In New York state, the Adult Survivors Act, originally passed in May, will take effect later this month and expand the statute of limitations for sex crimes, granting victims a one-time opportunity to file civil suits. The bill also crucially allows victims to file suits about mistreatment in state facilities—including prisons. And one law firm, Slater Slater and Schulman, which specializes in representing abuse victims, told the New York Times on Wednesday that their firm, alone, expects to file 750 individual civil lawsuits on behalf of incarcerated women who allege they were sexually assaulted by prison staff.
Sadie Bell, one woman being represented by the firm, told the Times she was raped and impregnated by a prison sergeant at Bayview Correctional Facility years ago in Manhattan. (Some of the women were assaulted in the 1980s and 90s, but no specific dates of any of the assaults have been specified at this time.) When Bell, who’s now 61, learned she was pregnant, she was moved into solitary confinement for weeks before eventually being transferred to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. At Bedford, Bell said she experienced highly painful pregnancy complications before being shackled and rushed to the hospital. Shackling incarcerated people is condemned by all major medical organizations.
At the hospital, Bell learned her pregnancy was ectopic, resulting in a ruptured fallopian tube. She lost five pints of blood and became infertile. Ectopic pregnancies can result in severe complications and even death without abortion, despite how laws in some states prohibit abortions even in cases like Bell’s.
Bell told the Times she never “received treatment for all of this,” and years later, “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.”
In addition to Bell, the Times spoke to Kia Wheeler, a 49-year-old who told the newspaper she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted for several months by a guard at Bedford Hills. Jacqueline Wiggins, another client of the firm, said she was also raped at Bayview and remains traumatized to this day.
Wiggins, 58, said she recently learned about the Adult Survivors Act and Slater Slater and Schulman’s services from a TV commercial that brought back painful memories at Bayview she hadn’t shared with anyone until recently. “I tried to leave that behind 30 years ago. And now here it is, all coming back,” she told the Times. “I suppressed it. I kept it down in my gut. I didn’t think I was worthy. I didn’t think anyone would care.”
Currently, women—and especially women of color—are the most quickly growing population of incarcerated people in the U.S. Bell, Wheeler, and Wiggins are all Black women.
Studies have shown that about 90% of incarcerated women experienced sexual violence before going to prison, in what’s often called the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline. Victims of sexual assault are substantially more likely than perpetrators to ever be incarcerated, and once in prison, they’re at high risk of being sexually victimized again, often by the guards who are entrusted with state power to keep prisons in order. One study found 60% of prison rapes are perpetrated by prison guards.
All of this is part of a phenomenon that some feminist anti-carceral activists have called “state sexual assault,” through which state facilities, and even procedures like cavity checks that are often performed on imprisoned or arrested people, subject people to state-sanctioned sexual violence.
Brad Hoylman, a New York state senator who helped pass the Adult Survivors Act, said that when he sponsored the bill, he expected it would disproportionately help formerly incarcerated survivors, whose abusers—often prison guards and staff—have benefited from short criminal statutes of limitations. The Adult Survivors Act takes effect on Nov. 24.