TESTIMONY OF THE FORTUNE SOCIETY
City Council Chambers
RE: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in NYC Jails
September 6, 2018
Strategic Partnerships Liaison & Senior Grant Writer
The Fortune Society
My name is Kandra Clark. At 33 years old, I am a survivor of domestic violence, sexual abuse, PTSD, substance use, prolonged incarceration, and neglected mental health needs. Born in a small town in Illinois, to a home plagued by the same issues, I had little opportunity to observe healthy lifestyle habits. At 10 years old, drugs and alcohol were the only coping mechanisms available to suppress the symptoms of the trauma I experienced. I was very angry about what happened to me, and didn’t know how to respond. I lacked a support system to confide in. I didn’t have anyone to coach me on how to overcome my anger, lack of self-worth, depression, and constant fear for my safety. As a result, it was only a matter of time before my path led to the criminal justice system. At the age of 15, I was arrested for a curfew violation, an offense based on my age known as a status offense. Status offenses impact people at a young age, but the trauma of the arrest and experience lasts a lifetime, driving people directly into our carceral system. I spent the next decade cycling in and out of the legal system, battling substance use, and experiencing homelessness, all while suffering from untreated trauma and mental health needs.
In 2010, I spent 4 months, including my 25th birthday, detained on Rikers Island before being sentenced and transferred to a NYS Correctional Facility. The incarceratory practices used on Rikers Island exacerbated my symptoms of trauma while inflicting additional harm. Each and every night I spent on Rikers I was fearful for my life and my body. It was not the other women I was incarcerated with that I feared. For me, it was the male correctional officers who would watch me go to the bathroom through the window in my cell door each night. Or the officers that would use their flashlights to watch me for several minutes while I tried to cover my body and lay underneath a sheet sweating in a nearly 100 degree cell the size of a closet. It was the feeling of being trapped, knowing that if I covered the window in my cell door with a piece of paper for even a second of privacy, I would receive a ticket and be sent to solitary confinement. It was the paralyzing fear of going to solitary confinement at an officer’s whim, an unimaginable torture that I knew I could NOT handle. It was the constant exposure to derogatory and sexist comments, harassing remarks, and abusive language that fueled the demeaning environment on a daily basis. It was the absolute power that correctional officers, particularly male officers, held over me, and the fact that there was no one for me to report abuse/neglect to.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I stand with millions of other women whose stories of violence, abuse, and trauma have common threads. Only 5% of the world’s female population lives in the United States, yet the U.S. accounts for 33% of the world’s incarcerated women. Over the past quarter century, the number of women in prison in the U.S. increased by 700%, rising from 26,378 in 1980 to over 200,000 today. While overall there are more men in prison, the number of women incarcerated has grown at a rapid rate, 50% higher than men.
The overwhelming majority of women in prison are survivors of domestic violence, and more than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. Three-quarters of women incarcerated have histories of severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, and 85% have suffered serious physical or sexual abuse as children. Furthermore, many incarcerated women are charged with crimes that include defending themselves against intimate partner violence and sexual assault. According to the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 67% of women sent to prison in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by the victim of their crime.
At the Rikers women’s facility known as Rosie’s, a DOJ report cited that staff sexually victimized at least 50 of the 800 women housed there at any given time, although as many as 98% of all sexual assault incidents go unreported. Like women, LGBTQAI and gender nonconforming people are also over-represented in our carceral systems. According to a December 2017 article, trans-women, in particular, have experienced high rates of sexual assault and harassment while on Rikers. Overall, 34% of incarcerated trans-people experience at least one incident of sexual violence, more than eight times the average rate for detainees.
The abuse on Rikers also impacts community members, in particular those who visit their loved ones while incarcerated. In November 2017, the NYC Jails Action Coalition revealed that at least 45 women have filed lawsuits that accuse the Department of Correction of unlawful strip searches, most of them alleged at Rikers. Since that time, families of incarcerated loved ones continue to come forward and share their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment at Rikers.
The intersectionality between trauma, sexual assault and incarceration is clearly evident, and we have an opportunity to transform our carceral systems. Starting with reexamining the way in which we determine who gets arrested and the reasons for why we incarcerate people. The sexual assault-to-prison pipeline is real and encompasses the abuse women face BEFORE, DURING and AFTER incarceration. Women impacted by the criminal justice system know what truly needs to be changed in order to drastically and immediately reform the legal system and therefore are the most compelling voices necessary at the table to lend expertise during this process. Women affected by incarceration are our sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and community members. We all deserve better than being locked away for extensive amounts of time, isolated without adequate supportive services and staffing to meet our needs. Truly revolutionizing the legal system for women begins with addressing the intersectionality between domestic violence, sexual assault, mental health, trauma, substance abuse and criminality. Our prior history of abuse should be taken into consideration, utilizing incarceration as an absolute last resort recognizing the further trauma and harm instilled by our carceral system. Adequate community resources and opportunities created specifically for women in the community are the first sources of intervention. Effective diversion programs and Alternatives-to-Incarceration sentences should be considered first, before any further action is taken in court. It is only by addressing the violence and trauma women face BEFORE, DURING and AFTER incarceration that we can aim to dismantle the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline and foster self-confident women to lead us into tomorrow.
Today, I work at The Fortune Society as the Strategic Partnerships Liaison and Senior Grant Writer, as well as with several other organizations including: Just Leadership USA and the Women’s Community Justice Project. Each of these organizations dedicate time, effort, and resources to decarcerating America, employing diverse approaches. Together, we expand opportunities for people with justice histories to overcome barriers, grow as successful role-models in their home and community, and harness the power of their experiences into compelling narratives for change. I am living testimony of the resilience and strength of women who have been impacted by the legal systems. I implore the City Council and all who are here today to engage with women leaders with lived experience to work together to overhaul our criminal justice system. There are several recommendations that I’d like to offer to protect women from further trauma and provide the services necessary to overcome the obstacles confronting them:
(1) The design of the new borough-based facilities should be gender-responsive, in programming, space, staffing and oversight. Traditionally, women have lacked the appropriate support services needed while incarcerated and we have an opportunity to ensure that the new model will truly meet the needs of women, their children, and their families. This includes space, staffing and programming for visiting areas and nurseries.
(2) At minimum, all DOC staff should be trained to engage women using Trauma-Informed Care and Intimate Partner Violence sensitive practices.
(3) Diversion and Alternatives-to-Incarceration programs must be considered in lieu of incarceration, reducing the amount of time women are exposed to Rikers Island.
(4) Collaboration between DOC and women-led nonprofit organizations to create an oversight committee to review all sexual assault/harassment allegations.
(5) While I understand the City Council cannot reform the NYS bail statute, the Council can fund partner organizations to educate judges and district attorneys about the issues impacting violence survivors in an effort to expand the court’s use of supportive services in the community rather than setting bail for this population. Over 70% of people incarcerated in NYS are detainees presumed innocent yet subjected to horrible conditions of confinement.
As a Fortune employee, member of JLUSA, and WCJP, I am eager to work alongside the City Council to dismantle Rikers Island in a thoughtful way, ensuring the culture of violence, harassment, sexual assault, and dehumanization comes to an end for everyone.
Thank you for this opportunity to testify today.
Strategic Partnerships Liaison and Senior Grant Writer
The Fortune Society, Inc.
29-76 Northern Blvd.
Long Island City, NY 11101