The XX Factor

A Rape Accusation at Rikers Island’s Women’s Prison, Among the Worst in the Nation for Sexual Abuse

The entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A corrections officer at New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex was indicted Friday on charges of raping a female inmate in November.

Any sex between a guard and an incarcerated person—who cannot legally consent—is rape. The woman the New York Daily News has identified as the victim, Jacqueline Healy, has said that the guard, a nine-year veteran of Rikers named Jose Cosme, forced her into a storage closet out of view of the security cameras. There, she says, he raped her with a blank look on his face, “like he wasn’t there.” Healy told the Daily News that she mailed the shirt she was wearing at the time of the attack to relatives, hoping to preserve the evidence.

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Cosme is far from the first Rikers officer to be accused of sexually abusing his charges. In 2015, two inmates who, like Healy, served time at the island’s all-women Rose M. Singer Center filed a suit claiming they’d been raped repeatedly by correction officer Benny Santiago; they also alleged a “pervasive culture of rape.” The Legal Aid Society, which brought the case, called the Rose M. Singer Center “one of the 12 worst jails in the country regarding rates of staff sexual misconduct,” as the Daily News reported at the time. In a 2011–12 national survey of inmates performed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 5.9 percent of Rose M. Singer residents reported being sexually abused by a staff member, compared with 2.4 percent of inmates overall. (Rose M. Singer also had a high rate of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence: 5 percent reported experiencing this, as compared to 2 percent of those surveyed nationwide.)

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Given those numbers, it’s not surprising that rape cases from Rikers frequently make the New York press. City Limits listed several troubling stories in May:

In February, a female Rikers guard was arrested and charged with raping a male inmate and conspiring to bring him drugs; the guard claims the incident was consensual, but under New York penal code, inmates can not legally consent to sex. In November 2015, a federal lawsuit was filed against the department on behalf of a female prisoner who says a correction officer forcibly raped her last March on a bus transporting her and five male inmates to Rikers.

Another lawsuit filed over the summer alleges that a transgender inmate held at the Robert N. Davoren Complex was harassed and repeatedly raped by a guard, who then gave gifts as bribes so the victim would not report the assaults. In October 2010, a guard was arrested and charged for groping and sexually harassing a transgender woman detained at the Manhattan Detention Complex in September 2009.

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Rikers is only the egregious end of a disturbing spectrum when it comes to the prevalence of rape in American jails. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has written at the Nation: “[A] prisoner’s likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual assault is roughly thirty times higher than that of any given woman on the outside. … [I]nmates with mental health problems and inmates who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual were all at higher risk for sexual abuse than the general population.”

Cosme faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted. Mark Peters, commissioner of the Department of Investigation, said in a statement that the Cosme case was “part of a larger set of investigations on the issue that we are undertaking.” Healy’s may be one of many stories waiting to be uncovered.

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