Benny Santiago, a corrections officer at Rikers Island who is accused of repeatedly raping female inmates while on duty, is slated to stand trial on Tuesday, May 9. According to a suit filed in 2015, Santiago sexually assaulted two inmates, referred to as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, among other female detainees, for several years with impunity.
Originally, the suit was filed against both Santiago and the city of New York. The city was accused of tampering with evidence, "facilitat[ing] the rape and sexual abuse of the women committed to its custody," and being "deliberately indifferent to correction officers' sexual abuse of women." The initial suit asked the city for a "comprehensive plan to remedy the pattern of sexual abuse" at the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), which houses all female detainees at Rikers. On Monday, May 1, Jane Doe 1 and 2 agreed to a settlement with the city that was limited to cash payment, according to the plaintiffs' lawyer, Mitchell Lowenthal.
Lowenthal tells Broadly that both women are pleased with the terms of the settlement, despite the fact that the city of New York will not be forced to enact changes at RMSC. Still, Lowenthal and his clients hope that the settlement will encourage the city to improve the system at RMSC, which they say allows for rampant rape and other abuses of women. The attorney hopes that Jane Doe 1 and 2's commitment to putting Santiago on trial "will also send a message that Rikers staff who commit such acts can also be called to task by their victims."
Santiago, who remains a Department of Corrections officer to this day, is accused of raping and sexually abusing Jane Doe 1 for four years, and of raping and sexually abusing Jane Doe 2 from February to May of 2013, according to a pretrial memorandum filed in April. He repeatedly threatened Jane Doe 1's family, according to the memo, "to ensure that [she] submitted to, and did not report, his rape and sexual abuse," and would punish her by anally raping her when she did something that displeased him, such as requesting that he use a condom.
According to the suit, he is accused of threatening to report both women for having contraband, which he provided them, if they did not comply with his sexual requests. The suit also states that Santiago gave Jane Doe 2 an STI, and that both women have been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of his alleged abuse. (Santiago's lawyer denies the allegations.)
What makes this case unique is not the brutal, repeated rapes endured by these two women by someone at a US prison in a position of authority—the number of reported sexual abuse cases at RMSC is more than double the national prison average—but that their case has made it to trial. Since May of 2015, Rikers Island has been recognized as "a penal colony that subjects all within its walls to inhumane conditions."
According to the 2015 suit, there are at least seven other correction officers at RMSC who have been accused of sexually abusing women in custody, two of whom have allegedly impregnated women they assaulted. On multiple occasions, the suit alleges that multiple if not most staff members at RMSC knew or were informed of the abusive behaviors of both Santiago and other correction officers but neglected to take action.
In April of this year, the Rikers Island commission unveiled a 10-year plan to shut down the jail complex after a report on the complex concluded that its conditions were inhumane. Critics of the plan say that countless people will suffer within those 10 years unless reforms are made in the meantime. "We had also hoped to be able to pursue a claim seeking institutional reform at RMSC, but the settlement will prevent that from happening in this case," says Lowenthal, the lawyer representing Jane Doe 1 and 2. "Perhaps another victim will step forward and bring another case." For now, it remains to be seen if the only person being tried for abuses at Rikers Island will be charged and held accountable for an alleged pattern of horrific abuse.