By Alysia Santo
Anna cowered in a prison hallway, her inmate jumpsuit ripped, her neck bruised. Afraid to speak the unspeakable truth, she told the sergeant who found her that she was upset about issues with her kids.
When questioned later, she said Donald Lasker, a guard at Albion State Prison in Orleans County, had just raped her and threatened to harm her if she told.
Lasker was eventually convicted of statutory rape. His sentence: 10 weekends in jail, 10 years' probation, and being listed as a Level 1 sex offender. He claimed in court that he'd been seduced.
Anna, who now lives in Albany, was put in solitary confinement for a week "for her own safety," she was told, before finishing her two-year sentence for cashing a fake check. She requested that her last name not be used.
Her story is one of many across New York in recent years, and the cases encompass a wide range of scenarios. Sexual abuse in women's prisons is nuanced, law enforcement experts say, ranging from forcible rape to more complicated types of coercion in which women may be, at least initially, willing participants.
- What about the sexual abuse in men's prisons?
Since 2006, the state's prison agency has substantiated 33 incidents involving the sexual abuse of female inmates by prison staff and 27 incidents involving sexual harassment by staff. It's a situation well-known to state officials for decades, yet New York state has continuously failed to implement policies used in other states to protect female prisoners from being sexually victimized by prison employees, usually correction officers. One New York women's prison ranked among the worst in the nation for prison rape, with a rate five times the national average.
In at least three rulings in the past year, judges compensated women raped by New York state correction officers, including a woman who gave birth to a guard's child while incarcerated. Prison officials say there have been seven pregnancies since 2000 in which the father of the inmate's child was a staff member from the facility.
"The sexual abuse of women in custody is a long-standing and endemic problem," said Brenda Smith, a professor at American University Washington College of Law. She has more than 30 years' experience working in the area of sexual victimization behind bars, and served from 2004 to 2009 on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
She called abuse by prison staff "the most basic betrayal of the public's trust," particularly since the United States has the highest population of incarcerated people in the world. "The people being victimized in custody are not just them. They are us. It could be anyone you know," Smith said.
New York's prison agency, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), said in a statement their position can be summarized in two words: "Zero Tolerance," wrote spokesperson Tom Mailey. "Regardless of the enormity of our responsibility, for over 90,000 inmates and parolees zero tolerance means even one instance of sexual abuse is one too many ... Through prevention, education, and ongoing victim support programs, DOCCS works to eliminate all forms of sexual violence within the department, to provide access to appropriate and meaningful emotional support services for victims of sexual abuse, and to prosecute anyone who sexually abuses an offender to the fullest extent of the law."
Still, justice often eludes women imprisoned here. Success in criminal court is frequently stymied by the difficult nature of proving sex crimes in prison, where an inmate's word can hold little or no credibility, and where the sympathies of a judge and jury can often lie with guards. That, coupled with an aggressive union that fights to keep its male members employed in female prisons despite allegations of abuse, has resulted in an atmosphere largely insulated from systemic change.
So it continues, shrouded in secrecy.