The justice system is designed to enact punishment on those who have committed a crime. It is not supposed to be a gateway to a regime of state imposed terror. For many women incarcerated in the United States, the prison system is nothing less than a torture chamber. For these women, sexual abuse and gross misconduct at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them are commonplace.
Women in U.S. Prisons Statistics
Before engaging in the specifics of the injustices faced by many women in U.S. prisons we must first look at who is incarcerated. The Women and Global Rights Web site offers the following statistics on the female prison population.
In 1997, there were 138,000 women in prison in the United States. Most of these incarcerations were drug-related or self-defense.
The number of women incarcerated in the United States is TEN TIMES more than in Western Europe, whose female population is EQUAL to the United States.
African-American women are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white women. Hispanic women are 4 times more likely.
70% of guards in U.S. women's prisons are men. In Canadian women's prisons, 91% are female.
Source Women and Global Rights- Women in U.S. Prisons)
Obviously the increase in the prisoner population is not limited to the male segment of society. In fact women are the fastest growing segment in the prison system. (Deen)
The United Nations, addressing the issues of the rising incarceration rate and prisoner treatment, has ratified "eleven statements to be applied to all prisoners." (Women in U.S. Prisons) Of special interest to women prisoners are Principles 1, 2, and 9. The Women and Global Rights site explains:
Principle 1 states that "all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings." Principle 2 states "there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Principle 9 states that "prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation." (Women in U.S. Prisons)
The United States, being an influential member of the United Nations, would surely do it's utmost to uphold the credo set forth by the charter, correct? Disappointingly this is not the case.
Specific Issues Faced by Female Prisoners
The women who are jailed expect to give up certain rights including their freedom, however they don't expect to "give up their soul." (Ruggiero) Countless numbers of women prisoners are subjected to unimaginable horror.
The women are incarcerated and watched over by primarily male guards. In fact "70% of the guards in U.S. women's prisons are male." (Women in U.S. Prisons) When this is compared with a statistic from another country (Canada) where 91% of the women's prison guards are female this seems disproportionate. (Women in U.S. Prisons) The fact that males are allowed to guard the women is a direct contributor to the abuse occurring within the prison walls.
The abuse runs the gamut from sexual, to inadequate medical attention, to the dismissing of indelible human rights.
Sexual abuse is 'virtually a fact of life' for female prisoners in the United States... according to a new report from Amnesty International" (Ruggiero) Some suggest that at least "two thirds of the female inmates have been sexually abused." (Olson)
The women are often subjected to fondling by the male prison guards during searches. This degradation is done in the name of "safety" and no one stops them.
Male corrections officers also monitor the women in their rooms and while they take showers. (Olson) No doubt this makes the women extremely uncomfortable but they are powerless to do anything about it. The abuse goes even further.
Women are being sold as sex slaves to male inmates. (Ruggiero) If this was not deplorable enough, the guards themselves are using the women for their own sexual pleasure.
The incidence of rape, defined as sexual intercourse with a woman by a man without her consent and chiefly by force or deception, (Webster's Online Dictionary) is a 'fairly rare phenomenon'. (Olson) This by no means belittles the unjust sexual relationships occurring. The officers are using their position of power to force the inmates to have sex with them so in effect that is rape.
Many women also become pregnant while in prison, "the only way that could happen is through inappropriate interaction with the male guards asking for sexual favors." (Hartz) Once the woman becomes pregnant there is no ticket to freedom handed out so that she may start a new life with her newborn.
Female inmates are forced to give birth and give their babies up to an outside party to care for. Even the intimate experience of giving birth is not sacred. Dr. Lynn Hartz in her article "Women Prisoners Caged in Texas: Restrained During Birth" discusses the particularly disturbing practice of restraining a woman during labor and delivery. Hartz says:
Horror stories of women giving birth while in chains and handcuffs are not something made up for Hollywood for the movies. These circumstances actually happen, and it doesn't appear that anyone has been able to do anything to stop it. (Hartz)
Aside from the sexual abuse, medical neglect is also common for women in U.S. prisons. (Women in U.S. Prisons)
Seriously ill inmates are not being given adequate care. The medical personnel assigned to monitor the prison population are often overworked or under qualified. Women's reproductive needs are also being overlooked. (Women in U.S. Prisons)
As of 1994, only half of the prisons offered services such as pap smears and mammograms" (Women in U.S. Prisons) These are routine services accorded to women in the general public. Mental health care is virtually non-existent. Why have such conditions been allowed to continue in the 21st Century? The answer resides in the foundation of the prison system.
Why These Conditions Exist for Women Inmates
The justice system is comprised primarily of white males. This power structure has been in place for centuries. Women and the issues specifically related to their gender have never been a major concern for the United States. It would be ludicrous to think that special attention would be given to the needs of women who are already considered to be the dregs of society. The U.S. Human Rights Watch organization has this to say about the apathy:
Despite the growing number of women at risk and its obligations under domestic and international law, the U.S. government has largely abdicated its responsibility to guarantee in any meaningful way that the women who are incarcerated in its state prisons are not being sexually abused by those in authority over them." (All Too Familiar Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons)
Another reason for the abuse is the fact that the women are often scared to report any type of infraction for fear of reprisals.
Many women who are sexually assaulted in prison face "retaliation when they report rape: everything from verbal abuse, to being placed in solitary confinement, to being raped again." (Women Raped in Prisons Face Retaliation) In one instance a woman was "placed on a permanent visitation ban and has not seen her daughter for nearly two years." (Women Raped in Prisons Face Retaliation) The guards also have "complete access to each inmate's file, which includes any reports against the guards." (Women in U.S. Prisons)
If the guard is caught, more often than not, no criminal charges are filed against him. He is just transferred with a reprimand to another facility where he can continue his debauched practices. (Women in U.S. Prisons) This is definitely unacceptable. What is being done to alleviate this scourge from the female inmates?
Solutions to the Problems Faced by Female Inmates:
After the roar of complaints became to numerous to ignore, the United Nations appointed a special investigator to look into the violence being place upon the United States female prison population.
Radhika Coomarsaswamy, the investigator, commented that some of the conditions faced by the inmates "violate international standards and may be said to constitute cruel and unusual practices." (Olson) Coomarasaswamy suggested that "minimum standards (of conduct) be adopted to conform with U.S. obligations under international treaties guaranteeing human rights," (Olson) meaning the U.S. needs to comply with the human rights standards it desires to hold other countries to.
Amnesty International is also involved in the foray. As are many celebrities and human rights organizations. The prisoners themselves are fighting for their own rights. In Michigan, 31 female inmates filed a class action suit against the states Prison system, citing unfair and cruel conditions as their cause. (Deen)
Prison is not a pleasant place to go under any circumstances however, the conditions faced by many women in the nations prisons are unacceptable. Sexual abuse, mental and physical cruelty are a way of life. The prisons, justice system, and American people need to realize that…