Jailed Women's Abuse is National Scandal

Last week's cases of male guards' abuse of female inmates spotlight the rampant mistreatment of many of the 180,000 women in our nation's prisons and jails. From strip searches, to pat-downs to rapes, it's an ongoing and overlooked national scandal.

Alan Elsner

(WOMENSENEWS)-Sixteen months after a judge ordered Alabama to end horrific conditions and abuse at the state's Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, information that emerged last week shows that, for some inmates, the suffering has only gotten worse.

In December 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson found that Tutwiler inmates were held in large dormitories, hundreds squashed together in unventilated rooms with nothing todo all day. Over 1,000 inmates occupied a facility originally built to house 364. The summer heat was stifling but there were not enough fans to cover all the dorms. Violence among inmates was common; health care was so inadequate that it bordered on the criminally negligent.

Thompson ordered the state to reduce overcrowding and in 2003 Alabama shipped 300 inmates to the South Louisiana Correctional Center, a private prison in Louisiana to comply with the order. Last week, The Birmingham News reported that the Evangeline Parish District Attorney Brent Coreil would pursue criminal charges against an unspecified number of guards accused of improper sexual contact with the prisoners.

Also last week, Livingston County in Michigan settled a class-action lawsuit brought by 233 former inmates of the county jail for $355,000. They alleged, among other things, that male guards watched them take showers and use the toilet and denied them feminine hygiene products.

Exposing Rampant Abuse

These cases shine a light on the rampant abuse that many of the 180,000 women in our nation's prisons and jails risk every day. The problem of male correctional officers sexually harassing, abusing and raping female inmates permeates our nation's prisons and jails.

Women entering U.S. prisons and jails stand a good chance of being guarded by male correctional officers. A 1997 survey of prisons in 40 states found that on average 41 percent of the correctional officers working with female inmates were men. Two-thirds of those guarding women in California were men; in Kansas, the figure was 72 percent.

In the past, the role of male guards in women's prisons was restricted to functions that limited actual physical contact. Civil rights and anti-discrimination laws passed since the 1960s swept many of these restrictions away. Ironically, this was partly a result of lawsuits launched by female corrections officers to win the right to work in men's prisons. States responded by writing “gender neutral” employment policies. But women often do not receive gender-neutral treatment.

For several years throughout the 1990s, officials at the Suffolk County Jail in Boston routinely strip-searched every single woman booked into the facility; over 5,400 women in total. This policy was for women only. Male pre-arraignment detainees were held in a Boston police lock-up and were not automatically strip-searched.

Limits on Male Supervision

Prisons in different states are still searching for an answer to the question: What, if any, limits should be placed on male officers supervising female inmates? Take the issue of prison “pat-downs” where male guards frisk female inmates through their clothes. In one 1993 case, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain described how such a search was conducted.

“During the cross-gender clothed body search, the male guard stands next to the female inmate and thoroughly runs his hands over her clothed body starting with her neck and working down to her feet. According to the prison training material, the guard is to ‘use a flat hand and pushing motion across the (inmate's) crotch area.' The guard must ‘push inward and upward when searching the crotch and upper thighs of the inmate.' All seams in the leg and the crotch area are to be ‘squeezed and kneaded.' Using the back of the hand, the guard also is to search the breast area in a sweeping motion, so that the breasts will be ‘flattened.'”

That was a search conducted by the book. But can there possibly be any doubt that many officers disregard procedures and take the opportunity to grope or fondle the women they are searching?

In a 2003 class-action suit, a group of prisoners in New York described how officers stroked their breasts, grabbed their crotches and made sexual or obscene comments while they were conducting searches. It may be a minority of officers but when the temptation is so manifestly there, when the person doing the searching has all the power and the person being searched has none, some guards will abuse their authority.

Afraid to Complain

In many cases of sexual misconduct, prisoners are afraid to complain. If there is no medical or physical evidence and no witnesses, allegations come down to “he said, she said” situations. An inmate's word is never as good as an officer's and both sides know this. Guards tell their victims, “Who are they going to believe? I have a badge and a uniform and you are a convicted criminal.”

Often, sexual relationships in prisons have the outward appearance of consensual sex. Typically, a male officer grants favors to a female inmate in exchange for sex. Nobody ever complains and no reports are written. Both parties, it could be argued, get something out of the relationship.

In fact, this kind of relationship is no different from the sex between a slave owner and a bondwoman. This kind of abuse will not end until states and counties and the federal government start passing strict laws limiting contact between male correctional officers and female inmates. Until that time, women in our prisons and jails will continue to be victimized.

Alan Elsner has 25 years' experience in journalism and as national correspondent for Reuters News has written extensively about conditions in jails and prisons. His book “Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons,” was published last week by Prentice Hall and has a chapter on the situation of women in prisons and jails.

For more information:

Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons:

Stop Prisoner Rape: