On July 2, 2015, Jasmine Quattlebaum took the bus to Rikers Island to visit her fiancé, who was being held at the jail’s Anna M. Kross Center. Her cousin accompanied her, and as the two women waited to be processed at the Visit Control Building, they were pulled out of line to be searched. Quattlebaum was asked to sign a consent form agreeing to a “pat frisk.”
She entered a search cubicle with a female correction officer she didn’t recognize, who instructed her to put her hands over her head, according to Quattlebaum, and then felt around her bra area, over her shirt. After that, she asked Quattlebaum to unbutton her pants. “I’m not gonna lie, my pants were a little tight, so I’m thinking that’s why she couldn’t get her fingers around the waist,” Quattlebaum recalled. “So I unbutton it for her and put my hands back up.”
Checking a visitor’s waistband is protocol in the pat-down searches permitted by the New York City Department of Correction’s directive on visitor procedure. “The search is conducted by patting the outer clothing over the entire length of the visitor’s body and examining the seams and pockets of the visitor’s clothing,” the directive states. “The visitor may be required to remove his/her outer garments, coat, hat shoes and no other items.” The DOC explicitly prohibits correction officers from conducting more invasive strip searches and cavity searches on visitors to the city’s jails, the majority of whom are women, many accompanied by children, coming to see incarcerated loved ones.
What Quattlebaum says she experienced next, however, went far beyond a standard pat down. “Once I put my hands back up, she pulled my panties out, takes her two fingers, and just jams it in between my crotch,” she said of the officer. “My reaction — I slapped her hand away a little bit, like, where’s the privacy?” Though Quattlebaum visited Rikers every week, “I’d never been through this before.” When she objected, she said, the officer “tried to pull both of my hands together with one hand, and she tried to still put her fingers into my crotch” with the other. As Quattlebaum attempted to pull free, the officer said she had “put her hands” on her and should be arrested.
Quattlebaum never made it to see her fiancé that day. After the incident, she was detained in the same building where the search took place and held there for another eight hours. She was arrested and booked around 11 p.m. and arraigned the following morning. The Bronx district attorney charged her with obstructing government administration and harassment.
The criminal complaint against Quattlebaum does not accuse her of attempting to bring any contraband into the jail complex. Based on the officer’s account, it says the woman “felt a large bulge through defendant’s pants around defendant’s vaginal area.” When the officer touched the area, according to the complaint, Quattlebaum pushed her, after which the officer “felt threatened and experienced annoyance, alarm, and fear for her physical safety.”
Quattlebaum disputes many of the details in the complaint and has refused to accept a plea deal in the case. She continues to go back and forth to court because of the charges pending against her. But even if she succeeds in seeing the charges dismissed, the repercussions of what happened that day were lasting and harmful.
After the incident, Quattlebaum was banned from visiting Rikers for six months. “It’s just been very hectic because I was going to see my children’s father, my fiancé, and I’m basically the only person he has to come see him, and [I bring] his children to come see him,” she told The Intercept. She appealed the penalty to the Board of Correction, a watchdog agency that oversees the DOC and city jails, which sent her a letter five months later granting her appeal and restoring her visiting rights immediately.
“I just felt very violated that day. I cried for so long, for days after I got home,” Quattlebaum said. “I was scared. My whole life was trying to figure out what was going on. Am I going to be taken away from my kids? Because I’m a single mom and I have three children. It was just very stressful.”The Department of Correction has been sued several times in the past for strip-searching detainees accused of minor crimes, and New York City has paid out hefty settlements as a result. In 2001, the city agreed to pay up to $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of people who were strip-searched while awaiting arraignment; in 2010, the city reached a $33 million settlement with more than 100,000 low-level detainees who were strip-searched after being charged with misdemeanors.
But for years, an investigation by The Intercept and WNYC has found, women like Quattlebaum have reported enduring invasive searches not while incarcerated, but while simply attempting to visit someone detained at a New York City correctional facility.
