(NEW YORK) -- Almost 20 years later, 49-year-old Mia Wheeler is finally getting her day in court. Wheeler is among at least 900 former inmates who have come forward alleging they were sexually assaulted in New York state prisons.
“Prior to going to prison, I always assumed that prison was for rehabilitation,” said Mia Wheeler, one of the women suing the state. “But it's hard to make a positive turnaround when you are being subject to sexual abuse. It plays on your mental, it takes your focus off of everything.”
Wheeler alleges that she was sexually assaulted multiple times by a prison guard at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County and wanted to report him but feared retaliation.
She is now suing the state for $20 million dollars in damages for the pain and suffering and expenses she sustained as a result of the alleged abuses. New York State requires a monetary amount for civil suits claiming damages.
The lawsuit has been filed under the Adult Survivors Act, a law passed in May that allows alleged victims to file new civil suits within one year with no statute limitation in place.
In a statement to ABC News, The Department of Corrections & Community Supervision said, in part, “DOCCS has zero tolerance for sexual abuse, sexual harassment and unauthorized relationships. The Department thoroughly investigates all reports of sexual victimization, including unauthorized relationships, and retaliation against any individuals who report incidents or cooperate with those investigations. … Individuals who violate Department rules are disciplined by the Department and when there is evidence that a crime was committed, DOCCS refers those cases for criminal prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by law.” "The Department does not comment on possible or pending litigation.
U.S. federal law and nearly all states criminalize any sexual relations between staff and inmates.
Wheeler told ABC News' "Nightline" that speaking the truth now is a step toward healing for her. And when the painful memories become too much to bear, Wheeler says she leaves the house on her roller skates.
“I've been often asked, ‘Why do you roller-skate? Why are you always on those skates?’" she said. “And I tell people, 'Because you never see a roller-skater crying.' You never see a roller-skater unhappy. So I skate because it's my therapy and it's my happy place,” she said.
When she was only 11 years old, tragedy set Wheeler’s otherwise idyllic childhood on an unfortunate path, turning her towards self-medication and drugs when her 15-year-old brother died unexpectedly.
“It destroyed my family's life,” she told ABC News. “It was hard financially. I made poor decisions. I made poor choices. And as a woman, I knew I had to pay for them…But in that, I don't feel like we have to be abused, used or degraded.”
Later convicted on drug-related charges, Wheeler says she was befriended by a Bedford correctional officer who went on to rape her, telling her she’d “reap the repercussions” if she ever told anyone about the multiple assaults. Wheeler’s lawsuit claims no amount of saying “no” stopped the guard from repeatedly forcing her to have sex.
After years of remaining silent, Wheeler broke down during a phone call with attorney Brooke Slater of Slater Slater Schulman LLP, speaking on what she experienced for the very first time. Now, the firm notorious for winning cases against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America is teaming up with civil rights attorney Ben Crump to see that hundreds of marginalized women get justice.
“There are thousands of women who have been incarcerated who have suffered in silence for decades,” Crump said. “And so we're trying to say, ‘Come forward. You will be heard. You can speak your truth. Your voice will not be silenced.’”
Wheeler says she and other plaintiffs have come together in sisterhood “forged in trauma and pain but going forward with strength, victory and unity.”
“I take comfort in the fact that I'm coming forward with my truth. And that is protection of me enough," Wheeler said. "I have a team around me who believes and supports me and the other women, who have allowed us to feel comfortable enough to bring our truths to the light.”
Wheeler said sharing her story is just the first step in seeking justice.
“I would like to see reform. I need to see reform. I don't want another woman to have to hurt and suffer in silence because it really affects your life,” she said.
“This is for all of the women who suffered in silence. We suffer no more. We have a voice. We matter.”
ABC News' Patricia Guerra contributed to this report.
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