Awilda Gonzalez, a former prisoner at the maximum security Bedford Hills
Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, New York, knows
personally that the rampant abuse of female prisoners in America often leads
them to drastic measures. She witnessed many mental breakdowns and suicides
during her 10-year term for drug charges.
Yet perhaps her most memorable observation was when a fellow inmate was so
fed up with being forced to perform oral sex for a prison guard, she had an
accomplice smuggle out the semen she had spat into a perfume bottle. DNA
tests conducted on the sperm sample incriminated her abuser.
“By the time we get out of jail, what is left of our being?” asked Gonzalez
in reference to the effects of the sustained dehumanizing treatment of women
prisoners. “We leave it in that jail cell.”
Tragically Gonzalez’s account, while unique, is not isolated. A report
issued by human rights groups Amnesty International on March 6th documented
the extreme degree of mistreatment, sexually and otherwise, of the growing
population of American women in jail by prison authorities.
In a 3 years study of American prisons, Amnesty International documented
more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse in every state but one. Researchers
also speculated that hundreds more cases go unreported due to intimidation
tactics against inmates.
While sexual abuse against women prisoners was often dismissed as involving
“just a few bad apples”', William Schultz, Amnesty’s U.S. executive
director, said it was a “major systemic problem.”
There was no immediate response from the Justice Department to the Amnesty
The report ironically came just two days before the 92nd International
Women’s Day – a worldwide holiday on March 8th acknowledging women’s
achievements and continuing struggles. While several International Women’s
Day events protested the human rights abuses against women in less developed
nations, such as the high rate of women as victims of violence and war, the
report’s conclusions pointed to the unacknowledged, but proliferating,
maltreatment of America’s incarcerated female population.
This report, and previous studies documenting rampant abuse of female
prisoners, spurred Amnesty International to launch its first human rights
campaign targeted to the Western world.
“The results are profoundly distressing and should serve as a wake- up call
to anyone who thinks that women are not tortured or mistreated in this
country,'' said Schulz.
Schulz’s conclusion was not breaking news for the approximately 3,000
activists, former prisoners, and service providers that gathered for the
Critical Resistance East prison conference at New York City’s Columbia
University, also occurring during the same week in March.
“Its not accidental that the country that has the largest women prisoner
population, wouldn’t do anything to address civil rights violations in its
own country on International Women’s Day,” said Diana Block of the
California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Formed in 1995, the activist group
works in the state boasting the largest women’s prisons in the world.
“The United States is creating concentration camps of women who
overwhelmingly are non-violent offenders,” continued Block. The majority of
women in prison are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, predominantly
involving drugs, according to the Congressional General Accounting Office.
Over 140,000 women are imprisoned in America jails and prisons. Although a
mere fraction of the population of incarcerated men (around 8%), the number
of women entering prison from 1980 to 1998 rose by 516%, a pace doubling the
rate for men.
Racial ratios are also lopsided: fifty-two percent of these prisoners are
African-American women, who only constitute 14 percent of the total U.S.
population. Latinas and other women of color make up another rapidly rising
“One can see the racist, patriarchal, and hypocritical aspects of America in
its treatment and the demographics of its female prisoner population,” said
The stories of formerly incarcerated women at Critical Resistance – along
with documentation by human rights groups and “whistle blowers” (prison
workers who make public their observations) – depict a penile system of
cruel and unusual punishment.
Gonzalez shared her own experiences of mistreatment while imprisoned. After
waiting over a year to be seen by the prison hospital, “when I finally went
to my examination, the doctor who examined me was an alcoholic who wasn’t
trained in women’s medicine. Someone had to pick me up from the hospital it
was so bad,” she said of the physical trauma.
Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican native now studying to get her Masters in Social
Worker after being released, is lucky to be alive. Despite severe signs of
poor health, Gonzalez was never been examined for a brain tumor that
developed during her ten-year jail sentence.
Another member of the conference, Mary Barr, was raped three times while in
prison. Despite confiding in other staff at the prison, no motions to
charger her abusers were ever made. Barr like Gonzalez is now educating
others about the horrors of prison life for women and men.
Along with individual cases, a United Nations delegate studying American
prisons in 1997 witnessed rampant brutality towards female inmates. “Women
in labor are also shackled during transport to hospital and soon after the
baby is born. The Special Rapporteur [on violence against women] heard of
one case where shackles were kept on even during delivery.” A total of 33
states allow the restraint of pregnant woman during transportation to
hospitals, while 18 let shackles remaining during the delivery.
Whether its inaccessible health care, sexual misconduct, or demeaning speech
and voyeurism, “the treatment of convicts is going beyond denying women
their liberty,” said Mary Carter of the College Community Fellowship, which
links female ex-offenders with mentors. “It is a moral crime against
American prisons are one of a handful of countries the world over that allow
unaccompanied male contact – and in many cases constant physical proximity
-- with female prisoners. While Canada too permits men to guard women, this
practice is exceptional: their female prisons are staffed by 90% women
versus 45% in the United States, according to the National Corrections
As noted in a Human Rights Watch report of 1996, the U.S. has ratified
several international decrees (such as Standard Minimum Rules for the
Treatment of Prisoners, The International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment) that prohibit male presence
in women’s jails.
While these treaties also outlaw degrading treatment of women, such as strip
searches by officers of the opposite sex, Gonzalez spoke of another reality
for American female prisoners.
“To walk into prison system is to be humiliated…male guards make you take
your clothes off, spread your butt cheeks, and lift your breasts,” she said.
“While some officers really care, others treat us as meat and see us as
The report from Amnesty International criticized U.S. laws protecting women
inmates against abuse as so weak, that a prisoner was often held responsible
for her attackers' behavior.
Recent legal changes on a national level are making efforts to prosecute
misdeed more difficult. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, signed into law by
President Clinton in April 1996, “has seriously compromised the ability of
any entity, private or public, to combat sexual misconduct in custody,”
stated Amnesty International.
While 13 states have laws “grossly inadequate” for protecting women’s
safety, as Amnesty reported, 6 more states have not even criminalized sexual
contact between staff and inmates. “In these states, and in some others that
do have such laws, consensual sex between staff and inmates is not
considered a crime,” reported Human Rights Watch.
In a U.S. state prison report issued this year to document compliance with
international standards of prison regulations, evidence of sexual misconduct
was mentioned only once in its 213 pages. The report, sent to the U.N. Human
Rights Committee, claimed to handle such rare situations “through staff
training and through criminal statutes prohibiting such activity.”
Yet the Department Of Justice currently maintains no guidelines for when and
how to launch investigations of misconduct; few such inquiries have been
Assessing the situation on the “inside” is difficult. The UN Delegate on
Violence Against Women was turned away from 3 Michigan prisons during her
research; as Amnesty’s report concluded, “there is a death of information of
the specifics on conditions, policies and procedures.”
While media coverage rarely documents prison conditions, sexual abuse was
the focus of a six-part Nightline series in 1999. Inmates at California’s
Valley State Prison for Women were interviewed extensively about their
experiences of mistreatment. From their testimonials, Ted Koppel confronted
the prison’s medical director for subjecting inmates to unwanted pelvic
examinations in exchange for care.
Henrietta Davis, a former prisoner who now works for the Legal Services for
Prisoners with Children and was interviewed for the series, has witnessed a
clamping down on such critique. “Once if a reporter wanted to come in and
meet with me, there was almost an attorney-client setting. Now in
California, there is a media ban,” said Davis at Critical Resistance.
Activists focused on issues specific to women prisoners are working to
educate beyond such blackouts. “Organizations for women prisoners
proliferated in the eighties, fueled by both the women's movement and the
exploding incarceration rate of women,” said Bell Gale Chevigny in “Prison
Activists Come of Age” that ran in “The Nation”.
Since 1998, Amnesty International has launched a campaign calling for the
abolition of male guarding and a stricter adherence to international prison
regulations for U.S. prisons.
Periodicals such the Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, who runs a column for
women in prison, and The Fire Inside, Out of Time, Prison Focus, and Bridges
geared specifically as platforms to run the writings of imprisoned women,
are one means that activists are helping to build awareness.
Yet challenges abound. As Stephanie Poggi, manager of the Inside/Outside
project at Sojourner, said “when we first sent paper’s with information
about the harshness of prison conditions, they were sent back. I guess [the
prison administration] doesn’t want women in prison to know about their own
Along with advocates on the outside, those still incarcerated jeopardize
their own personal safety to affect change. In 1996, thirty-one women filed
a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections,
charging that prison management failed to prevent sexual assault by guards
and staff. The state of Michigan was later sued by the US Justice
Department for failing to protect women from sexual misconduct, in part, due
to their accounts.
“The greater recognition of the prison movement makes me hopeful,” said
Block. “The number of en prisoners becoming activists is revolutionary.”
Many ex-convicts – such as Gonzalez, Davis, and Barr -- also become adamant
advocates for prisoner rights. While Gonzalez is getting her degree to
assist ex-offenders, Davis helps to organize educational conferences with
the National Network for Women in Prison.
“I help train formerly incarcerated women to be leaders,” said Davis of a
curriculum she uses in her programming. “I help them to realize that we are
“Prison reform work is not very glamorous, it’s hard and it can be
demeaning,” said Carter of her own experiences. “But their gratitude is so
overwhelming because inmates, especially women, have so little.”
“People say why do you care about those prison people?" noted Davis of
people, not knowing her former incarceration, who look strangely at her
advocacy work. “Jail can happen to anyone. I tell them that by the grace of
god, you too could be on the other side.”
Heather Haddon is one of the founding members of the New York City Independent Media Center, a local chapter of an international alternative news source
(www.indymedia.org, www.nyc.indymedia.org ), and a regular contributor to
their monthly print publication The Indypendent.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org