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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Who Watches the Watchmen: Prison guards rape female inmates
Posted on December 21, 2012
This is a photo of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women located in Wetumpka, Alabama.
New measures are being introduced to combat rape in prisons in the US. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 and has finally been officially implemented. The issue of rape and sexual assault in prisons is largely ignored in public beyond the occasional joke about not dropping the soap. In the UK even our prison officials turn a blind eye and strenuously avoid investigating allegations of male rape despite the best efforts of the Howard League for Penal Reform. However in places like the notorious Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama, inmates are constantly under threat of sexual violence and of 50 inmates interviewed by Charlotte Morrison for a report by the Equal Justice Initiative almost all had been assaulted or had seen someone being assaulted. In the wider American penal system 9.6% of former inmates reported being sexually victimised.
Unfortunately these statistics do not really surprise me. What did surprise me was how many of these assaults were perpetrated by staff. Almost half of the assaults reported by former inmates were by guards or people working at the prison. Back at Tutwiler the BBC interviewed Monica Washington who was raped and impregnated by a guard while in prison. Another woman was raped by a male nurse. The EJI report also knew of three more women who had become pregnant by guards since 2009.
The line between sex and rape among inmates can be complex and full of traps. Although I don’t like it I understand it is problematic. When the assault involves a prison guard however I fail to see the gray area. Yet Monica Washington’s rapist was given a slap on the wrist sentence of 6 months in jail and four others, who also worked at Tutwiler, convicted of the euphemistic ’criminal sexual misconduct’ never spent any time in jail.
Surely guards have a responsibility to the inmates. No matter how much contempt they may feel for individuals or how much they dislike their job they have a duty of care. Maybe it is hard to think about a duty of care within prisons. Many of the inmates have done terrible things to end up in prison. Perhaps the guards feel, as many do, that they deserve whatever they get. However as a society we have decided how we punish people who do terrible things and nowhere in the penal code of the US or the UK is there mention of rape. Nor is there mention of being indebted to your guards or legal precedent of trading sex for favours in jail.
The American courts have allowed these guards to abuse the trust and responsibility given them with barely any repercussions. These men rape vulnerable women and many are not even convicted. Those that are face the less serious charge of ‘criminal sexual misconduct’ and a lenient sentence far from commensurate with their crime. This is rape pure and simple and should be treated as such by the courts. While these men go free, the women they abused continue to suffer and be victimised. Monica Washington will face suspicion from inmates and guards for the rest of her sentence and when she is released she will have to tell her daughter the story of her conception.
PREA should help to make prisons safer. It allows rape to be reported to an external hotline rather than internally and includes protection for LGBTQ inmates for the first time. Tutwiler is currently under investigation following the EJI report though tellingly the Alabama Department of Corrections would not allow the BBC access to any facilities to check the implementation of PREA. However none of this will matter if guards continue to be allowed to get away with raping their charges. Preventing rape in prisons is admirable but more needs to be done to punish those who commit these terrible acts. Particularly when those people are the very people who are supposed to protect inmates from harm.