Records obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information law reveal that since 2010, New York’s 311 call center has received at least 83 complaints about correction officers subjecting visitors to strip searches or cavity searches. The complaints range in severity from visitors who said officers made them open their pants or disrobe completely to those who said officers penetrated their body cavities. Over the same period, the Board of Correction received 84 complaints about visitors being searched improperly.
At least 27 women have filed or are in the process of filing lawsuits that accuse the Department of Correction of unlawfully strip-searching visitors. Most of the allegations involve searches conducted at Rikers, New York City’s largest jail complex, but they also span facilities across the city’s boroughs, including the Manhattan Detention Center and the Brooklyn Detention Center.
The Department of Correction has emphasized that allegations of inappropriate searches represent a small percentage of some 250,000 visits, on average, that jail facilities receive each year. The department has installed video cameras in the search areas of each visit facility, which became operational at Rikers’ Benjamin Ward Visit Center in mid-September and were rolled out to other facilities in October
“DOC has zero tolerance for the mistreatment of visitors, and we take such complaints seriously,” department spokesperson Peter Thorne told The Intercept. “We have taken extensive care to ensure all policy is complied with when consented searches occur, and we investigate each complaint we receive. Evidence collected during these ongoing investigations has uncovered several false claims of illegal searches.”
The department would not provide details on the evidence of false claims or comment further on internal investigations, including whether any had been completed or any correctional officer had been disciplined for strip-searching visitors. One officer named as a defendant in at least two lawsuits was promoted to captain in the first quarter of 2016.
Many of the visitors who reported an invasive search to 311 described feeling both physically violated and humiliated by the presumption that they should be treated with suspicion. The records reveal confusion about what types of searches are allowed and fear among visitors that failure to comply with intrusive searches might jeopardize their visitation rights.
On the day she was strip-searched in 2014, Tierra White contacted 311, stating, “I don’t understand why the officer made me pull my pants down to see my sanitary napkin. I feel violated and there was no reason to do that.”
Tahgiana Cox, who said she was strip-searched in September 2015, lodged a 311 complaint less than 24 hours later. According to her complaint, the correction officer asked to see the sanitary napkin Cox was wearing.
“I showed her my pad because I didn’t want to be denied a visitation but this is made me feel violated,” Cox said in her complaint. “She saw my genitals and I feel very violated. I had an issue with the same C.O. last year. She put her finger between the crack of my buttocks and touched my genitals. I didn’t report this last year because I didn’t want any negative backlash from them.”
In April 2015, a visitor said she was turned away from a Rikers facility after refusing to expose her genitals to an officer: “I would like to make a complaint against a DOC female African-American search guard in the EMTC building that asked me to show her my vagina as part of the search procedure. I felt very violated and was denied my visit because I refused. I also reported the issue to the captain who said that it was part of the procedure.”
The complaints to 311 continued into 2016, well after multiple lawsuits had been filed against the city. Several 2016 complaints said officers brought visitors to the bathroom to be strip-searched, rather than the designated search area; one woman said she was strip-searched along with her two children.
Nonprofit advocates from the Brooklyn Defenders Services and the Jails Action Coalition have also heard from multiple visitors alleging strip searches at Rikers; the organizations have shared these complaints with the Board of Correction. Kelsey De Avila, a jail services social worker at the Brooklyn Defenders, told The Intercept that she has received reports of both women and men being strip-searched, including men asked to drop their pants, women asked to expose their breasts, and women asked to “prove” they were menstruating by removing their tampon or exposing their vagina to an officer.
When De Avila, who visits Rikers regularly, arrived at the jail for the first time, she said, she also experienced an invasive search. After setting off the metal detector, she consented to a pat frisk and was sent to the search area. The correction officer looked inside De Avila’s bra and touched her breasts. After checking her waistband, she ordered De Avila to pull her pants forward. De Avila did so (she was wearing stretch pants) and the CO looked inside her pants at her underwear. “I was really shocked because that wasn’t at all what was stated to me before or even on the back of the form of what to expect,” De Avila recalled. “I kind of froze and I could not even comprehend what was happening.”
