DOCCS has implemented several ways for individuals to report an incident: directly to any staff member, including mental health providers and spiritual advisors; and through family members, friends, advocates or other third parties,” Connors said. “People in custody also can report directly to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) using the 444 telephone hotline during business hours, and third parties can contact OSI using a toll-free number, e-mail address or online reporting form. Reports can be made anonymously as well.”

Human Dignity
As for how much the settlements could cost the state, Slater wouldn’t share a possible number. There is no legal limit on how much the state might pay, The New York Times noted in a November article.
Funds would come out of the state budget, potentially from a reserve fund for unanticipated expenditures.
“The incarcerated individuals in New York’s correctional facilities should not have to face unsafe conditions in terms of personal safety and human dignity,” Sen. Peter Harckham (D-South Salem) told me in a prepared statement. “These individuals are paying a debt to society, which in no way should mean any form of sexual violence or abuse. I urge officials at New York’s correctional facilities to ensure basic human rights are respected.”
The issue does seem to be generating some much-needed recent attention.
Only last week, Harckham’s colleague, Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), introduced a bill that would authorize the state inspector general to receive and investigate complaints of sexual assault in correctional facilities.
And in another related recent development, a New York Times examination (published just last week) of prison disciplinary records dating back to 2010 produced an unsettling revelation – hundreds of corrections officers accused of physically abusing prisoners or concealing mistreatment remain in their positions despite DOCCS deeming them as safety threats.
The Times piece referenced more than 290 cases where DOCCS attempted to terminate guards or managers it said abused incarcerated people or covered up mistreatment. But officers were reportedly fired in only 28 of the cases.
Some critics cite a contract, established in 1972 between the union and the state, for the difficulty in removing problematic officers.

Committing to Change

I also connected last week with Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit that addresses the causes and impact of sexual violence.
She mentioned how the vast majority of sexual abuse in prison goes unreported.
“Survivors face not being believed, lack of action or retaliation,” she told me.
She pointed out how no facility is immune to sexual abuse, and a refusal to look at the prevalence and impact of the issue only leaves incarcerated people more vulnerable.
While national standards mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act are tools that can be implemented to run safer prisons, those rules are too often ignored. “Correctional leaders must commit to changing the culture of their institutions, and taking accountability for when institutions have failed to protect prisoners is a part of that process,” Palumbo said.

Silence No More

As for Connors, she stressed how DOCCS collaborates with rape crisis centers to support incarcerated survivors and conducts thorough investigations through a dedicated Sex Crimes Division.

She pointed to three criminal cases that have led to arrests and convictions from incidents at the Bedford facility, as well as two from Taconic Correctional Facility, a separate women’s prison in Bedford.

But I asked Connors in a follow-up question over e-mail whether the department might want to address in its statement the fact that so many survivors were allegedly sexually abused as a result of the weakness of past policies and the refusal or failure to incorporate federal recommendations.

On that one, I didn’t hear back.

But hopefully accountability – and change – are coming soon.

As Wheeler put it: “This is for all of the women who suffered in silence.”

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