Six female correction officers have been indicted amid allegations that women endured invasive body cavity and strip searches when they tried to visit loved ones in jail, horror stories that were unearthed in a series of I-Team reports.
The half-dozen suspects, including Leslie-Ann Absalom, a 53-year-old former Department of Correction captain, are accused of illegal searches at the Manhattan Detention Complex. They pleaded not guilty to charges including official misconduct, unlawful imprisonment and conspiracy at their arraignment early Monday afternoon.
Aside from Absalom, the indicted include officers Daphne Farmer, 49, Jennifer George, 32, Lisette Rodriguez, 51, Alifoa Waiters, 45 and Latoya Shuford, 36.
According to court documents, the correction officers routinely unlawfully strip-searched female visitors, including forcing them to remove their pants and underwear, touching their breasts and examining their genital areas. Four of the officers allegedly filed false paperwork to justify the illegal searches, prosecutors say. Ultimately, three visitors were arrested on the basis of charges stemming from those unlawful searches, prosecutors said.
Names of attorneys for the women weren't immediately available.
In a statement, Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen said officers assigned to the visitors' area at the Manhattan facility arrested more than 50 guests last year alone for allegedly trying to smuggling in drugs, razors and other contraband.
"Every day they do everything they can to keep this jail safe for visitors, inmates and correction staff," Husamudeen said. "They deserve more public support for the diligent professionalism they exude every day."
Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett said stopping contraband from getting into city jails is critically important, but not at "the expense of visitors' dignity, the law and the Correction Department's rules."
According to DOC protocol, officers should conduct "pat frisk" searches of visitors who are suspected of having contraband and must get written consent for the searches in advance. Should a visitor refuse to consent, DOC officers can suggest a "non-contact booth visit" or the officers may deny the visit entirely.
The I-Team has been reporting on illegal strip search complaints in city jails for years. Last summer, three women filed notices of claim against the DOC, claiming they were sexually abused by correction officers during visits.
One woman described being touched inappropriately and threatened that child welfare authorities would be called to take her kids away if she complained. Another said she was so traumatized by a strip search she couldn't go back.
"By the time she was finished touching the top, like my breasts weren’t even in my bra. My bra was all the way up to my neck," the woman said. "She (the officer), went in, she went inside, she moved around, touched my private area. And I just had to stand there. I was in shock."
In February 2018, the I-Team interviewed two other women who said they had been improperly searched in bathrooms on Rikers. At the time, the DOC claimed that bathrooms had been used because of “space limitations,” but promised the practice had been stopped.
About 14 months before that, the Department of Investigation sent a letter to DOC making sweeping recommendations to the department on improving visitor procedures. It wasn’t until June 2018 that DOC updated its policy directive.
The Department of Investigation released a new report Monday following the indictments assessing the need for further changes to DOC policies, practices and training protocol. (You can view the full 120-page report here.)
Among the department's findings: DOC increased video surveillance coverage after a DOI follow-up investigation last year, but does not review it in real-time or spot-check it regularly. DOI also found that DOC often conducts the strip searches with a single officer in a place hidden from public view "in what appears to be a misplaced emphasis on privacy."
DOI suggests officers default to public area searches unless the visitor requests a private search. Searches should also be conducted with a captain's supervision and video recording, but those measures, along with the consent requirement, are at times ignored.
DOI says DOC incorporated most of the suggestions it made in its 2016 report, but says there is a clear need for more staff training. Enhanced video and staff surveillance is also critical moving forward, DOI said.
The watchdog also issued new policy and procedure recommendations in the report it released Monday. Those include: stopping a visitor search as soon as contraband is found, prohibit bathroom searches, post clear signs and illustrations in English and Spanish explaining visitor search policy and procedure, develop a demo video for staff training and assign an on-call DOC attorney to help visitor area officers with questions, among other suggestions.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance urged DOC to quickly adopt and implement the watchdog agency's recommendations.
"There is no excuse for violating the human rights of New Yorkers visiting our City’s jails. As alleged, these officers flagrantly abused their power when they ignored their training and subjected visitors to humiliating and unlawful searches," Vance said in a statement. "Further, they attempted to cover up their actions by forcing visitors to sign consent forms under false pretenses, and repeatedly lying in official documents."
Attorney Alan Figman, who represents nearly 40 women who have made accusations of sex abuse, told the I-Team in August it was clear the most recent set of DOI guidelines were not being put into practice.
“I look at DOC as a department that is totally out of control. The only way to achieve any sort of regulation is to bring in federal monitors,” he said.