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Women Prisoners Endure Rampant Sexual Violence; Current Laws Not Sufficient

Even after the passage of a law to prevent prison rape, incarcerated women are still subject to an epidemic of sexual violence.

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Allowing male guards to oversee female prisoners is a recipe for trouble, says former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn. Now a frequent lecturer on incarceration policies and social justice, Whitehorn describes a culture in which women are stripped of their power on the most basic level. “Having male guards sends a message that female prisoners have no right to defend their bodies,” she begins. “Putting women under men in authority makes the power imbalance as stark as it can be, and results in long-lasting repercussions post- release.”

Abuse, of course, can take many forms, from the flagrant – outright rape, groping, invasive pat-downs and peeping during showers or while an inmate is on the toilet – to verbal taunts or harassing comments. And while advocates for the incarcerated have long tried to draw attention to these conditions, they’ve made little to no headway. But that may be changing thanks to the promulgation of rules, finalized in June, to stem the overt sexual abuse of prisoners. The nine-years-in-the-making Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is the first law in US history to address the sexual abuse of those in lock-up, and its passage made clear that the sexual abuse of the incarcerated – men and women – is a pervasive problem in prisons throughout the 50 states. But let’s hold off on PREA for a minute and first zero in on the reality of female incarceration more generally.

According to The Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2010, the number of incarcerated women ballooned by 646 percent, from 15,118 to 112,797; most were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Add in females who are incarcerated in local jails and the number increases to approximately 205,000. In addition, more than 712,000 women are presently on probation, and another more than 103,000 are on parole.

Prisoners’ rights activists note that, more often than not, these women enter the criminal justice system with long histories of domestic and other abuse. Indeed, a 2007 study by The American Civil Liberties Union found that 92 percent of California’s female prisoners had been abused in some way prior to being taken into custody.

The Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of South Carolina corroborates this finding and notes that many teenage girls experienced their first arrest shortly after fleeing abusive homes. “What may be remarkable within this sample is the cumulative impact of cumulative victimization over the life span,” CCFS researchers report. “Many of the women suffered multiple traumas. They were victimized in multiple ways – child abuse and neglect, adult relationship violence, sexual violence, not to mention the number of times they experienced each type of victimization.” The Center calls it “poly-victimization” and cites women’s efforts to stop aggression or retaliate against an aggressor as a key reason many are behind bars. The researchers also note that a history of sexual abuse typically leads to other problems, including unplanned pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, low self-esteem, depression and addiction – issues that can make incarceration exceptionally difficult.

Whitehorn acknowledges that many of the women she was jailed with, or has come to know since her release, were abused, and says that the daily pat-down searches that take place in federal prison sometimes cause flashbacks for those who’ve been molested; many subsequently become easy prey for exploitative guards and administrators, the result of a learned acquiescence to predatory behavior.

At the same time, she says, sex between staff and inmates happens, and when it occurs, it raises the ante of unequal power even further. “Even when it’s quote ‘consensual,’ for a prisoner to consent to sex with her ‘boss’ is troubling, especially since a refusal can be considered a refusal to obey a direct order,” Whitehorn continues. “The woman can lose her job or be thrown in the hole [an isolation cell] for saying ‘No,’ and even if her job pays pennies, it allows her to buy toothpaste and other necessities.”

It’s impossible to know how many staff members abuse prisoners since most survivors are reluctant to report offenses to authorities. In fact, a report released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in August 2012 estimated that one-third of all victimizations among the general public go unreported. If that’s the case in the outside world, one can only imagine the underreporting by those who are incarcerated. That said, a 2007 DOJ survey of 40,419 inmates in 282 local jails revealed that 5.1 percent of women and 2.9 percent of men indicated that they had experienced one or more incidences of sexual violence while imprisoned. A second survey of 146 state and federal facilities revealed an overall rate of 4.5 percent, with no distinction for gender.

Enter the PREA, first passed in 2003 and signed into law by George W. Bush. The law articulates a zero-tolerance policy for the sexual assault of inmates. It also establishes uniform standards for detection, prevention and punishment of violators. The first US legislation to tackle this issue, it applies to federal and state facilities for adults, youth and immigrants facing deportation.

Amy Fettig, staff counsel at the National Prison Project of the ACLU, calls PREA “a revolution in the way we deal with what happens behind bars.” While not every advocate is as enthusiastic as Fettig, she believes that the recently published final rules are an important tool in making prisons more humane for both prisoners and staff. “The standards recognize that prisoners usually come back to their communities,” she begins. “If they’ve been so brutalized that they can’t become productive members of society, it hurts everyone. If prisoners are badly damaged, their pathologies grow, and this sometimes leads to a return to prison or bad public safety outcomes for the community.”

