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The Abuse of U.S. Women Prisoners

It is really like this dirty little secret that everyone in corrections knows about and doesn't want to talk about. It is a huge problem." The words are those of Brenda Smith, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center quoted in the December 1996 Human Rights Watch report, All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons. The study, carried out between March 1994 and November 1996, covered 11 state prisons in five states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and New York and the District of Columbia. In all of the states women prisoners who had alleged sexual abused were interviewed; this was not passable in the District of Columbia because litigation1 was then in progress; the women plaintiffs were under court order concealing their identities. Interviews were also conducted with both federal and state correction personnel, district attorneys, guards, lawyers, prisoner aid organizations and former prisoners.

An opening chapter of summary and recommendations precedes a chapter of necessary historical and legal background information. Between 1980 and 1994 the number of women entering all US prisons increased almost four-fold. Notwithstanding this considerable increase, the approximately 96,000 women in prison still constitute only about six percent of the total prison population. Most of the growth has been caused by legislation around the "war on crime and drugs." Fifty-five percent of the increase is attributed to drug-related crime. Eighty percent of women prisoners have at least one child.

Legal background contains in-depth coverage of pertinent national and international laws as well as of current relevant U.S. legislation. The former are largely contained in the United States Constitution's Eighth and Fourth Amendments forbidding cruel and unusual punishment and providing for the right to privacy; and in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1993) and the Convention Against Torture (1994), both ratified, by the United States. Current legislation includes The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, which restricts litigation to matters specifically covered by federal statute or the constitution - and severely restricts a prisoner's right to seek redress for conditions violative of her rights; limits court-granted attorneys' fees - often the only payment attorneys receive - which may limit a prisoner's ability to retain counsel; and terminates any court order against illegal prison conditions after two years whether or not the court order has been fulfilled.

Each jurisdiction is complete in its own chapter which may be consulted individually: where information is common to all of them it is repeated. Each follows the same outline beginning with a picture of the prison system for that jurisdiction and of the women there incarcerated.

In all jurisdictions the number of male guards in contact positions with women prisoners exceeds the corresponding number of women guards. This is true even in New York where, until 1976, only women were allowed to work in the housing units of that state's women's prisons: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on sex. The courts have been unwilling to qualify an employee's sex as a bona fide occupational qualification. Each jurisdiction's laws and regulations are briefly summarized and the national and international laws protecting prisoners' rights are repeated

There is graphic and detailed detailed discussion of the abuses found in each jurisdiction and the corresponding responses of custodial authorities. Grievance procedures and investigatory procedures, where they exist, are described. The sexual abuse to which women are subjected is treated as abuse of custodial authority rather than in the context of the specific abuse perpetrated - e.g., rape, sodomy - and is roughly categorized as to whether it violates the Eighth or the Fourth Amendment. Each chapter concludes with a short section containing HRW recommendations specific to that jurisdiction

The single appendix consists entirely of the United Nation's "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners" adopted in 1955. This document codifies existing standards by which prisons the world over are judged and was so used by HRW. The resulting carefully documented report belongs on the desk of every legislator in the country and in every prison library. It should be required reading and study in every penal institution housing women.

1. Women Prisoners of the D.C. Dept of Correction v. D.C. Dept. of Correction, 8T7 F. Supp. 934 (D.D.C. 1994)

The report may be obtained for $24 from Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York New York 10017-6104.

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