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Online Series Exposes Effects of Solitary Confinement on Women

An online series on women in solitary confinement illustrates that the practice of extreme isolation is as sadistic and corrosive to female prisoners—if not more so—as it is to men.

The two-part series at, written by prisoner Victoria Law and published in December 2013, reveals conditions in female administrative segregation units (better known as "ad seg") across the country, from California to Indiana, and calls for activism to effect legislative change.

In October 2013, California lawmakers held an inquiry about solitary in state prisons, which revealed exactly how many women there were being held in isolation, locked in cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, and why.

According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) data as of September, 215 women were being held in the overcrowded isolation wing of the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) and at the California Institution for Women (CIW), with concern from prisoner advocates that those numbers will dramatically increase.

At CCWF, 107 women were being held in ad seg—where capacity is just 38— for an average of 131 days. But 20 women had been confined in ad seg for more than 200 days, two had been there over 400 days, and another two had been isolated for over 800 days.

CDCR has defended the increased use of solitary on women—like it has, in part, regarding male prisoners—by citing "enemy concerns," or, as Law reported, arguments between prisoners "that may have led to threats or violence." Such "enemy concerns," according to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, are based on years-old incidents that might no longer be valid.

After reading an article on segregation written by a female prisoner in California, Indiana prisoner Sarah Jo Pender—who has spent five years and counting in isolation—described to her experiences and the conditions in which she lives.

"My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open," Pender wrote. "Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare....

"There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a [14-by-20] inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet/sink combo unit," Pender continued. "We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor."

Pender, with the help of a guard who had been having sex with her and seven other female prisoners, escaped in 2008, evading capture for 136 days. Once she was recaptured and returned to prison, Pender was placed in solitary because she is considered a high escape risk.

Law reported that "years of little to no human contact has taken its toll" on Pender. She is often lethargic and depressed, and in 2010 Pender had a "psychotic break," lasting nine months and inducing a string of psychotropic prescriptions.

"I didn't need the meds for the two years I spent in god-awful Marion County Jail, and didn't need them for five years at Rockville prison,"

Pender wrote. "But when you lock people in rooms for long periods of time, the isolation degenerates us into madness, or at least depression."

Law's series also exposed the disturbing—and all too frequent—practice of placing women in solitary confinement for reporting sexual harassment or abuse by guards and prison staff.

According to Law, former staff at Ohio's Reformatory for Women reported that prisoners who allege sexual abuse there "are subjected to lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement where cells often [have] feces and blood smeared on the wall." In Kentucky, she wrote, a woman "who saved evidence from her sexual assault was placed in segregation for fifty days."

And in Illinois, a woman who tried to report repeated sexual assaults was first threatened by a prison administrator with an extra year on her sentence and then placed in solitary confinement.

Though the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003, it has not stopped prison staff from punitively segregating women who allege sexual abuse. At Alabama's Tutwiler Prison for Women, an investigation found that victims who allege sexual abuse "are routinely placed in segregation by the warden."

Among numerous prisons nationwide that effectively discourage reporting sexual abuse by staff, Law wrote, the Denver Women's Correctional Facility actually created a new rule: "False Reporting to Authorities."

Law wrote that she hoped the "increased outrage about solitary confinement" would prompt prisoner advocates and supporters to either contact their legislators and local judges or donate a couple of hours of their time to a group of advocates or stamps and envelopes.

"Anything," Law wrote, "is better than turning the page to the next article and forgetting about us, leaving us alone in our cells."


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