Inette Baez has held the secret of what happened to her on Rikers Island for nearly 20 years.
She was serving an eight month-jail sentence inside the Rose M. Singer Center in 2004 when, she says, a correction officer repeatedly lured her into a massive freezer and forced her to perform oral sex and raped her.
“I know people heard me screaming and saying, ‘No! Stop!’” she told THE CITY.
Self-loathing consumed her for years, intensifying each time a recollection came flashing back.
At points the emotional turmoil was so intense, she recalled, she contemplated taking her own life.
“I felt like it was my fault because I got in trouble with the law,” she said.
Last month, Baez, 45, who was doing time for a probation violation tied to a drug charge, hit back by filing a lawsuit in Bronx Supreme Court alleging that jail officials knew about the abuses but did nothing to stop them.
Hers is one of at least 400 lawsuits against the city Department of Correction filed under New York State’s Adult Survivors Act, signed into law in May 2022. Similar to the Child Victims Act, the ASA gives alleged victims of sexual assault a window to seek monetary damages long after the statute of limitations for possible criminal charges expired.
Baez, who was 24 at the time of her alleged abuse, contends that the officer threatened to toss her into solitary or write a disciplinary “ticket,” if she ever refused to comply with their demands or filed a formal complaint.
“He threatened to make my life a living hell,” Baez told THE CITY last week as she held back tears. “He’d make sure I wouldn’t eat, get any of my packages, make phone calls to get in contact with my family. So I was scared.”
‘A Nationwide Problem’
The law firm of Slater Slater Schulman is representing Baez and hundreds of other women in suits against the DOC. The firm also has 1,200 individual lawsuits filed on behalf of women who were allegedly sexually assaulted by staff inside state prisons.
“These women have been through absolute horrors,” attorney Adam Slater said. “Each story after story is worse than the next.”
The goal of the suits, he said, is to compensate the women but also to “enact change.”
“This is a citywide problem, it’s a statewide problem, and it’s really a nationwide problem,” he added. “These women are just allowed to be abused.”
Thirteen of the lawsuits, including the one filed by Baez, list only the last name of one correction officer. The legal filings charge he repeatedly assaulted multiple women in areas without surveillance cameras like the kitchen fridge and cleaning closets.
Sharon McGriff from Flatbush, who was in her 20s and 30s while at Rikers, said the CO would offer her candy or cigarettes before taking her to a private area inside a mental health building while other detainees were outside for recreation time.
“He’d call different girls during almost the whole hour,” she alleged. “He had all the flavors to his desire.”
McGriff said he’d force her to perform oral sex and also raped her, according to the lawsuit.
“You can’t go around doing that to a woman or man,” she told THE CITY, as tears rolled down her cheek.
The assaults against her happened approximately 15 to 20 times during multiple stints on Rikers from 1998 through 2008, according to her lawsuit.
McGriff, who was in Rikers on drug charges, now works in “restoration” helping people diagnosed with HIV and others in need go to medical visits.
“God gave me a second chance,” she said.
The Correction Department has a “zero tolerance policy toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” said agency spokesperson Annais Morales.
All new hires, including private vendors and volunteers, are now given a formal training designed as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to address and prevent sexual abuse.
“Without the training individuals cannot have contact with the incarcerated population,” added Morales, who did not comment on the ongoing lawsuits.
The lawsuits also detail how city jail officials for years have struggled to enact reforms and implement a series of safeguards mandated by the 2003 federal PREA.
The Rose M. Singer Center, known as Rosies, has long had one of the highest rates of staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct among the country’s jails and prisons, according to studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Statistics.
In June 2015, the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio used federal funds to hire the Moss Group, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm that specializes in jail safety, to evaluate the situation at Rikers.
A year later the firm concluded that the DOC had major issues dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, including busted emergency phone lines, confidential complaints seen by other detainees, and probes that failed to talk to alleged perpetrators, according to an internal review that the Associated Press obtained at the time.
The Moss Group report detailed nearly 100 recommendations — including training correction officers and other jail staff how to handle allegations while keeping them private — but DOC officials have failed to implement them, according to the new lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Baez says she struggles to sleep and sometimes wakes up “crying and screaming” — despite years of counseling.
“Because the dreams that I have to this day, it’s like it’s happening all over again,” she said.
The Bronx resident is currently studying to become an electrical mechanic and also works fixing cars and motorcycles.
Like other plaintiffs talked to by THE CITY, Baez said she never filed a formal complaint while she was locked up because she was “scared, alone, and I had no one.”
“I thought people would judge me and say I liked it,” she said, “and that’s why it kept happening.”
While she was in Rikers, she began to believe that’s what God intended to happen to her.
“I started to believe that this is part of my life,” she said, “to be raped and used like a sex slave.”
But she’s now a “stronger person” and hopes to inspire other women to come forward.
Scared to Say Anything
For years, women have said they aren’t believed when they make sexual abuse allegations against officers.
THE CITY reported in November 2022 that it took seven years for the DOC to fire an officer after a detainee alleged she was in a prohibited relationship with the man who also pressured her to cover up her rape by another officer.
The incarcerated woman, who asked for her name to be withheld, was worried investigators wouldn’t believe her, so she took the unusual step of mailing pieces of her shirt — soiled with semen and DNA evidence — to a friend and a relative.
As a result, the former correction officer, Jose Cosme, later admitted to sexually assaulting her inside a storage closet hidden from security cameras.
As part of the federal PREA guidelines, DOC in 2016 implemented a 24-hour hotline people behind bars can use to file complaints of abuse. The department also added more investigators to review allegations and clear a backlog of cases.
Still, allegations against officers or other department staffers are rarely substantiated, according to Correction Department records.
Just two of 143 probes of complaints filed by detainees against staff and fellow detainees were substantiated from January 2023 to June 2023, the department’s latest report shows. Most were determined to be “unfounded” or “unsubstantiated.”
Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, did not respond to a request seeking comment.
For Larita Mitchell the nightmare has gone on for years.
She was cleaning the bathrooms and the so-called bubble area where officers are stationed during a stint on Rikers in 1996.
That’s where she says an officer forced her to perform oral sex on him — four times.
“I never told no one because I was scared,” she recalled. “I was ashamed of what happened. So I kept my mouth shut.”
The alleged assault happened decades ago when she was in her 30s but she says she still thinks about it all the time.
“I want to go to therapy,” the mother of five said. “I’ve told nobody. My boyfriend doesn’t know what type of lawsuit it is.”
But she hopes the light her case gets encourages other victims to come forward and file similar suits.
“Me telling my story, I might say something that hits a nerve,” she said. “It may be worse than my story.”