The Good Guys Aren’t Always the Good Guys

Sadly, this issue is not a new one. Here, survivors of sexual violence, women’s rights advocates, students, jail reform advocates, transgender and gender non-conforming advocates, abolitionist organizers, and other community members and leaders rally on the steps of City Hall in New York on July 26, 2016 to call attention to the crisis of rape on Rikers Island. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press)

At the women’s jail on Rikers Island, nicknamed “Rosie’s,” the lines separating criminals from victims from protectors are fungible: as John H. Tucker points out in his New York Magazine investigation into rape at Rikers, “about 50 of the 800 women housed at Rosie’s at any one time are being sexually victimized by staff,” leaving the women to try and look out for one another as best they can.

Any sex between an inmate and a guard, including so-called willing contact, is classified as victimization under federal rules, and under New York State law, it’s statutory rape. Darcell Marshall — who is for the first time telling her story, after anonymously suing the city and the guard she says assaulted her — had both consensual and nonconsensual experiences in the jail. Which in some ways isn’t a surprise: She arrived at Rikers having already spent years being sexually abused and bartering her body to get by. In the words of Dori Lewis, a supervising attorney for the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, she was among the many Rosie’s inmates who “suffer an extraordinarily high incidence of trauma before entering jail” only to get locked up “and once again be subject to men taking advantage of their positions of power.”

This is precisely how Darcell Marshall’s abuse at the hands of Corrections Officer Santiago started: a woman who’d spent her teen years being pimped out, and an officer who knew that full well, and knew he had leverage.

“Your hair is so long and pretty. Your skin is smooth like chocolate — I love chocolate.” He told her he liked her lips. Then he said, “I’d like to see how they look wrapped around my dick,” according to Marshall’s deposition.

She was startled. Is he serious? Is this a setup by the prosecutor?

“What can you do for me?” she asked coyly, noting she needed commissary money for soap and deodorant.

“I’ll let you know,” Santiago replied.

Even if she were somehow being framed, Marshall wasn’t going to pass up the chance to get some things she needed. She’d gotten the standard-issue kit — a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap with lye, which “burns your private parts up,” as one former Rosie’s inmate described it — but she had to depend on her commissary account for anything else. (That can include sanitary pads or tampons, access to which is controlled by guards who’ve reportedly rationed the supplies as a form of intimidation or punishment.) Inmates who don’t have friends or relatives to fund their commissary accounts, never mind to visit them, “have to hustle,” Marshall says, “like you’re on the street.”

Later that week, with most of the jail sound asleep, Marshall awoke to the pop of her cell door. Standing there was Santiago.

“You ready?” she remembers him saying. “I got the money.”

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