The Alleged Sexual Assaults on Rikers Island Are Shocking

Me Too was often portrayed as solely focused on elite women’s concerns. That would be news to the prisoners at New York’s Rikers Island who have used a Me Too–inspired law to seek justice for over 700 alleged sexual assaults by guards in the jail.

A New York City Department of Correction officer at Rikers Island. (James Keivom / New York Daily News / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In recent years, those eager to dismiss the issues raised by the Me Too movement have fixated on the phenomenon’s elite origins. After all, the outcry started with a 2017 New York Times investigation into the serial predation of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood executive who preyed on young and up-and-coming actresses. His violations were numerous and criminal, and he is now in prison. But the rarified circles in which Weinstein and some of the women he preyed upon moved meant that for many, it has become easy to dismiss the issue as an intra-elite affair.

Yet while much of Me Too’s oxygen was taken up by white-collar or rich women — those with access to major platforms, or writers who could pen the stories themselves — such unequal visibility plagues most every social movement in the United States. Social hierarchies are reproduced in the media, biased as it is toward flattering and satisfying those at the top of the hierarchy who comprise its desired readership and distorting the picture of the issue for the average reader.

But that distortion doesn’t mean sexual violence doesn’t affect poor and working-class people, or that such people aren’t fighting it. In reality, workers and the poor are particularly vulnerable to sexual predation, just as they are vulnerable to other types of exploitation and abuse. And as Me Too wended its way through the culture, those people, too, tried to use the moment to win protections for themselves.

In the months following the Weinstein investigation, janitorial staff and hotel workers pushed for increased safety measures to protect against workplace sexual harassment. In some cases, they won. McDonald’s employees engaged in walkouts over sexual harassment, which they said was pervasive in their industry — a claim backed up by a 2016 survey which found that 40 percent of fast-food workers are sexually harassed, and 42 percent of those who experienced harassment felt forced to accept it to keep their jobs. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of farmworkers, has included economic incentives placed on anti-sexual harassment policies as part of its Fair Food Program, a response to rampant sexual abuse in the agricultural industry.

Now formerly incarcerated New Yorkers are seeking justice for sexual violence too. An explosive Gothamist investigation published yesterday analyzes civil lawsuits filed in New York under the Adult Survivors Act, legislation passed in 2022 that provided a yearlong “look-back window,” temporarily lifting the statute of limitations for filing civil suits about sexual assault. (The bill was modeled on the Child Victims Act, which passed in 2019.) As State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal told New York magazine after the filing window closed in November 2023, Me Too–era “awareness around sexual abuse propelled it forward in the legislature.”

The act led to a host of high-profile filings, with well-known men ranging from Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo to Eric Adams to Sean Combs facing lawsuits. Yet shockingly, Gothamist finds that “nearly 60 percent of the 1,256 lawsuits filed in New York City’s supreme courts during the temporary filing period describe assaults against people held on Rikers Island.”

The allegations are varied, egregious, and disturbing, painting a picture of an organized system of sexual assault of (overwhelmingly, though not entirely) women prisoners by corrections officers.

“’Oh, you’re one of the pretty ones, they’re going to pick you,’” Jeny, a former prisoner at Rikers, recounts fellow inmates of the Rose M. Singer Center (known as “Rosie’s”) told her upon her arrival at the eight-hundred-bed women’s jail. “They” were corrections officers, and the prisoners were right: in the thirty-three days Jeny was at Rosie’s, she alleges that “abusive late-night visits happened at least four times . . . adding that she saw officers slap women or grab them by their hair if they didn’t comply with their sexual demands.”

The routine nature of the assaults is chilling. Jeny describes officers walking past the dormitory guard to return the women they’d just assaulted to their beds. As Gothamist notes, a 2011–12 US Department of Justice survey found that detainees at Rosie’s reported one of the highest rates of sexual abuse at jails nationwide, with nearly 6 percent of people incarcerated in the women’s jail on Rikers reporting sexual victimization by jail staff compared to a national average of 1.8 percent. Says Jeny, “Everyone knew what was happening.”

Asked by Politico New York’s Jeff Coltin about Gothamist’s reporting today, Mayor Eric Adams, who is himself facing a suit filed during the Adult Survivors Act window, said, “This is the first time I became aware of it.”

“I call them the forgotten women of the #MeToo movement,” Adam Slater of Slater Slater Schulman LLP, one of the two lawyers who filed most of Rikers-related lawsuits, told Gothamist. As Slater told the City last year, “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.”

It is astounding that the majority of claims filed following legislation spurred by Me Too come from formerly incarcerated women who were assaulted at Rikers. Me Too’s detractors have long characterized the outcry over sexual harassment and assault as so much hand-wringing, a moment of societal hysteria, a product of elite women seeking advance through claiming some sort of victim status. Yet here is a concrete outcome of Me Too: a large-scale claim by hundreds of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who are seeking more than $14.7 billion in damages.

These New Yorkers, survivors of the bastion of lawlessness and abuse known as Rikers Island (which Mayor Adams seems uninterested in moving toward closing, even though the city is required to do so by 2027) offer yet another example of how women are using what few concrete tools that followed from Me Too to try to combat sexual violence. It doesn’t take a genius to understand which people are most preyed upon in a deeply unequal society, and incarcerated women are near the top of that list. There are those who bemoan a cause’s shortcomings, who fixate on the advocates who strike them as annoying or unsympathetic, and there are those who use what openings they have to seek justice.