Hundreds of Women Set to Sue New York Over Allegations of Prison Sex Abuse

Hundreds of women who have accused prison guards of sexual abuse going back decades plan to sue New York State under new legislation that allows survivors to take legal action no matter how many years have elapsed.

The Adult Survivors Act, passed in May, gives people who say they were sexually abused a one-time opportunity to file civil suits long after the statute of limitations for most criminal cases has expired.

New York lawmakers anticipated that current or former prisoners would sue. Like the Child Victims Act that passed in 2019, which extended the statutes of limitations for those abused as children, the new law allows people to file allegations about mistreatment in state facilities, including prisons.

There is no cap on how much the state can pay out to settle such lawsuits, said Brad Hoylman, the New York State senator who sponsored the legislation. The money would come out of the $220 billion state budget, and possibly from the roughly $500 million reserved for unexpected expenses.California approved similar legislation in September.

The legislation takes effect in New York on Nov. 24. At the law firm of Slater Slater and Schulman alone at least 750 individual civil lawsuits on behalf of incarcerated women are expected to be filed, lawyers there said. Some of the women’s cases date back to the 1980s and 1990s. Other law firms are likely to follow. Slater Slater and Schulman has previously pursued sex-abuse suits against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church.


The state Corrections Department has a long history of sexual abuse inside its prisons. The Department of Justice investigated allegations in the early 1980s at the now-shuttered Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. The agency released a scathing report in 1985 about the abuse, and made recommendations to the state.

Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said in a statement that the agency has “zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and unauthorized relationships,” and that it investigates all reports of sexual victimization.

There are about 31,100 people incarcerated in 44 state prisons, according to October statistics from the state Corrections Department. About 1,200 women are in three of the state’s all-female facilities.

Some legislators and even the lawyers at Slater Slater and Schulman were surprised by the large response from women who served time, a group often overlooked because of the stigma prison carries. Adam Slater, a partner at the firm, said the number of women who say they were victimized was staggering.

“Once we recognized the overwhelming number of survivors, we decided to reach out in different ways — and the response has been pretty unbelievable,” he said.

The firm’s clients include Sadie Bell, 61, who says she suffered an ectopic pregnancy and was left infertile after being raped by a prison sergeant at Bayview. Another is Kia Wheeler, 49, from the Bronx, who says she was repeatedly and violently sexually assaulted for months by a guard at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester.

Sadie Bell has said she was left infertile after being raped by a prison sergeant. Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Jacqueline Wiggins, 58, has accused a guard of raping her at Bayview about 30 years ago when she was serving time for trying to sell a controlled substance. She says she still remembers his haircut, his body odor, his teeth.

Ms. Wiggins, a nurse, said she has tried to push his face out of her mind for years. But in early November, she was lying in bed watching television at her Long Island home when a Slater Slater and Schulman advertisement appeared on the screen. It said: If you have ever been incarcerated at Bayview Correctional Facility, and have been sexually abused, please contact us.

Ms. Wiggins sat up and stared at the television. “No,” she said to herself. “This is not right. I’m seeing things. This can’t be happening.” She waited for the commercial to air again just to make sure it was real.

She had never told anyone about what she says she endured — not her best friend, not her siblings, not her three sons and not even her mother. By mid-November, she had told about 10 confidants, and had decided to forge ahead with a lawsuit.

“I tried to leave that behind 30 years ago. And now here it is, all coming back,” Ms. Wiggins said during a recent interview at the law firm’s Midtown office. “I suppressed it. I kept it down in my gut. I didn’t think I was worthy. I didn’t think anyone would care.”

Jacqueline Wiggins said she was raped by a prison guard at Bayview Correctional Facility.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times
Jacqueline Wiggins holds a framed poster that features one of her daily affirmations. She placed a snapshot of herself smiling in the frame.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Some of the suits the firm plans to file under the Adult Survivors Act will also be against cities and counties and their jails, including Rikers Island in New York City. Ben Crump, a prominent civil-rights attorney who represented the families of Black victims of police violence, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, has partnered with Slater Slater and Schulman to litigate some of the suits.

For Ms. Wheeler, filing a suit meant dredging up memories she has tried to forget for 20 years.

She smoked marijuana at times to get through the day, but anger festered. She would often lash out at strangers, her daughter and former fiancé. She wears her diamond engagement ring on a silver chain, a reminder of the relationship she says she ruined because she had not dealt with the abuse.

Ms. Wheeler went to a therapist as a part of the conditions of her parole. During one visit, the therapist told her to return to a time before prison. He asked her, if she was 13 years old what would she buy for herself?

She said Barbie dolls and roller skates, like the ones she wore when she used to go to the rink with her brother. She went out and bought them both.

“My ex fiancé would be like, ‘Why are you always on those skates?’” she said, sobbing as she spoke. “And I would tell him because you never see a sad roller skater.”

Kia Wheeler said she was repeatedly raped by a prison guard at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.Credit…Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Mr. Hoylman said the new law empowers women like Ms. Wheeler whose abusers evaded justice because of short criminal statutes of limitations.

“These women are part of a vulnerable group of people who suffered under the system and those in power,” he said.

Ms. Bell, who had the ectopic pregnancy, says she was placed into solitary confinement for weeks immediately after a sergeant raped her at Bayview. When officials learned she was pregnant, she was transferred to Bedford Hills.

Soon after, Ms. Bell says she experienced searing pain and was rushed to the hospital, where she was cuffed and shackled. Her fallopian tube had ruptured and she lost five pints of blood. She became infertile as a result.

“I haven’t really received treatment for all of this,” she said of the assault, and the trauma that ensued. “Every therapist I had was either falling asleep or yawning when I told them the story. And then I didn’t want to tell it anymore.”

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