Avalanche of lawsuits accuse New York prison guards of sexually abusing inmates

By Chris Grabb

On August 27, 2023

Razor-wire lines the fencing at the Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County, where a lawsuit claims a guard had “the power… to direct your life” and sexually abused female inmates. “One of the realities of being the inmate is that these corrections officers can dictate your entire life,” one victim said.Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News

ALBANY – New York State is facing an onslaught of lawsuits accusing prison officers of sexually abusing adult inmates, litigation allowed under a new one-year window for survivors to sue, regardless of when the abuse occurred.

A single Manhattan-based law firm, Levy Konigsberg LLP, is handling more than 500 cases statewide, including nearly 150 cases filed or pending that claim abuse occurred in Western New York prisons. Several other law firms also are handling a high volume of cases, and the total number likely runs into the thousands.

Most of the Western New York cases claim sexual abuse occurred at Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County, a medium-security facility for female prisoners. A number also were filed by former inmates at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum-security boot camp-style prison in Chautauqua County for young, nonviolent offenders.

Levy Konigsberg’s lead attorney on the prison sexual abuse cases, Anna Kull, says the flood of cases has led to a “mind-blowing” revelation: that women who have never met, in prison years apart, are identifying the same assailant.

According to court records, two corrections officers who have served at Albion have been named as sexual abusers in multiple women’s lawsuits.

In addition, at least two women have filed lawsuits claiming abuse was committed by the same male officer at Lakeview.

“These women don’t know each other,” Kull said. “They have nothing in common other than having been incarcerated in the State of New York at some point in time. So we’re talking about legitimately systemic issues.”

Albion and other women’s prisons are heavily staffed by male guards. Most, but not all, of the Levy Konigsberg cases accuse a male corrections officer of sexually abusing a female prisoner.

The lawsuits, filed in the state Court of Claims, were enabled by the Adult Survivors Act, a law signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022. On Nov. 24, a one-year window opened during which survivors of sexual assault, who were over 18 when abuse occurred, could file civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages, even if the statute of limitations had expired.

The Court of Claims is the part of New York’s court system that handles claims against the state. If Court of Claims judges find negligence by the state Department of Corrections and Community Service (DOCCS) contributed to abuse, or cases are settled, taxpayers may face a substantial bill. Some claimants in individual cases are seeking $25 million.

A DOCCS spokesman said Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

“The safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said. “The Department has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution.”

‘They were monsters’

The Buffalo News separately interviewed two Kull clients about lawsuits in which they accuse a former Albion correctional officer, David Stupnick of Medina, of abuse. Both grew emotional describing the traumas of life at the prison.

The women said they were unaware of each others’ accusations. Both were taken aback to learn that in 2019, Stupnick was arrested for having illegal sexual relations with two other female Albion inmates.

In 2020, Stupnick was sentenced to a six-month jail term after pleading guilty to third-degree criminal sex act with an inmate. One of those relationships reportedly lasted for nearly two years, according to a pending 2020 federal lawsuit, which said that during the illegal relationship, Stupnick provided the inmate with money and contraband.

In one of the new lawsuits against New York, a woman accuses Stupnick of attacking her in the prison’s laundry room in 2018.

Prior to the attack, according to the lawsuit, Stupnick had been “very flirtatious” with the prisoner and in front of other correction officers, asking the claimant why she was “playing hard to get” and telling her to “look him up when she was released from prison so that they could start dating.”

Guards had body cameras. But when cameras proved inconvenient, she said, guards switched them off.

Stationary cameras were positioned around the prison, but there were blind spots – including the laundry room where the woman was reportedly attacked. After her release from prison, the woman said she is managing, but that serious scars remain, including negative feelings toward men.

“I tried to put it on the back burner and start a new life – and it’s just been hard,” she said. “I’m still traumatized. I still have nightmares about it. I have severe anxiety about it and insomnia.”

Sierra Johnson, a former inmate at Albion Correctional Facility, alleges she was sexually abused by multiple correctional officers at the prison.

A second female former Albion inmate, who initially filed her lawsuit under the pseudonym “LK DOE 33,” accuses Stupnick of sexually abusing her at least twice in 2016.

The woman, whose name is Sierra Johnson, said in an interview that in the most serious of the attacks, Stupnick raped her.

Soon afterward, her prison cube was searched, and her belongings thrown on the floor. She was later put in solitary confinement. Those acts were a means of intimidation following the rape, she believes.

Johnson grew worried that she would be killed before she was able to leave prison.

“One of the realities of being the inmate is that these corrections officers can dictate your entire life,” she said. “They have the power to influence and direct your life, even when you’re sleeping. You don’t get a break. You don’t get any form of safety when that boundary is crossed, and when you become a victim. Because they were monsters.”

And she said there was complicity among the guards.

“Even the women corrections officers, they would call us ‘whores,’ “ she said.

Johnson is a Native American woman from the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. She believes racism may have contributed to her being repeatedly targeted. Her lawsuit also accuses two other Albion corrections officers of abuse.

“I was constantly feeling like I was targeted or singled out,” she said. “My number one priority was to keep to myself, to try to be safe – and that didn’t work for me.”

Johnson is a Native American woman from the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. She believes racism may have contributed to her being repeatedly targeted. Her lawsuit also accuses two other Albion corrections officers of abuse.

