Blind Spots: Sexual Assault Allegation Exposes Self-Policing Prison System

They were stomping him, kicking him, slapping him." | Illustrations by Matt Williams

Robert Adams alleges that a guard sodomized him with a baton. A year-long investigation into his story uncovered a system plagued by retaliation and primed for abuse.

Victoria Law   ·   November 3, 2022

ROBERT ADAMS was heading to lunch when he saw the guards. Eladio Cruz and Nicholas May, a sergeant and an officer, respectively, at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, were berating Anthony Davis for leaving his prison-issued tablet in the recreation area. After another man had picked it up and turned it in, Cruz and May yelled at Davis for sharing possessions, a violation of prison rules. Davis maintained that it was unintentional.

Adams attempted to intervene. But the two officers were angry with him, he said, for his recent refusal to give up the names of people who’d been smoking cigarettes indoors — another rule violation. It was May 19, 2021.

May threw the first punch, Adams testified in a later hearing. Three other men incarcerated at the upstate New York facility confirmed his account. Cruz and another officer then joined in, in full view of the unit, delivering what Adams described as “a flurry of punches to my face and body.”

“They were stomping him, kicking him, slapping him,” Nathaniel Bentley, one of the witnesses, told New York Focus and The Intercept. Men in nearby cells screamed at the officers to stop, recalled another, named Reginald Wilson. “Get off of him! Let him loose! … What are you jumping on him for?”

It made no difference. The guards dragged Adams into a sally port, pinned him to the ground, and beat him, he and a witness recounted. When they hauled him to his feet, Adams testified, Cruz pulled Adams’s pants partway down and repeatedly sodomized him with his state-issued baton. New York Focus and The Intercept obtained a transcript and audio recording of the hearing through Adams’s attorney.

In the hearing, Adams repeated Cruz’s words as he remembered them: “This is what happens to faggots like you.”

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on Adams’s allegations but said that it has a zero-tolerance policy for physical and sexual abuse. May and Cruz did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Last December, the department’s Office of Special Investigations informed Adams that the case was closed and that the allegations of sexual assault were found unsubstantiated. But after New York Focus and The Intercept contacted DOCCS in October 2022, investigators interviewed multiple witnesses about the incident. Asked if the case had been reopened, a department spokesperson wrote that “the Office of Special Investigation is reviewing all the allegations made and DOCCS has no further comment on them at this time.”

Adams first contacted New York Focus and The Intercept in June 2021, the month after the incident. In the nearly year and a half since, he spoke to reporters by phone over a dozen times. What follows is drawn from those conversations, as well as from interviews with three witnesses, Adams’s written grievances, staff disciplinary records produced by DOCCS, a recording of his disciplinary hearing, and other prison records.

The investigation paints a portrait of a prison system in which complaints of sexual assault are suppressed, testimony by incarcerated people is discounted, and accountability remains elusive. Adams’s witnesses were scattered to prisons across the state, many to solitary confinement cells, in what they say amounts to a cover-up. One said he was beaten in retaliation for reporting what he saw. Another said he was denied food until he agreed not to testify. Adams said doctors refused to give him a proper rape examination.

The records show that Cruz has repeatedly been accused of physical assault, and that the year before he allegedly assaulted Adams, he nearly lost his job over inappropriate sexual behavior and lying to investigators.

He and May continue to work in New York prisons.

BEFORE ESCORTING HIM to the prison’s clinic, Adams testified, officers brought him to a bullpen, ordered him to change out of his bloodied boxers, and then threatened to kill him if he reported the sexual assault.

Terrified, Adams at first told prison medical staff only that the guards had beaten him. Medical staff noted that his right eye was red and the right side of his face was swollen.

| Illustration by Matt Williams

After discharging him from the clinic, staff placed Adams in solitary confinement and charged him with six rules violations: assault on staff, creating a disturbance, threats, violent conduct, refusal to obey a direct order, and movement violation.

Within days, Adams and six of the seven witnesses were transferred to prisons across the state. (Bentley says he was the only person left at Shawangunk who witnessed the incident.) At the new facility, removed from May and Cruz, Adams reported the sexual assault and requested medical care.

Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, Adams should have received a thorough sexual assault examination and been provided with counseling. He said he was offered neither.