Lillian Rivera is one of the women who decided to take her concerns to the Board of Correction. In July 2015, she testified about the treatment visitors face when going to see someone detained at Rikers.
“What I’ve been subjected to by some COs on Rikers Island goes beyond horrendous,” Rivera told the board. “This is a living nightmare. It’s bad enough that I was subjected to a dirty glove going into my private parts. … I just wanna be left alone. I haven’t done anything. And I apologize for getting emotional, but I am a human being.” Tears sprang from her eyes.
A few weeks earlier, Rivera said, she’d been subjected to a cavity search while attempting to visit her husband at the jail. According to a notice of claim Rivera later filed — informing the city of her plans for a lawsuit — three officers were in the room when the search was conducted. An officer wearing gloves touched Rivera’s genitalia and “forcibly and forcefully penetrated Claimant’s body cavities,” the notice states. The officer then “grabbed Claimant’s breasts and squeezed and rubbed them in a painful manner.”
Standing before the board, Rivera addressed DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “Commissioner, please, would you truly investigate what’s going on? For them to leave me alone? Please? Enough is enough now.”
Alan Figman, an attorney who represents many of the women in the process of suing the DOC, says the intrusive search procedures his clients have experienced amount to sexual assault. “It’s horrendous what’s happening to these women. They all react the same way: hysterically crying and a sense of violation,” Figman told The Intercept. Eight of his clients have been interviewed by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Rikers.
One of Figman’s clients, Kristie McNally, claims that after she passed through the Rikers Visit Control Building without incident, four officers at the Anna M. Kross Center conducted a cavity search that left her in tears. One officer pushed her against the wall, McNally’s notice of claim states, while two others held her legs. A fourth CO then “pulled down Claimant’s pants, leggings and then forcibly penetrated Claimant’s vagina with two fingers, causing the tampon to be pushed so far up that it could not be gotten out. As Claimant stood there hysterically crying, she was sent to a restroom to try to remove the tampon but she could not.”
On August 20, 2016, Onoria Veras traveled to Rikers to visit her fiancé. When she arrived at the Visit Control Building, according to her notice of claim, officers brought her to the bathroom to be searched. Veras said she tried to refuse and asked to leave but was threated with arrest and confiscation of identification. An unidentified officer then “pulled down Claimant’s pants and put her hand in-between Claimant’s legs and into her buttocks,” Veras’s notice of claims states. “Claimant was asked what was in her underwear and she told C.O. DOE it was a panty liner. C.O. DOE then moved the panties aside and put her hand over Claimant’s vagina.” Afterward, Veras said, she was so upset that “she went straight to the bus to return home, foregoing her visit.”
Figman has trouble attributing the invasive searches to bad apples among correction officers. “It’s obviously going on in a systematic way because I have multiple claims against individual correctional officers and the way that the women describe the search conducted has a lot of similarities,” he explained. “It’s almost like the correctional officers are being trained to do something that is way outside of department protocol.”
According to Matthew Brinckerhoff, an attorney who represented the class members in two previous strip-search class-actions against the DOC, “It is unquestionable in my mind that it would be unconstitutional and violate the Fourth Amendment to have a policy of strip-searching people who are visiting.”
While the Supreme Court determined in 2012 that people arrested for minor infractions could be legally strip-searched under the Constitution, reasonable suspicion to strip-search a visitor would require specific, individualized evidence. Brinckerhoff laid out a theoretical scenario in which subjecting a visitor to an invasive search might be legal: “Perhaps if you had confiscated a letter where the visitor had said, ‘I will be smuggling in a gun, or something that could be used as a weapon, or drugs of some sort, and I will be inserting them into my body.’” Even then, he said, the search would have to be conducted by a medical professional. “A corrections officer can’t just take it upon him or herself to manually probe someone with their hands. That would never be appropriate, under any circumstance.”
Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, believes that visitors’ complaints about inappropriate searches are overblown and in fact represent an effort to oust correction officers who are particularly good at keeping contraband out of jail facilities.
“These allegations are nothing new to correction officers,” Husamudeen said. “Usually they are made by visitors and inmates against officers who are very diligent and thorough at doing their job and end up catching them or the inmates trying to bring in contraband. One of the ways that inmates and visitors have always tried to deal with this is by alleging that the correction officer did something wrong, and sometimes the agency would remove that particular correction officer from his or her post.”
The DOC says visitors to city jails were arrested 366 times last year, largely for contraband, out of more than 200,000 total visits. Of the 27 women in the process of suing the department over unlawful strip searches, 25 have no record of any contraband arrests, according to court data; the other two are identified only by their initials in court filings, so their records could not be checked.
Correction officers have also been caught bringing drugs and weapons into city jails. “Given the extent of smuggling that we know goes on and given what we know about what’s coming in from visitors, a lot of stuff has to be coming in from guards and employees because this stuff doesn’t magically appear,” Mark Peters, the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, said in 2014. His comments followed the release of a Department of Investigation report that found the DOC had failed to properly implement security measures at Rikers to halt the flow of contraband coming in with correction staff.
Following the 2014 report, the DOC implemented new search standards and multiple COs have been arrested for carrying in drugs and weapons. The city’s recently purchased X-ray scanners, however, will only be used on visitors and inmates, not correction officers.
Some correction officers have been accused more than once of participating in unlawful strip searches. Erica Mayweather is included as a defendant in lawsuits filed by Jeannette Reynoso and a plaintiff identified by the initials A.R., as well as in a notice of claim filed by Tamara Blackwood.
According to Reynoso’s complaint, in October 2015, Mayweather and another officer identified only as “Jane Doe” forced Reynoso to completely remove her clothes, after which Mayweather “forcibly fondled plaintiff’s breasts and rubbed her hands over plaintiff’s naked body.” Reynoso alleges Mayweather then ordered her to turn around and put her hands on the wall, touched Reynoso’s genitals, and inserted two fingers into her rectum.
A.R.’s allegations are part of a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of four women who allege they were strip-searched in DOC facilities. Scott Simpson, one of the attorneys on the case, says the firms representing the plaintiffs have spoken to at least 20 other strip-search victims.
In the complaint, A.R. claims Mayweather “was present throughout and directly observed” A.R. being strip-searched by an unidentified officer in October 2015, yet “did nothing to intervene or otherwise stop the illegal conduct.”
“My client says it didn’t happen, that doesn’t happen,” said James. G. Frankie, Mayweather’s attorney on the case, in an interview with The Intercept. “I know there are two massive lawsuits where they’re claiming that people are strip-searched. I would be surprised if that’s the case.”
“It’s my expectation, certainly my hope, that when the investigation is over, she’ll be cleared and the city will be representing her,” Frankie added. “Under the general municipal law, there’s a provision that says the city’s supposed to represent and indemnify their employees unless they’ve determined, in the city’s position, that they shouldn’t represent them because they’ve violated some rule or regulation of the agency. And the city’s kind of taking the position, ‘Well, you know what, we don’t know whether they did or not so we’re not going to represent them until we find out what the investigation says.’”
In the first quarter of 2016, after A.R.’s lawsuit had been filed, Mayweather was promoted to captain.
“There hasn’t been any determination that she’s done anything wrong, so there would be no reason not to promote her,” Frankie said. “I’m hoping by the end of these investigations that would be confirmed.”
“I thought it was the standard protocol,” Cassandra Camillo told The Intercept. “I just assumed it was part of their rules. I didn’t question them.”
Tamara Blackwood went through two strip searches at Rikers before she realized something was wrong. On a third visit, she entered the private search area with CO Mayweather. According to Blackwood, when she removed her clothes, Mayweather started touching her — and this is when she objected. (During the previous strip searches, Blackwood said, the COs did not touch her.) Her notice of claim states that the CO touched her chest, ordered her to turn around, and put her gloved hand against Blackwood’s genitalia.