“I was constantly feeling like I was targeted or singled out,” she said. “My number one priority was to keep to myself, to try to be safe – and that didn’t work for me.”

After her release from prison, Johnson said she suffered post traumatic stress disorder. But she went to school to study mental illness and addiction and is now the addictions case manager at a holistic health and wellness program at Akwesasne.

“I tried to turn the things that have happened to me into something positive,” Johnson said. “Along with that comes standing up for myself – and also speaking up and breaking that silence.”

In a third recently filed lawsuit, Stupnick is accused on five occasions in 2018 and 2019 of illegal sexual contact with a female Albion inmate, including in the laundry room. That woman’s lawsuit was filed through a different law firm, Slater Slater Schulman.

Stupnick could not be reached for comment, and an attorney that represented Stupnick during his criminal case declined to comment.

Kull’s lawsuits claim negligence by New York on multiple fronts: That DOCCS management ignored ongoing abuse, did not properly vet officers before their hiring and that staff is not properly trained to flag abuse.

‘Own culpable conduct’

Attorney General Letitia James’ office is defending the state government against the lawsuits. One of the initial defenses offered by James’ office is that the “injuries or damages complained of were caused in whole or part by (the) Claimant’s own culpable conduct.”

James’ office has put forward that defense, though under state criminal law, a sexual relationship between a corrections officer and inmate in prison is never considered legal under any circumstances.

That language about the claimants’ “culpable conduct” is standard in the office’s defense of other types of Court of Claims cases against New York, from auto accidents to injuries on state property. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office noted that the office has a statutory obligation to defend the state in Court of Claims cases, and that if certain defenses are not asserted at a case’s onset, they cannot be raised later, nor pursued in discovery.

In court motions, James’ office has also repeatedly argued that reported victims should not be allowed to use pseudonyms to file lawsuits.

Many reported victims argue that publicly disclosing their names in court filings would cause emotional distress or embarrassment. But James’ office has argued that they have not adequately shown that disclosure of their names would cause psychological injury.

It is “difficult to envision a scenario in which there could be a greater public interest in full and complete disclosure,” according to the Attorney General’s Office legal motions, because the accusations involve “public institutions and state actors.”

In some instances, Court of Claims judges have agreed with James’ office, while in others, judges have allowed pseudonyms.

Terence Kindlon, an Albany attorney, represented a female Albion inmate in a major 2011 case, where the woman was identified by a pseudonym in court filings as “Anna O.”

Kindlon told The News he was surprised by the posture of James’ office, calling it “crazy beyond belief.”

“As a practical matter, it is crushingly embarrassing for many people to have been victim of a sexual assault,” Kindlon said.

More generally, Kull said, the Attorney General’s Office so far has sought to “knock out these claims in very procedural and technical ways,” making it “that much more difficult for these women to come forward and be successful.”

Past cases

Before the Adult Survivors Act, bringing a lawsuit against New York State was unrealistic for many inmates.

Once sexual abuse occurred, victims had only a brief window to sue the state before the statute of limitations arrived, Kull said. But behind bars, they feared retaliation.

“If you’re incarcerated, and you have just been raped by a correctional officer, who has absolute authority over you, you’re going to be fearful to report something like that,” Kull said. “But the clock still ticked on their cases – which is incredibly unfair.”

In 2003, 15 current or former female inmates of New York prisons did file a federal lawsuit claiming they were subjected to sexual misconduct by corrections officers. Ten had served time at Albion. The lawsuits languished in court for years, however, and many ended up being dismissed over a procedural issue.

In 2012, “Anna O” did win a landmark judgment in a case centered on a rape committed by an Albion guard, and missed red flags.

A former Albion guard, Donald Lasker, had raped her in 2007. On a prior occasion, he reportedly had attempted to rape Anna, but was disrupted by a sergeant. At the time of the rape, Lasker was also under investigation for reportedly raping another female inmate.

Still, Lasker was not removed from active duty before “Anna O” was raped, nor was his access to female prisoners restricted, the Albany Times Union reported in 2012. After the rape, “Anna O” was placed in solitary confinement, according to Kindlon, her attorney.

Lasker later pleaded guilty to third-degree rape and official misconduct and was fired. He was sentenced to two months of weekends in jail.

New York State was ordered to pay the former Albion inmate $605,000 by a Court of Claims judge, one of the largest judgments on record involving prison-abuse accusations, the Times Union reported.

‘A systemic problem’

Prisoner complaints rarely result in disciplinary action by DOCCS. One reason is that the victim of a sexual assault is often the sole witness. The reported victims have criminal records, and because they are incarcerated, their credibility is immediately questioned, Kull said. The incidents often occur in private enclosed places, where there are no cameras, Kull said.

In 2019, only 3.9% of sexual or abuse harassment accusations were deemed “substantiated,” or confirmed, by DOCCS’ Office of Special Investigations. Nearly 18% were deemed to be untrue, and for more than 72% of complaints, investigators said there was not enough evidence to decide. About 6% were ongoing.

But the avalanche of lawsuits has put a new spotlight on DOCCS’ practices.

“When you have this many women coming forward, you’re alleging that it’s a systemic problem,” Kull said. “You’re implicating everyone that’s in charge and responsible. Because if you have this many claims, how can you be running a secure and controlled environment?”

This piece was republished from The Buffalo News.

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