New York Magazine


When the bad guys at Rikers are the guards.
Darcell Marshall, June 2018.

ON A SPRING DAY in 2013, Darcell Marshall, a Rikers Island inmate, scrawled a note on a small scrap of paper and asked an acquaintance to courier it to her lone friend and confidante in the sprawling jail complex, a woman called Sparkles. They were both housed in the Rose M. Singer Center, the all-female facility. “Meet me at the infirmary during sick call,” the message said.

The then-22-year-old Marshall, who’d been arrested on prostitution-related charges, was five years younger than Sparkles and relatively naïve, at least in her willful hope that, despite much evidence to the contrary, the next guy she met would be “the one.” Though Marshall had initiated the conversation, now that they were huddled together in the infirmary, she was reluctant to speak. In the sex economy of Rikers, her status had recently changed. For a while, she’d had what she considered a consensual relationship with a guard, and then she’d been raped.

As it happened, Sparkles had a good idea what Marshall wanted to confide—gossip, like sex, is currency in the harsh and hermetic world of Rikers. “I’m hearing all these stories,” Sparkles whispered. “I’m hearing you got raped.”

Yes, Marshall gradually admitted, the guard had choked her and forced himself on her.

“You gonna tell?” Sparkles asked.

“I want to,” Marshall said.

“Well, you need proof.”

Marshall believed she already had it: “People in here see the logbooks and cameras. They see me with the mad contraband.”

That’s not enough, Sparkles said. Not long before, Sparkles had accused another guard of sexual misconduct, alleging that she awoke one night to see him standing in her cell, masturbating. She reported the incident to the mental-health department, who passed it on to the jail authorities, but as far as she could tell, the man had never been disciplined.

“This is what you do,” Sparkles told Marshall. “If he tries you again like that, you need to take his cum and put it on your clothes. You need to get evidence of his DNA.” After the guard left her cell, Sparkles had found semen on her sheets but hadn’t saved them.

Marshall wasn’t sure she could go through with it. The man she was accusing was a veteran correction officer with a wide network of relationships inside the women’s jail, which is nicknamed “Rosie’s.”

“Be brave,” said Sparkles. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

ACCORDING TO THE most recent Justice Department study, an anonymous survey of 53,000 inmates in 358 jails nationwide, about 50 of the 800 women housed at Rosie’s at any one time are being sexually victimized by staff—which puts Rosie’s among the top-12 worst jails in the country. Rikers’ reputation as a brutally Darwinian, scandal-ridden “torture island,” where people who can’t afford bail spend months—and occasionally years—awaiting trial, has been well documented. And Mayor de Blasio has pledged to shut the place down by 2027. Although it’s part of the same story of corruption and violence, sexual assault and harassment at Rikers’ women’s facility has received relatively little attention. The DOJ survey also found that women there were more likely to say they’d been pressured for failing to acquiesce than those

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