Fettig said that historically, prisons were monitored for environmental safety – things like whether they were clean and abided by fire laws – but few, if any, paid attention to allegations of abuse. PREA changed that, she argues, by establishing the eight-member PREA Commission, which includes human rights and legal experts, to hold hearings and then make recommendations to DOJ. “The commission recognized that, until recently, the ideology was to blame the victim and assume that she must have wanted the abuse if she did not fight back. The commission’s recommendations are a first attempt to regulate what happens behind prison walls, and if they are adopted, it will change the tolerance of abuse.” Beginning in August 2013, governors will be required to allow independent auditors to monitor conditions and must report the auditor’s findings to DOJ every three years. Fettig believes this will hold prison officials accountable, at least in the state facilities under the governors’ jurisdiction.

Other advocates, however, are skeptical about PREA’s impact. “For meaningful auditing to occur,” Dori Lewis and Veronica Vela of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project wrote to the PREA Commission “auditors must be trained to look behind protestations of compliance by jail and prison officials and assess whether actual compliance with the standards is being accomplished.” They also argue that cameras – in cells, hallways and closets – are imperative, and lambaste PREA for failing to mandate their installation.

Then there’s the issue of corroboration and whether prison officials will believe incarcerated complainants or side with their own colleagues. Lewis and Vela are dubious that coworkers will turn one another in. “It is clear to us that staff interprets their obligation to report as being triggered only when they observed actual sexual touching,” their letter to the commission continues. “They did not believe that seeing an officer give a particular prisoner cigarettes or other gifts, or whispering to a particular prisoner in close proximity for long periods about personal matters, was enough to trigger the duty [to report what they saw]. The fact is that sexual contact almost always happens in private: If a duty to report is to mean anything, then indicia of an improper relationship must also be reported.”

Equally glaring, they add, is that PREA does nothing about nonsexual abuse.

A.L. was an inmate at New York City’s Bayview Correctional Facility – a small, low-security women’s prison that has the highest percentage of inmate abuse complaints in the country. Incarcerated from 2006 to 2009, A.L. says that she was routinely ridiculed by staff. “I am a lesbian,” she says, “and did not dress as feminine as the guards liked. Some of the officers would harass me real hard, make comments about my loose shirt and pants. They singled me out for torment and were always pushing up on me and the other girls.”

Worse, she continues, they turned their backs when she was jumped by other prisoners. “I was sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles when two inmates kicked down the door. I was not hurt so badly that I needed hospitalization, but I got 15 days for fighting even though there were two of them and one of me.” Years later, she confides, she still cannot use public restrooms or close a bathroom door.

Whitehorn also reports living with residual injury. “The fact that guards would grab me in inappropriate ways – one would jam his hand into my crotch and squeeze my breasts extremely hard – has been damaging,” she says.

Then there’s the random drug testing. “You regularly have to give urine samples, and they can ask for them at any time of the day or night. They literally watch you pee,” said Whitehorn. She recalls her cellmate in California’s Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin being called out for testing and returning to the cell visibly upset. Whitehorn later ascertained that the guards had made her strip and then lift one leg up to pee. “They told her that they wanted to make sure she did not have a vial of clean urine taped to her thigh that she could pour into the toilet,” she says.

Whitehorn was so outraged that she protested to the unit manager. The inmates later filed a formal complaint, and in the process, learned that dozens of other women in Dublin had been subjected to the same treatment. “They were humiliated,” she recalls, “by both what had happened and because they had not protested out of fear of going to the hole or losing the few privileges they had.”

“This is the issue,” said Whitehorn. “You can have a relatively short two-year sentence and still be hurt by it. When I was released and began working, if my boss gave me extra work, no matter how much, I’d just do it and would not speak up or complain.”

“I’d panic on the street if my girlfriend took my hand,” she said. “I’d scream, ‘We can’t do that!’ I had hyper-anxious responses to police sirens and wore clothes that were many sizes too big because I wanted to be covered up and protected.”

As for PREA, while it may make a dent in curtailing the most egregious sexual abuse, advocates agree that a great deal more needs to be done to address the many issues facing women prisoners. “Power abuse is the root of the problem,” Whitehorn concludes, “and until incarcerated women have a way to defend their bodily integrity, prisons will continue to mimic – and exaggerate – the male supremacy of US society.”

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