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5 women sue Riverhead jail and guard, alleging sexual abuse

An inmate in Suffolk County Jail.

An inmate in Suffolk County Jail. Credit: Michael E. Ach

Five Suffolk women have filed a federal lawsuit against the county claiming that they and many others were sexually assaulted, harassed and degraded by a male correction officer at the Suffolk County jail.

"This is a pattern of behavior that has been going on for years at the jail, and these are just the women willing to come forward now," said Southold attorney Laura A. Solinger, who represents the women in the suit filed Friday. "You're a sitting duck for a sexual predator. . . . One of the corrections officers allegedly said to one of the women, 'This is jail. Get used to it.' " she said.

The five women, -- Sharon Watts, 51, Tara Lucente, 51, Michelle Atkinson, 36, of West Babylon, Jamie A. Culoso, 24, of Commack, and Catherine Andes, 29, of Nesconset -- were all pretrial detainees at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead between April 2009 and August 2010. All claim misconduct by then-correction officer Joseph Foti and charge that his supervisors ignored their complaints, or threatened them with retribution if they kept speaking out.

Foti, 54, of Port Jefferson, who has retired from the position, declined to comment.

Watts is serving a 5-year prison sentence for burglary, and Lucente is serving a 5- to 6-year term for robbery, drug sales and larceny. Atkinson served time for drug sales and possession, Culoso served time for robbery and burglary, and Andes has served time for petty larceny and burglary.

The legal papers filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip allege more than 40 others were subject to similar sexual harassment or assault by Foti, but are afraid to come forward.

Solinger said: "Because these women are incarcerated, they're literally trapped and can't leave. It's unlike at a job, where you can get in you car and drive away. You're so vulnerable there. This makes this abuse that much more intense. They have to stay where they are and see him the next day, and the next day and the next."

Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown said late Monday night, "It's a pending litigation. We can't comment. But we will defend the county's interest vigorously."

Suffolk Sheriff's Department Chief of Staff Michael Sharkey deferred questions to the county attorney's office.

Vito Dagnello, president of the Suffolk County Correction Officers Association, said he recalls the sheriff's department conducting an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Foti -- but the charges were not substantiated.

"It went on for a couple of months and nothing ever came of it," he said.

In Nassau County, Mark Barber, a correction officer who handled inmate grievances, was prosecuted and accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with female inmates from 2007 to 2009. Barber was convicted last October of several counts of criminal sexual act, official misconduct, sexual abuse and forcible touching, and is serving a 51/2-year sentence in prison.

No specific amount of damages is demanded in the Suffolk suit, but Solinger said, "We are asking for significant damages. . . . It will be millions and millions."

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