The Intercept made several attempts to contact Mayweather about the allegations of Reynoso and Blackwood but did not receive a response.
For Nimra Butt, it was only after she’d already been subjected to multiple strip searches that she discovered they were against the rules. “It was going on for a very long time and I just kinda ignored it, because honestly, I didn’t even know I was being violated for the longest time. I just thought that they were allowed to do that. Until one day I brought it up to my husband, like, just randomly, because this time … it was just too much,” Butt told The Intercept.
Her husband was shocked and told her that correction officers weren’t supposed to be strip-searching visitors. Afterward, Butt began researching the rules and found the DOC’s directive on visitor procedure. “I started looking into it, and then I just realized, they’re totally violating [our rights],” she said. “They’re not even following that procedure they’re supposed to go by.”
Butt made multiple complaints to 311. “Caller wants to complaint [sic] about how she was strip search [sic] without given a consent form at the GRVC facility at Rikers Island. They search het [sic] by taking off both shirts and tank top and remove her under garments,” a summary from one of the complaint records states.
“I was just trying to resolve it that way. Maybe if I made complaints, somebody would speak to them,” she said. But time passed and nothing changed. “When it just never stopped, that’s went I went forward with the lawsuit.”
Butt filed pro se against the DOC in February 2015. But even after suing the department, she said, she was still subjected to a strip search. In a November 2015 letter to the judge, she listed five dates when strip searches occurred, including one on March 5, 2015. Butt has since found representation with Alan Figman.
Wait times for visitors to Rikers are notoriously long, but Butt said she began experiencing delays that were even worse than normal to see her husband. Sometimes, she said, correction officers tried to stop her from seeing him altogether. “They hate the most when you come in there and you know your rights, and they didn’t like that about me,” she explained. “When I started talking about, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to do this to me,’ that’s when they started getting rough with me.”
Several women interviewed by The Intercept said that efforts to visit their loved ones had taken a serious toll. The invasive searches can be traumatic experiences, and continuing to return to Rikers afterward caused them stress and anxiety.
“When I go there, my pressure and my respiratory rate just skyrocket, because I never know what they’re going to do to me and I have to live with that anxiety,” said Lillian Rivera, who suffers from hypertension. She said she used to visit Rikers two to three times a week, but after experiencing the cavity search, she reduced her visits to once a week.
LaToya Redcross visited Rikers less and less after she experienced a strip search in October 2014, until she didn’t go back at all. She ended up breaking up with her boyfriend, who was detained on the island. “It ruined us. … Who wants to go through that?” Redcross told The Intercept. “Rikers Island can end you.”
For Dameka Dowdy, undergoing a strip search was so uncomfortable that it became a barrier to seeing a close family member. In January 2016, she visited Rikers for the first time. It would also be her last. The 37-year-old, who was going to see her brother, set off the metal detector in the Visit Control Building and consented to a pat-down search. According to Dowdy, the correction officer instructed her to unbutton her pants, then felt inside her bra and on her breasts and put her hands in Dowdy’s underwear.
“Whatever type of search they did in there, she came out crying,” Dowdy’s mother told The Intercept. Dowdy refused to go back to Rikers and stopped visiting her brother. “That’s the reason I won’t go back. I don’t want to go through that again,” she said. “It angered me because it was embarrassing. I was actually furious. I couldn’t believe you had to go through all that just to go to a visit.”
In the end, one of the most common sentiments women expressed was the dispiriting sense that nothing was being done to address the problem.
Several women said they told the captain in charge what happened that day, only to be directed to 311 — which felt like a black hole for complaints. “I complained [and] it fell on deaf ears,” Tamara Blackwood told The Intercept. “When will it stop falling on deaf ears? When will people stop turning a blind eye to it and do something about it?”