'None of us were heard': Adult Survivors Act opens window for formerly incarcerated to sue




  • In US
  • 2022-11-23 18:10:05Z
  • By Lohud | The Journal News

Wanda Santalis told few others, beyond her mother and husband, about the unwanted touching and groping she said she suffered while incarcerated at Manhattan's Bayview Correctional Facility.

The 37-year-old mother of five compared the state women's prison to a maze. Tight aisles had little visibility from others, she recalled.

It was there, between October 2010 and May 2011, that she said officers sexually assaulted her. One programming officer, she said, kissed her neck and forced his hands inside her body. Another officer groped her, she said. A third put his hand down her pants. Both of those times, she added, she was handcuffed.

"None of us were heard," said Santalis, who now lives in Schenectady. "No one knew what was happening. I thought, like, the world was blinded."

When the one-year window for filing lawsuits in New York under the new Adults Survivors Act opens Thursday, Santalis will be among more than 750 women alleging they suffered sexual assault inside the state's prisons and jails.

Signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul in May, the Adult Survivors Act allows for alleged victims of abuse to sue people or institutions, regardless of when the incident may have taken place. The act builds on the Child Victims Act, which brought thousands of lawsuits by people who came forward to report sexual abuse when they were minors. Adult

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Some of the accusations within the state's prisons date back more than four decades.

Santalis decided to come forward after seeing lawsuits announced on Facebook. Recently, she said a friend who was also at Bayview told her the staff assaulted her, too.

"It's not just me," Santalis said. "I'm not alone."

The new law not only allows people accused of committing sexual assault to be held accountable in civil claims, but it also applies to institutions and employers that permitted sexual assault, or failed to respond. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the state agency that manages prisons, will see some of the first cases.

"What they were given was a lifetime of trauma they don't deserve," said Adam Slater, an attorney at Slater Slater Schulman LLP, which has joined with civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent Santalis and other women suing state prisons and local jails. "They were kind of a forgotten part of society. That made it easier for the state to ignore what was going on."

\"Civil: Ben Crump\" captures a year in the life of the attorney.
\"Civil: Ben Crump\" captures a year in the life of the attorney.  

Attorneys expect the number of cases to grow during the window that ends Nov. 24, 2023. The majority of cases they file come from Black and brown women once held in state prisons, Slater said.

In a statement, DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said the department has "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse, sexual harassment and unauthorized relationships. "The Department thoroughly investigates all reports of sexual victimization, including unauthorized relationships, and retaliation against any individuals who report incidents or cooperate with those investigations," he said.

"Staff have an affirmative duty to report any knowledge, suspicion, or information regarding an incident of sexual abuse or sexual harassment, and any unauthorized relationship," he said. "Individuals who violate Department rules are disciplined by the Department and when there is evidence that a crime was committed, DOCCS refers those cases for criminal prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by law."

Prisons and jails named

Of the 755 people represented by Slater and Crump, 222 cases, the most of any prison, are said to have occurred at Bayview Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Manhattan that shuttered after damage sustained from Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Albion women's prison, near Rochester, has 164 cases. Other prisons include Bedford Hills and Taconic, both in Westchester County, with 79 and 54 cases, respectively; and Rikers Island, the New York City complex, with 64 cases.

Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a prison for women, seen in this 2018 file photo.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a prison for women, seen in this 2018 file photo.  

The lawsuits allege the state had direct knowledge of sexual violence in its prisons, particularly Bayview. Claims against the state can't have individual people as co-defendants, so attorneys for people formerly incarcerated plan to determine whether they also bring cases against individuals, Slater's firm said.

A 1985 report on Bayview's conditions by the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit with state authority to monitor prisons, described a "continuing problem of sexual abuse and harassment," citing investigations against guards, who were overwhelmingly men. This included verbal harassment and sexual contact.

In a 2010 report on sexual assault in prisons and jails in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice said Bayview had the second-highest percentage of people incarcerated reporting sexual abuse-related physical force or threat of force in the country. Bayview also had the highest reported rate of sexual misconduct by prison staff.

Jacqueline Wiggins, 58, said a Bayview officer in 1995 raped her while she was incarcerated. The officer then threatened her with preventing her work release, she told reporters at a press conference announcing the lawsuits at Manhattan's Federal Plaza on Nov. 16. She was joined by two other women who accused state correctional officers of sexually assaulting them while they were incarcerated.

"Their job is to protect me and guide me, and make sure that I lead a productive life," Wiggins said. "Not sexually assault me."

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'Finally have their truth be told'

The Adult Survivors Act expands on the 2019 Child Victims Act that created a window to file lawsuits otherwise barred by statutes of limitations.

The new law aims to help people seek justice in court who were previously left out, said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, the new law's sponsor.

"It's transformative for the individual to finally have their truth be told before a judge and a jury to rectify, hopefully, a very sorrowful and painful personal situation," he said.

Additionally, he said, "in some cases, it may lead to systemic policy changes, as in the case of the formerly incarcerated women who clearly didn't have the protections of the system when they were harassed, abused and raped under the care of New York State."

In this May 24, 2022, photo, New York Gov.
In this May 24, 2022, photo, New York Gov.  

The lawsuits set to be filed by formerly incarcerated people are just a fraction of those seeking to hold people and institutions accountable.

On Thanksgiving, columnist E. Jean Carroll also plans to file a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump under the Adult Survivors Act for battery 27 years ago. Carroll has accused Trump of rape, which he has denied. She's also suing him for defamation with the sexual assault allegations due to his denials and comments about the case.

It's been five years since the #MeToo movement was popularized after multiple sexual assault allegations over decades by Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted of rape.

Marissa Hoechstetter, an advocate and survivor who helped pass New York's law, said there's a greater understanding and public discourse on trauma and its effects. This includes when people acknowledge their experience, let alone tell other people or seek a legal recourse.

"The culture has changed," she said, "and our laws need to catch up with that."

More information

If you are in need of confidential support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chat online at online.rainn.org.

Eduardo Cuevas covers race and justice for the USA TODAY Network of New York. He can be reached at EMCuevas1@gannett.com and followed on Twitter @eduardomcuevas.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Adult Survivors Act: Prisons, jails to see hundreds of lawsuits

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