Instead, he was handcuffed and chained at the waist before being escorted to the medical unit. The nurse asked him to pull down his pants and bend over. She shone a flashlight at his anus and told him nothing was wrong. Adams said he asked to be sent to an outside hospital for a thorough rape exam, as required by New York prison system policy implementing PREA. Medical staff told him that they would report his complaints to the prison’s physician and sent him back to his cell.

The following day, Adams saw the physician, who he said did not physically examine him. By his account, when Adams complained that it hurt to go to the bathroom, the doctor replied: “What do you want me to do about it? You’re gay, aren’t you?”

You’re gay, aren’t you?

The office of New York’s Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, responsible for ensuring that the prison system complies with PREA, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Governors who fail to maintain PREA compliance risk losing 5 percent of federal grant funding for their state prison systems, but the incentive is weak, and enforcement is lax. In New York, that penalty would be just $2 million out of the prison agency’s $3.4 billion budget.

PREA audit failures are extremely rare. In early May 2021, an auditor with the American Correctional Association, the prison trade group contracted to monitor PREA compliance, visited Shawangunk. Over the course of two days, she reviewed protocols and records and interviewed prison officials, staff, and incarcerated people. Her audit stated that Shawangunk met or exceeded all required standards.

TWO WEEKS AFTER the auditor’s visit, Nathaniel Bentley made an urgent call.

“As soon as I seen the officer hit him, I got right on the phone,” Bentley told The Intercept and New York Focus. As the assault began, he said, “I picked the phone up because none of the officers was looking. And I called OSI.” He was referring to the Office of Special Investigations, a unit within the prison agency responsible for investigating complaints of abuse, including allegations of sexual assault. (Bentley said he witnessed the beating but did not see what transpired once Adams was brought to the sally port.)

Bentley said the operator told him that they were already talking to another witness to the same event and that someone from the agency would contact him later. For over a year, he said, they didn’t follow up.

Eight days later, Adams called OSI too.

He also filed a written grievance detailing the alleged assault, which New York Focus and The Intercept have reviewed. Afterward, he filed a second grievance alleging a lack of medical care and the prison’s failure to allow a sexual assault nurse-examiner to evaluate him.

A committee denied the medical grievance the following month, stating that the doctor said Adams had been examined for trauma, injury, swelling, and blood. “There was no sign of any trauma,” read the response, with no mention of other symptoms.

That summer, Adams also faced a disciplinary hearing by phone for the six rules violation charges for which he was held in solitary confinement. Fighting his charges, he leveled his allegation against Cruz on the record. May testified that Adams had punched him in the face. Davis testified to observing the sexual assault in the sally port.

Reginald Wilson testifying

“After they beaten the hell out of him, I witnessed Sergeant Cruz standing behind him, pull his pants down and shove his stick up his rectum,” Davis told the hearing officer. He testified that he used his tablet like a mirror, angling it to witness what was happening in the reflection.

Davis, Wilson, and one other incarcerated witness testified that Adams had not assaulted anyone. Bentley refused to testify.

In her decision, the hearing officer stated that she found May’s testimony to be substantial evidence, while the testimonies of Adams and the incarcerated witnesses were not. She found Adams guilty of all six charges and sentenced him to six months in solitary confinement.

Anthony Davis testifying

Adams seemed unsurprised with the officer’s finding. “I understand that you probably are going to find me guilty of something,” he said before the verdict. One question nagged at him though: Why hadn’t Bentley testified? He asked repeatedly, but the officer said only that the potential witness had refused.

Adams said that an OSI investigator interviewed him in August 2021 and that he provided the names and prison identification numbers of at least five men who were witnesses. More than one year later, Wilson, Davis, and Bentley independently told New York Focus and The Intercept that no investigator had interviewed them. It was only this October, in the days after we contacted the agency, that investigators interviewed Davis and Bentley.

Adams spent the intervening year serving out his disciplinary sentence and being shuttled between solitary units, where he spent 23 to 24 hours each day locked alone in a cell. He was transferred three more times between prisons.

AT EACH PRISON, Adams called 777, a hotline operated by the nonprofit New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which connects incarcerated victims with outside rape crisis centers. Every time he began the intake process, he said, he was moved to a new prison and had to start over. It wasn’t until April 2022 that he was able to connect with a counselor at Safe Harbors of the Finger Lakes, he said, who provided him with biweekly counseling by phone. (The organization did not respond to a request for comment.)

