Abuse ranges from outright rape, groping, invasive pat-downs and peeping during showers — to verbal taunts or harassing comments.
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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.”
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