Women Describe Invasive Strip Searches on Visits to City Jails

Jeannette Reynoso said she was subjected to a body-cavity search when she visited her husband on Rikers Island in 2015. Such searches are prohibited in New York City jails.

Jeannette Reynoso dreaded visiting her husband at the Rikers Island jail complex. She knew she would wait hours to be processed, go through several metal detectors and be subjected to a search by dogs sniffing for drugs and weapons.

But she never thought she would be standing naked and in tears before two New York City Department of Correction officers as they checked her body cavities for contraband.

On the Oct. 2, 2015, visit, Ms. Reynoso said she passed through three metal detectors, including at the George Motchan Detention Center, one of 10 jails on Rikers Island. While she was waiting to see her husband, a female officer ordered her to disrobe in a small, cold search room. When she asked why, she said the officer threatened to cancel her visits for 45 days.

She said she signed a form consenting to a pat frisk, a search that typically includes removal of outerwear like a coat, hat and shoes. Instead, Ms. Reynoso was told to take off all her clothing, according to an account she provided in an interview and in a lawsuit she filed in 2016.

According to the lawsuit, the female correction officer ran her hands over Ms. Reynoso’s breasts and genitalia, asked her to squat and violently inserted two fingers into her anus. She said she was menstruating at the time of the visit. “They didn’t care,” Ms. Reynoso said. “They wanted to see if drugs would fall out from my clothes.”

Ms. Reynoso is one of seven women interviewed by The New York Times who have filed lawsuits or notices of claim against the city alleging illegal searches conducted in violation of city policy. A review of these lawsuits and more than two dozen other court cases filed by visitors point to a similar pattern: The visitors said they signed a waiver for a routine pat-down, but instead, they said, they were taken to search rooms or bathrooms for full strip searches, some involving invasive cavity checks. The prevalence of strip searches of visitors in the city’s jails, as detailed in lawsuits, was first reported last year in a joint investigation by The Intercept and WNYC.

The search Ms. Reynoso described is prohibited in city jails. In state and federal prisons, strip searches of visitors are permitted with consent, but not cavity checks. In city jails, however, neither strip searches nor cavity checks of visitors are allowed, Department of Correction officials said.

“There’s no reason for it, no justification for a cavity search, period,” said Martin Horn, who ran the city’s correction department from 2003 to 2009 and is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I can’t be anymore emphatic than that.”

Yet allegations of inappropriate searches of visitors are common enough to have prompted separate investigations by the Bronx district attorney’s office and the New York City Department of Investigation during the last two years. Neither resulted in criminal charges.

Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, scoffed at the claims raised by the women in the lawsuits and said he has seen no evidence of officers conducting inappropriate searches of visitors.

“People are coming in with weapons in their vaginas, up their anus and in baby bottles,” Mr. Husamudeen said. “I’ve had to call child welfare to come and get kids and I’ve had to arrest a grandma who didn’t know she was being used to bring drugs to jail. This is the reality of jail.”

A culture of violence and corruption has plagued the city’s jails. At Rikers, the prevalence of smuggled drugs and weapons is a key factor in the city’s plan to close it down completely within 10 years.

To increase safety, the correction department has stepped up the number of visitor searches over the last four years.

Still, most visitors present no security threat.

Last year, of the more than 247,340 visitors to the city’s 14 jails, fewer than 0.1 percent — 305 people — were charged with smuggling in contraband.

For families with relatives in jail, visits are an essential link in the uphill effort to maintain strong connections. But trips can be a traumatizing and deeply humiliating experience, some visitors said, pointing to searches, long wait times and inhospitable correction officers.

In 2016, 31 percent of the 199 complaints that visitors lodged against correction officers were for improper searches and sexual misconduct, according to data provided by the correction department. In 2017, 18 percent of the 245 complaints were for inappropriate searches and sexual misconduct.

The current head of the correction department, Cynthia Brann, said efforts are underway to make the visitation process better.

“We know it’s important to help people in custody maintain strong connections to family and community and have worked hard to improve the visit process under this administration,” Ms. Brann said in a statement. “We know additional work is needed and we are determined to build on our progress, while also balancing the need to increase safety by reducing the flow of contraband into the jails.”

In 2016, the department installed cameras in jail search areas, but complaints about inappropriate searches continued. That year, Raymond Audain, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of four women who said they were improperly searched at Rikers Island. Alan Figman, a lawyer, represents Ms. Reynoso and at least 30 other women and one man who have alleged improper searches.

“It’s a systemic design to put these women down,” Mr. Figman said.

Ms. Reynoso, 28, said the experience left her with deep emotional wounds.