There is a striking disparity between the number of official complaints to the prison agency and the number of calls to the nongovernmental 777 line. In 2019, the office that runs the hotline reported 3,338 calls. That year, the most recent for which data is available, DOCCS recorded 481 allegations of sexual abuse by staff. The agency’s investigators determined just 11 of them to be “substantiated,” meaning more likely to be true than false.

“It’s an endemic issue,” said Sophie Gebreselassie, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, in reference to sexual assault by prison staff. And it’s difficult to quantify just how pervasive it is because of the many barriers to reporting, as well as the fear and shame that many survivors bear after being sexually assaulted.

Before March 2021, 777 operators could help incarcerated victims file official reports, but the reporting system now requires victims to file a written letter, preventing anonymity and posing challenges for those with low literacy or English proficiency.

Dori Lewis, former supervising attorney of the Prisoners’ Rights Project, emphasized “the bias against people in custody.” Over two decades of work with and litigation on behalf of incarcerated rape survivors, she saw that “the word of a convicted felon against the word of a staff member almost invariably meant that the staff member was going to be believed.”

Thomas Kearney, the statewide organizer for the New York State Jails Justice Network and former PREA outreach director for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, spent 15 years incarcerated in New York prisons, giving him a front-row view of how investigations into staff misconduct and abuse played out.

“When you have any situation where there’s an agency investigating itself for causing harm, they’re not really encouraged to do a thorough investigation,” he said. “The largest barrier to reporting is DOCCS itself.”

In 2020, the number of 777 calls went up to 5,795 — an average of 16 calls per day. DOCCS has not yet released its 2020 data.

Some incarcerated survivors don’t report abuse because they don’t think it’ll be taken seriously. Others stay quiet for fear of reprisal. PREA requires that prison officials conduct retaliation monitoring, including by reviewing disciplinary charges that follow reports of assault. But incarcerated people and those who represent them say that retaliation remains commonplace.

The largest barrier to reporting is DOCCS itself.

And witnesses are rare. Sexual abuse is frequently perpetuated in the prison’s blind spots, areas where there are no cameras or other people. When there are witnesses, Lewis pointed out, “It takes extraordinary courage [for them] to come forward because they, too, will be at risk for retaliation.” Beyond further abuse and transfers to far-flung prisons, this can come in the form of disciplinary charges, which affect people’s chances of getting parole or sentence reductions.

Reginald Wilson, Nathaniel Bentley, and Anthony Davis said that’s what happened to them. In separate interviews, they claimed that they and at least three other men who saw the incident were charged on false allegations and placed in isolation that day. Davis said that he was beaten by guards over a year later, with one asking him: “You like lying on a sergeant?”

Bentley said that the reason he did not testify at Adams’s hearing was rooted in reprisal. Locked in segregation at Shawangunk on charges of inciting a riot and disobeying a direct order to get off the phone with OSI, he alleged that officers withheld food from him. When an officer brought him the notice about the disciplinary hearing, Bentley said, he mentioned that if Bentley refused to testify, he would get his food.

DOCCS told The Intercept and New York Focus that the agency was investigating all allegations and declined to comment on Bentley’s and Davis’s claims.

Bentley acquiesced, signing a statement refusing to testify. “After that, they started giving me food and all the things a human is supposed to get,” he said.

ELADIO CRUZ, the sergeant accused of sodomizing Adams, has repeatedly been accused of physical assault and sexual misconduct since he started working as a prison guard in 2004, disciplinary records reviewed by New York Focus and The Intercept show.

In November 2010, an incarcerated man at Green Haven Correctional Facility alleged that Cruz and another officer physically assaulted him, striking him on the legs, head, and body with their batons, then kicking and punching him after he fell to the floor. After the man making the assault allegation faced disciplinary charges, investigators noted that the staff involved had denied the allegation and closed the case as unsubstantiated.

In 2018, Cruz was among several staff at Greene Correctional Facility who were accused of jointly assaulting an incarcerated person. Investigators closed that case, too, as unsubstantiated.

A January 2020 incident of alleged inappropriate sexual behavior toward a correctional officer trainee brought repercussions. In mid-July, DOCCS suspended Cruz without pay for reasons including the inappropriate conduct and “false statements during the course of an official investigation.” The following week, the agency informed him that he had been dismissed from state service.

Nationwide, nearly half of sexual abuse allegations made in prisons are against correctional officers.

