Patricia Caruso changed her mind about men guarding female prisoners.
She was director of Michigan’s Department of Corrections when the state removed male officers from women’s prison housing units in 2005, replacing them with an all-female guard staff.
Caruso was opposed to the staffing changes, which were required as part of an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department based on a federal investigation into sexual abuse complaints. For years, the state’s correction officers’ union aggressively fought the gender-based solution, arguing that such restrictions would infringe on the guards’ employment rights, but eventually the union lost.
Similar disputes between state prison agencies and guards’ unions have unfolded across the country, including in New York. Both critics and impartial observers of the current system say restricting sensitive duties in women’s prisons to female officers would reduce sexual assaults and counter false reporting.
That theory proved true in Michigan. The frequency of allegations plummeted after the transition, and Caruso now says restricting male guards from working in women’s living quarters protects both inmates and staff alike.
“It removes opportunities for complaints to be made, whether or not something is happening,” she said.
New York’s prison agency has proposed similar staffing changes to deal with sexual abuse allegations from female inmates. But correction officers unions have blocked those proposals, in court cases dating back to the 1980s, arguing that it discriminates based on gender and violates equal employment law.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association says changing the policies on cross-gender supervision is not necessary, and that “proper training is the best approach.”
Two Legal Aid Society attorneys are still litigating a federal class-action lawsuit they filed 11 years ago, Amador v. Andrews, charging New York’s prison agency has failed to protect women from abuse by male guards, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape, and that fundamental flaws in the state’s system for investigating these allegations have left female inmates vulnerable.
One of the plaintiffs in the Amador case said being sexually abused by a correction officer led her to believe that “men guarding females” is a “time bomb waiting to go off.”
After much back and forth in the courts, New York moved to dismiss the federal suit last year, arguing the case is “moot,” or no longer holds any bearing, since the state correction system is attempting to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, a law that aims to curb prison rape through information gathering and national standards. Adherence to PREA is voluntary; states lose 5 percent of their federal prison funding if they don’t comply but can retain that money if they show it will be used for future PREA implementation.
New York’s correction agency has a “zero tolerance” policy toward prison rape, and recently “upped the ante” in sexual abuse prevention, by increasing training about sexual abuse for guards and inmates, said Jason Effman, associate commissioner in charge of overseeing PREA’s implementation. He cites a number of other improvements. For years, legal advocates found that women were brought to solitary confinement after reporting a rape, but Effman said as of a few months ago, prison officials are now instructed to bring inmates who allege sexual abuse to the prison infirmary rather than an isolated, bathroom-size cell.
The department is exploring ways for inmates to officially report sexual abuse outside the state’s correction agency, such as through a tip line or other independent entity, in order to lessen an inmate’s fear of retribution for reporting.
Most sex crime investigators are former guards, which critics have said creates an inherent bias against inmates. It’s a point Effman disputes. “They take this very seriously. When a case goes to trial and gets acquitted, they’re devastated,” he said.
The department has outfitted all three female-only facilities — Albion, Bedford, and Taconic — with cameras, said Effman. Willard Drug Treatment Campus and Lakeview Shock incarceration, which are coed and where male guards have been charged with sexually abusing women prisoners, remain without cameras.
PREA gives detention centers three years to ban pat-frisks of female inmates absent exigent circumstances. That is not yet the policy in New York, though it is in many parts of the country.
Prison officials said male officers are required to use the back of their hand when frisking the breasts, are not to pat down the genital area, and that “female-frisk-only” tours are routine, particularly at the two women’s prisons downstate. Advocates welcome the new PREA standards, but some say it doesn’t go far enough because much is up for interpretation and there’s barely a penalty for non-compliance.
Effman said when it comes to restructuring women’s prisons to include more female staff, the department’s “hands are tied” because the prison agency cannot assign any officer to a particular correctional facility, under the union contract. In addition, the PREA standards “stopped short” of “establishing female supervision of female inmates as a qualification,” he said, making it impossible to force the union to accept a staffing overhaul.
But there’s nothing in PREA that keeps officials from going beyond the standards. Notes Dori Lewis, one of the attorneys in the Amador case, “No one is forcing [the department] to sign those union contracts.”