Civil Liberties

Woman Makes Shocking Claims She Was Vaginally Probed Against Her Will at NY Prison

The non-consensual gynecological exam involved a vaginal speculum, a Pap smear and a pregnancy test.

On June 6, 2012, Nechelle Pickett, 25, a resident of Brooklyn with no previous criminal record, was arrested for possession of a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance. The day after her arrest Pickett couldn’t post bail and was sent to the Rose M. Singer Center, the only complex in New York’s Rikers Island jail that houses detained and sentenced women and female adolescents.

Pickett claims that at the beginning of her stay at Rikers, where she remained for 43 days while awaiting her pretrial, she was forced to undergo a gynecological exam. The exam included a Pap smear, a vaginal exam with a speculum and a pregnancy test.

The charges against Pickett were later dropped. On January 29, Pickett filed a lawsuit against the city of New York, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections and the private healthcare companies the jail employs, alleging that in undergoing the exam with no knowledge of her right to give or deny consent, she was deprived of due process.

According to her lawyer, Richard Cardinale, a corrections officer told Pickett that if she didn’t go through with the exam she’d be placed in medical isolation. “She went in, there were two female doctors,” Cardinale told AlterNet. “She said she didn’t want a gynecological exam or a Pap smear and they said ‘do you know what will happen if you refuse?’”

Pickett pointed out that she has her own doctor in New York and that the doctor who administered the exam at Rikers was not one of her choosing. “I was very uncomfortable lying on that table,” Pickett told the New York Daily News. “I didn’t even know this doctor’s name.”

The exam was administered by physicians from Corizon, a private, for-profit contractor that provides healthcare to some 381,000 inmates in 537 correctional facilities nationwide. Rikers has contracted out its healthcare services to Corizon and its predecessors since 2001.

This is not the first instance of such invasive, unethical actions at Rikers Island coming under investigation. In 2002 Cardinale represented 10 women who claimed they had been coerced into undergoing gynecological exams. At the same time he also represented thousands of former Rikers inmates, men and women, who filed a class-action lawsuit alleging they had been illegally strip-searched during their time behind bars.

In a settlement reached on June 21, 2005, the New York City Department of Corrections agreed to award the 10 women an average of $20,000 each in damages. Tens of thousands of plaintiffs were also given settlements that amounted to millions of dollars for being subjected to Rikers’ draconian strip-search policy, which “was kept in place despite a United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling in 2001 that strip-searches of misdemeanor suspects were illegal, unless officials suspected that they were carrying contraband,” according to the New York Times.

The Department of Corrections also agreed to communicate to incarcerated women their right to refuse gynecological exams in prison in the future, ending an informal policy of nondisclosure and coercion which had compelled so many female inmates to undergo the exams and remain silent about them later.

Artist Ricardo Cortés, who has run art workshops for the men and women detained at Rikers Island, wrote an op-ed for Creative Time Reports back in November in which he highlights the fact that the institution is a jail, not a prison. Inmates are only held there before or during their trials, often because they can’t afford bail, or for sentences of up to a year, usually for a minor drug offenses.

Yet this past May, Mother Jones named Rikers Island one of “America’s 10 Worst Prisons,” a disgrace it shares with Pelican Bay Prison, which attracted media attention in 2011 when a few dozen of its inmates went on a three-week hunger strike to protest their placement in long-term solitary confinement, and ACX, a federal supermax in Colorado.

According to Cardinale, Pickett's experience was not an isolated event at Rikers. “She saw other women also having to go through the process,” said Cardinale, “and she’s met other women in jail who said they had to go through the same thing.”

In March 2010, New York City agreed to pay an estimated 100,000 plaintiffs $33 million to settle yet another rash of illegal strip-searches at Rikers, “for the third time in a decade,” according to the New York Times. Similar cases have recently been prosecuted in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Accusations of coerced gynecological exams in American jails and prisons appear to be rare. It's unclear whether this is because the practice is infrequent or because the female inmates do not know their rights or lack the means to redress these abuses of power. Cases which prosecute illegal strip-searches of inmates, both men and women, are, however, quite common. Recently, the ACLU and other civil rights groups put pressure on the Michigan Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility to stop unnecessary strip-searches of inmates, “which occur[ed] even when guards [had] no specific reason to suspect concealment of contraband.” In April 2012, the prison ultimately put an end to the practice after the ACLU received letters from more than 60 inmates affirming their claims.

Cardinale hopes Nechelle Pickett’s case will encourage other women who were not made aware of their rights to come out of the woodwork. “[These women] always had the right to refuse, they just weren’t told it. They were told they had no choice, but to accept it,” Cardinale said. “I’m bringing this case on behalf of any woman this happened to.”