Represented by the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, or NYSCOPBA, Cruz filed a grievance opposing that decision. He reached a settlement agreement with DOCCS in which he was transferred to a different prison and demoted from sergeant to correctional officer. He was allowed to resume work on August 31, 2020. Two months later, he was promoted back to sergeant, a position whose responsibilities include supervising incarcerated people and other staff to prevent misconduct.

In May 2021, he allegedly assaulted Robert Adams.

A month later, another person incarcerated at Shawangunk called OSI and filed a grievance that Cruz, along with several other staff members, was harassing him in retaliation for filing a complaint against a fellow officer. The complaint against Cruz was closed as unsubstantiated.

In September 2021, Adams received notice that his grievance about the physical assault had been denied. Staff asserted that Adams had been the aggressor and that although the incarcerated witnesses had been interviewed, “their allegations remain unsubstantiated.”

In December, Adams received a letter from OSI stating that his claims of sexual assault had also been found unsubstantiated. Without describing the evidence itself, the five-sentence letter stated: “This finding is based upon the evidence of the case.” Ten months later, in October 2022, Davis received a surprise visit from an OSI investigator, who questioned him about witnessing Adams’s alleged sexual assault. It was the first time the agency had contacted him about it, he said.

In response to public information requests for Cruz’s disciplinary records, DOCCS said it possessed two documents making sexual assault allegations against Cruz — one for “staff-on-incarcerated individual sexual assault” and one for “staff-on-staff sexual assault” — but was withholding both, citing privacy stipulations under Civil Rights Law § 50-b. The first allegation was found to be unsubstantiated, DOCCS said; it’s unknown whether this refers to Adams’s complaint. The second was found to be partly substantiated and partly unsubstantiated.

DOCCS has zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and unauthorized relationships,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “The Department thoroughly investigates all reports of sexual victimization, including unauthorized relationships, and retaliation against any individuals who report incidents or cooperate with those investigations.”

Nationwide, nearly half of sexual abuse allegations made in prisons are against correctional officers, according to a 2014 Department of Justice study. Prosecution remains rare. Roughly one-third of officers are allowed to resign before investigations are completed, enabling them to apply for similar jobs at other correctional systems with no public record of misconduct.

In New York, the state’s contract with NYSCOPBA requires that even if a case is substantiated, it goes to arbitration. In some cases, arbitrators have ruled that an officer with a substantiated claim should be allowed to return to work. In 2017, a reinstated officer went on to rape an incarcerated woman, for which he was arrested and criminally prosecuted.

In January 2021, lawmakers proposed a bill to allow the state’s attorney general — rather than OSI, the office within the prison agency — to investigate staff misconduct, as well as to create an independent ombudsman. It has languished in the Senate correction committee.

This past March, the Senate held its first-ever legislative hearing about sexual assault in the state’s correctional facilities. DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci was scheduled to testify, but he sent four of his staff instead. The hearing lasted more than six hours and did not result in any legislation.

For now, Adams’s case appears to be reopened, but his attempts to seek recourse illustrate a system that is both arcane and mercurial. Each element of his allegations — the sexual assault, the cover-up, the lacking medical care, the retaliation, the dismissals of his complaints, and the constant campaign of violence — reflects a self-policing prison system that has successfully insulated itself from oversight and accountability.

“They says it’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault,” said Adams. “When you accuse one of them, it’s swept under the rug.”

Akash Mehta contributed reporting.

Victoria Law is a freelance journalist and author. Her books include Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009), Prison By Any Other Name:The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform (New Press 2020), and Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other… more
Also filed in Criminal Justice

Joseph Moran has long faced accusations of dishonesty — even from fellow officers — records show.

He hopes the settlement will lead to reforms in New York prisons, where three-quarters of trans people say corrections officers have inappropriately touched or sexually assaulted them.

Advocates charge that New York’s restrictions for sex offense registrants are “vague, expansive, and unnecessary.” On Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to strike them down.

Also filed in New York State

We asked 26 lawmakers who support the congestion pricing pause how they propose to fund transit upgrades. Most shrugged.

The state is blowing past key milestones on the way to its big emissions targets.

As climate disasters threaten a home insurance crisis, a new state bill aims at the problem’s root.

Also filed in Health

In rural school districts where doctors are hard to find, in-school telehealth services seemed like a good solution. Then New York state stopped funding them.

Hochul’s proposed Medicaid cuts include $125 million from Health Homes, a program that connects the neediest New Yorkers with medical care, food assistance, and more.

Stark disparities in access to life-saving medication for opioid addiction persist between facilities — and racial groups.