Women Prisoners Endure Rampant Sexual Violence; Current Laws Not Sufficient
Friday, 21 December 2012 00:00
By Eleanor J Bader, Truthout | Report
Mary Thompson at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California, in July 2009. (Photo: Monica Almeida / The New York Times)
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.
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