Editorial: The cost of abuse

Times Union [Albany NY]

November 25, 2022

The state could find itself financially liable for hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse in prisons. Maybe that will motivate it to do more to prevent it.

It’s long been understood that if you go to prison, there is a strong likelihood that you will be physically or sexually assaulted. Maybe by fellow prisoners, maybe guards.

Some hardline law-and-order folk might call it an acceptable disincentive to commit crimes in the first place. Others might see it as an inherent and inevitable reality of any system of incarceration.

No. It is unacceptable in a modern, enlightened corrections system. Beyond the inhumanity of it, it defeats the whole goal of rehabilitation. Abuse only hardens people, and when it’s done by staff , it sends a message that it doesn’t really matter which side of the law one is supposedly on; everyone is corrupt, and violence just how things are done.

If such concepts of morality and rehabilitation are perhaps too abstract for those who run our system of incarceration, now there’s a reason that may better drive home the message that there needs to be more attention to the problem: money.

As the Times Union’s Raga Justin reports, hundreds of formerly incarcerated women are suing the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for alleged sexual assault by DOCCS staff during their prison terms. The women are using the Adult Survivors Act, which suspended the statute of limitations on such civil actions for one year starting on Nov. 24. Two law firms are filing on behalf of more than 750 women who served time in correctional facilities around the state, including Albion in Orleans County, Bedford Hills in Westchester County and the former Bayview in Manhattan. The women allege not only that they were assaulted, but that the state did nothing to stop it.

Should the women prevail, how much the state could be on the hook for remains to be seen. But if a $750,000 settlement reached earlier this year between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany and just one survivor of child sex abuse by a priest is any measure, the government’s liability could be well over $500 million.

And that’s just for 750 women. How many other prisoners, male or female, may find lawyers willing to take on similar cases, we don’t yet know. But there would seem to be at least a potential for substantially more. Victims of child sexual abuse, who had a similar opportunity to file civil actions under the Child Victims Act until August 2021, tended to find that attorneys were willing to take on cases only if the accused abuser worked for a deep-pocketed institution. The state of New York — with its millions of taxpayers — represents a virtually bottomless pocket.

There is nothing the state can do to change the past. The cases will run their course. But the suits should be a wake-up call to DOCCS and the Legislature that with custody of more than 31,000 convicted criminals comes a responsibility to house them as safely as reasonably possible. The societal cost of failing to do so — of turning out people more traumatized, disillusioned, cynical and angry than when they went in — is immeasurably higher than these lawsuits are likely to be.