“The way they treat you is bad,” Ms. Reynoso said. “That’s the price you got to pay for having a family member that’s incarcerated.”

Last year, the correction department’s own investigation division found one officer had conducted an improper search. That officer was placed on probation, officials said.

The head of the city’s independent Department of Investigation, Mark G. Peters, said his office analyzed surveillance videos in 2016 and interviewed 30 of the visitors who said they were improperly searched.

Pursuing a criminal complaint against specific officers proved difficult, he said, because there were no witnesses or video confirmation.

For similar reasons, the investigation by the Bronx district attorney’s office did not lead to criminal charges said Patrice O’Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for the office.

Mr. Peters’s investigation led him to write to Joseph Ponte, then the correction department’s commissioner, urging him to take several steps, including issuing a directive that specifically prohibits cavity searches, better training about permitted searches and requiring that all pat frisks be conducted in public.

In some instances multiple complaints have been lodged against the same officer. The officer named in Ms. Reynoso’s complaint was accused of conducting or supervising improper searches of at least three other visitors, including Tamara Blackwood.

Ms. Blackwood said she questioned an officer before she was searched during a 2015 visit to Rikers Island. She said the officer told her, “‘You can’t tell me what to do on my island. Once you cross that bridge and sign these papers you’re subjected to anything we want to do.’”

Ms. Blackwood, who filed a lawsuit in 2015, said the officer threatened to detain her for the weekend if she continued to protest.

During a strip search, the officer swiped her gloved hand across her vagina and buttocks and told her to cough, she said.

She said she was strip-searched on two prior visits but was unaware the procedure was prohibited. Until the more invasive search occurred, Ms. Blackwood said she did not believe stories she had heard other women tell.

“I didn’t take it as truth,” she said. “Sometimes you think it’s an exaggeration, and that they don’t just do it just to do it.”

The lawsuits offer several theories about what might trigger such searches.

Cristina Mateo, 28, said a female guard indicated she had smelled marijuana during her 2016 visit to the Brooklyn Detention Center.

Ms. Mateo recounted in an interview and detailed in a lawsuit that the officer ordered her to strip and inserted two fingers into her vagina. The officer did not find drugs, and Ms. Mateo was permitted to visit her boyfriend, she said. The ordeal frightened her then 4-year-old daughter, who witnessed the search, she said.

In other cases, inmates appeared to have been flagged. Two women — Michelle Gumbs, who visited her fiancé on Rikers Island in 2015, and Monica Salaman, who visited her brother at the Brooklyn Detention Complex in 2016 — said in separate lawsuits filed against the city that correction officers explained that they had to be strip-searched because the inmate was “on a list that required all visitors of the named inmates be searched.”

A correction officer who previously worked at the visiting center at Rikers Island, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the officer is not authorized to speak to the media, said some female officers conducted strip searches and body-cavity searches if they believed a visitor was concealing contraband or if the visitor was flagged during a canine search. Supervisors, the correction officer said, would give them “the green light to do what they got to do.”

Credit...Annie Tritt for The New York Times

The city has come under fire in the past for its use of strip searches on suspects who were awaiting arraignment as well as detainees accused of minor offenses — practices that also are banned. In 2010, it paid $33 million to about 100,000 people after correction officers were accused of strip-searching suspects charged with misdemeanors. And in 2001, the city shelled out $40 million to settle a case in which 50,000 people were strip-searched while waiting to be arraigned.

But when it comes to visitors, Mr. Horn, the former head of the city jail system, said there are at least three alternatives to invasive searches: deny the visit; conduct a pat frisk; or keep the visitor and the inmate separated by a glass partition.

The city has made efforts to crack down on smuggling and reduce attacks on officers and inmates at Rikers. In 2016, the department added canine teams and created a bus amnesty program, which allows visitors taking the Q100 bus to Rikers to leave weapons or drugs behind with no penalty. Last year, 553 weapons were recovered at city correction facilities, up from 88 in 2014, according to data provided by the Department of Correction. Last year, officers found illegal drugs 760 times, up from 272 in 2014.

Mr. Peters has said rogue correction employees are responsible for ferrying a large share of the contraband that infiltrates jails.

In 2014, a D.O.I. inspector posed as a correction officer and was able to smuggle narcotics, alcohol and a razor blade past six different employee security screenings at Rikers. The agency launched a similar investigation last year at detention facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn and concluded that the department was failing to properly screen its employees at those sites.

Since 2010, 27 employees have been accused of smuggling contraband into the jails, according to the D.O.I.

“If you want to maintain safe, non-chaotic jails you have to check the correction officers,” Mr. Peters said. “The biggest issue isn’t visitors, but the correction officers — because they can bring in large amounts of contraband.”

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